1994 TWENTY YEARS LATER, PART 1: THE ARCHITECT
On June 14, 2014 we will be celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers. In this 4 part series, we will take a trip down memory lane and relive the greatest season in Blueshirt History! We will start with the man who built a winner, Neil Smith.
“Neil Smith was able to do what no other general manager could in 54 years for the New York Rangers-win the Stanley Cup! It was Neil’s bold approach to changing the culture that allowed the team to galvanize into champions.” Those are the words of Mark Messier and neatly sum up just how much Neil Smith meant to that team.
Neil Smith was hired by the Rangers in 1989 to capture a Cup, because that’s what he was used to, winning. In his earlier years, Neil spent the 80’s working for the NY Islanders and Detroit Red Wings under Jim Devellano. He gained valuable experience and success by winning 2 Calder Cups (AHL Championships) with the Adirondack Red Wings. By the time he got to the Rangers, this former Islanders draft pick was ready to build a winner.
It didn’t hurt that he inherited a team with future stars in Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, but he knew he’d need more. Neil’s early drafting yielded results with players like Tony Amonte, Doug Weight and three key Russian stars in Sergei Nemchinov, Sergei Zubov and Alexei Kovalev. All 5 players would in one way or another play huge roles in winning the Cup, but Neil wanted results quickly and went after it via trades.
He earned the nickname “Big Deal Neil” for his ability to bring in huge names to NY. It began in January of 1990 when he packaged Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato to the LA Kings for Bernie Nicholls. Not satisfied with an all-star center, he went for a sniper at the deadline to land Mike Gartner for Ulf Dahlen. That year, Neil put the league on notice that he was ready to do whatever he could to win a Cup in NY.
That season, the Rangers would knock out the rival Islanders in 5 games only to lose to the Capitals in 5 the next round. NY simply had no way of stopping the beast known as John Druce in the playoffs, but still, Smith’s first season was a success as the Rangers won the Patrick Division for the first time ever. The following season NY finished second and were bounced by the Capitals again, this time in the first round. Smith knew, if he was ever going to win the Cup, he needed proven winners. For that he looked West at the Edmonton Oilers and “Big Deal” Neil was about to change the Rangers forever.
On October 4th, 1991 in what is still the greatest trade in Rangers history, Smith landed 5 time Cup winner Mark Messier and future consideration for Bernie Nicholls, Louie DeBrusk and Steven Rice. That consideration turned out to be Jeff Beukeboom who partnered with Brian Leetch to form NY’s top defensive pair for years. Upon his arrival, Messier was immediately named the Captain and Smith prophetically said “The Rangers logo will look a little different after Mark is done here.” He couldn’t have been more right.
That year the Blueshirts captured the 1991-92 President’s Trophy as the best team during the regular season. Another franchise first under Neil Smith, but the season ended in bitter disappointment with a loss to the Penguins in the playoffs. If Neil thought that was rock bottom, he was wrong. The following season the Rangers fell apart at the seams. Brian Leetch suffered a major injury and was lost for the year. A power struggle between Roger Neilson and Mark Messier led to the coach’s firing, and NY missed the playoffs. They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, nothing could be more true for Neil Smith and 1993-94 NY RANGERS.
Key Cup Moves:
Adam Graves signed as a free agent, September 1991
Esa Tikkanen acquired from Edmonton for Doug Weight, March 1993
Hired Mike Keenan as head coach, April 1993
Doug Lidster acquired from Vancouver for John Vanbiesbrouck, June 1993
Glenn Anderson acquired from Toronto for Mike Gartner, March deadline 1994
Craig MacTavish acquired from Edmonton for Todd Marchant, March deadline 1994
Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan acquired from Chicago for Tony Amonte, March deadline 1994
Losing the Edge by Barry Meisel
Next week we will look at Mike Keenan and the Rangers season.