NHL general managers race to the trading deadline looking for that last piece that will make them a winner. No one has ever come up as big a winner as Bill Torrey did in 1980, when he made the deal that cemented a dynasty.
Torrey had built the New York Islanders from the worst team in NHL history in 1972-73 into regular-season champs six years later. But when the Isles lost in the semifinals to the archrival New York Rangers, they appeared to lose a little spark. Instead of dominating the League again in 1979-80, they bumped along, winning a few more games than they lost while battling injuries and the perception that they were a one-line team.
The Hall of Fame trio of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and Clark Gillies did provide the lion’s share of the offense, but the Isles GM spent much of the season looking for a No. 2 center to take some of the pressure off his top unit. Torrey had resisted the urge to make major moves after the loss to the Rangers, but with the season entering its final weeks, he knew he had to do something to shake up his team.
"We were never really able to get settled in," Torrey remembered when asked about the Isles' struggles during the 1979-80 regular season. "Denis Potvin was out for two or three months, and that hurt. I knew we needed an experienced center for the playoffs so that if they ganged up on that No. 1 line, we'd have someone to take the heat off."
Torrey was a selective shopper, and he finally fastened upon a small-but-speedy center from the Los Angeles Kings named Butch Goring.
"I wanted some experienced depth in case something happened to Trots," Torrey said. "Darryl Sittler was also available, but I thought Butch was the right guy and would give us the right chemistry."
The price was steep: Torrey had to fork over an experienced defenseman, Dave Lewis (now an assistant coach with Los Angeles and a former head coach in both Detroit and Boston) and veteran forward Billy Harris.
Lewis was a top-four defenseman who was excellent in his own zone, while Harris, the Isles' first-ever draft pick, had been a steady contributor on a winning team.
But the Islanders had found replacements for both. Rookie Duane Sutter was already taking some of Harris' ice time on right wing, and Ken Morrow, a college star and 1980 U.S. Olympian, went right from Lake Placid to Long Island without missing a beat.
"We couldn't have given up Dave Lewis if we didn't have Kenny Morrow coming," Torrey said. "I saw him play 20 or so games, and all of his games in the Olympics -- he was the backbone of that team. They would never have beaten the Russians without him."
The deal was made March 10, 1980, one day after a 3-1 loss to Washington dropped the Islanders to 31-28-9. It came as a shock to Goring, who had spent his the first 11 years of his NHL career with the Kings and expected to finish it with them.
"The year before, I had signed a six-year contract with the Kings, and I felt I was going to stay there for a long time," he said. "I didn't think we were ever going to be good enough to win the Cup, but I was ready to accept that because I loved LA and I had the security I wanted."
Goring knew a couple of Islanders -- Jean Potvin and Billy Smith had been in the Kings’ organization – "so it wasn't as tough as it could have been. Knowing them made it a little easier. So did the fact that I was an established player -- they knew what they were getting from me."
But few could have expected the way the addition of Goring affected the Isles. With Goring now centering an effective second scoring unit and adding speed and another penalty killer, the Islanders went 8-0-4 in their last 12 games, outscoring their opponents 53-27.
"I wanted some experienced depth in case something happened to Trots. Darryl Sittler was also available, but I thought Butch was the right guy and would give us the right chemistry." - Former Islanders GM Bill Torrey
"Winning all those games made things a lot easier, not only for me, but for a lot of the other players, too," Goring said.
The Isles rolled into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where their first opponent was Goring's former team, the Kings. "Any player who gets traded wants to prove (to his former team) that they made a mistake," Goring said. "I had no trouble getting up for that series."
The teams split the first two games on Long Island, and the Kings led Game 3 of the best-of-five series, 3-1, in the third period before the Islanders rallied to win in overtime.
"I think that was my biggest contribution," Goring said. "Clark (Gillies) got a goal and I got a goal and we won in overtime. From that time, we never looked back."
That’s an understatement.
With Goring centering for Sutter and Gillies or Bob Bourne to give the Isles a second line that could score, they blitzed Boston and Buffalo to make the Stanley Cup Final for the first time, then defeated the regular-season champion Flyers in six games for the first of what proved to be four consecutive championships, something no other U.S.-based team has managed.
Goring went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 1981 victory against the Minnesota North Stars.
Though he made a deal that led directly to turning the Islanders from contenders into a dynasty, Torrey still has some words of warning for today's GMs as they do their last-minute shopping.
“Everyone thinks that trades are a panacea," he said. "I don't necessarily think that's true. A trade is only good if you get something you need or lack."