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No. 5: Smith's shakeup ends long Cup drought for Rangers

by John Kreiser
NOTE: In the eight days leading up to the 2011 NHL Trade Deadline, will look back at the top eight deals that helped teams win the Stanley Cup in the past 30 years.

NO. 5




Neil Smith spent five years building the New York Rangers into the NHL's best team as the 1994 trade deadline approached -- only to realize he had more work to do.
The Rangers had come a long way under Smith, who took over as general manager in the summer of 1989 after New York was swept by Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs. They finished first in the Patrick Division in 1989-90 -- the first time they'd finished first in any fashion since 1942. Two seasons later, they won the Presidents' Trophy for finishing first in the overall standings -- the first time that had happened in 50 years.
But both of those teams were bounced in the second round of the playoffs, and when the Rangers missed the playoffs the following season, Smith knew he needed more changes -- starting with bringing in Mike Keenan behind the bench.
"I think the players all wanted to redeem themselves from the year they had before," Smith remembered years later. "And with Keenan, the new sheriff in town, they were really pushed right from the get-go to have a good year. I had to get someone like Keenan because this was a star-studded, veteran team that needed someone hard-nosed to run it."
It worked -- the Rangers started fast and spent most of the season on top of the League standings. But as the season went on, cracks started to show. With his team's Stanley Cup drought in its 54th year, Smith knew he had to do something.
"There were a number of things that had to be done," Smith said. "We felt that the playoffs were different -- that a different type of team would win the playoffs, as opposed to who would win in the regular season."
To Smith, that "different kind of team" meant more grit and more experience -- particularly experience in winning the Stanley Cup. If it meant sacrificing some skill and young talent, so be it.
To add more grit, Smith dealt talented young forward Tony Amonte to the Chicago Blackhawks for grinders Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau. The shot of added experience came with the addition of five-time Stanley Cup winner Glenn Anderson, who came in a deal with Toronto that cost the Rangers perennial 40-goal scorer Mike Gartner. In addition, Smith traded promising young center Todd Marchant in a deal that brought checking center Craig MacTavish, a teammate of Anderson's on Edmonton's 1990 Cup-winning team.
That would be a major shakeup for any team -- it was almost unprecedented for a team leading the League.
But Smith and Keenan had their eyes on the big prize -- even if they didn't necessarily agree on who could get them there.
"I liked Amonte and Mike Gartner, but I wound up moving Gartner for Glenn Anderson because we wanted another experienced playoff guy," Smith said. "We used Amonte to get Noonan and Matteau. I didn't like the trade at the time, but it gave us some experienced, veteran guys that Keenan liked.
"I also wanted MacTavish because I didn't think we were strong on faceoffs. We sent Marchant (to Edmonton) for him."
The deals paid an instant dividend when Matteau scored the tying goal in his first game as a Ranger, giving his new team a rare point in Calgary.
"They looked to me like the best team at the time, and I didn't think they needed to make changes," Matteau remembered years later. "When I first heard I was being traded to New York, I said, 'Oh my God, I'm just going to be a spare player, I'll be on the fifth line, just waiting in case someone gets hurt. I was very surprised to get traded to the Rangers.
"We were down a goal in Calgary and we pulled the goalie. Coach Keenan sent me on to the ice and I scored, so that was a pretty good debut for me and the Rangers. It made me feel a little more at home. I scored the next night, too, against the Oilers in Edmonton. After that, I was pretty much set on the team."

The revamped Rangers went on to win their second Presidents' Trophy in three seasons and routed the Islanders and Capitals in the first two rounds before facing New Jersey in the conference finals. Matteau became the toast of New York by scoring twice in double-overtime -- including a wraparound that won Game 7 and sent the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final.
"The puck went up in the air (into the Devils' zone), and someone lost track and I was facing the puck all the time," Matteau said. "The puck went into the corner. I got it and tried to make one move on the short side. (Scott) Niedermayer was hugging me, holding my arm. I kind of tried to put the puck in front of the net while I was along the far post and it was one of the luckiest bounces ever on my part. I saw the puck going in very slowly. I was the first one to see the puck go into the net. It was one of the greatest feelings of my life."
The Anderson deal paid off in the Final -- the future Hall of Famer had the winning goals in Games 2 and 3. Noonan provided grit all though the spring, and assisted on Mark Messier's Cup-winning goal in Game 7.
Smith knew he paid a big price, but championships are forever -- especially when you haven't won one in 54 years.
"We weren't built to be a dynasty," he said. "It was a team that wasn't winning the Cup in their prime. Most of them were later on in their careers. A dynasty is built from a team that's just peaking and happens to win, and throughout their peak they keep winning or coming close to winning. The Islanders and Edmonton were like that. We were built to win the Cup and try to adjust from there and see if you can ever do it again.
"I knew that that team had to go down. I had to use up every single bit of currency to get that team positioned the way it was. It was go for broke, do it. I'm sure that if you told Ranger fans in the summer of 1992 or 1993 that, 'We're going to have to make some hard decisions and trade some of the future, and you may not like what you'll see in the late '90s, but you'll be Stanley Cup winners, you'll experience that -- Rangers fans would have traded 20 years of non-playoffs for that."

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