Neil Smith details main reason why Rangers traded Sergei Zubov
Sergei Zubov started his Hall of Fame career with the New York Rangers, thanks to GM Neil Smith wisely trading an aging Guy Lafleur’s free agent rights to the Quebec Nordiques for a fifth round pick.
“We got him in the fifth round of the 1990 draft. It was a great pick that we got for Lafleur in the trade with Quebec,” Smith begins to recall. “He was a fantastic rookie, led the team in scoring [in ’94] and was a huge part for us winning the Cup.”
Zubov was just 23 years-old when he registered 89 points on the strength of 12 goals and 77 assists in 1994. He picked up another 19 points in 22 playoffs games that magical season.
The offensive-minded defenseman would last just one more year in New York after a trade to the Penguins on August 31, 1995. To this day, it remains one of the most criticized deals in Rangers history and Neil Smith wants to set the record straight.
Neil Smith explains why he traded Sergei Zubov
“It still gets under my skin when I see criticism of the trade,” Smith tells me over the phone.
The deal came off the heels of a sweep at the hands of the Flyers’ Legion of Doom led by Eric Lindros, John Leclair, and Mikael Renberg. That line wreaked absolute havoc on the Rangers in the second round of the 1995 playoffs.
“In the 94-95 season, Lindros and the Flyers squash us in four straight,” Smith remembers. “And by his own admission, Zubov was scared in that series. Our coach, Colin Campbell says to me, ‘We’ve got to do something here.'”
New York packaged Zubov with Petr Nedved to Pittsburgh in exchange for two high-profile veterans in Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson.
Campbell was no fan of Nedved’s game and felt he was too similar to Alex Kovalev’s style of play. That’s why he was included in the trade, but Smith wanted to focus on the circumstances that led to his decision to move the slick skating defenseman with a booming shot.
“At the time, I’m on the rules committee and they are talking about changes to how obstruction is going to be called,” Smith reveals. “Any impeding of a forechecker coming down on a defenseman was going to be a penalty. So I’ve got Zubov scared to death and now you can’t hold up players anymore. I had to do something.”
For years, many believed the Rangers traded Zubov solely because of his performance against the Flyers. In truth, it was the potential changes to how the NHL was going to call obstruction that led to Smith ultimately moving him.
“I had an opportunity to get Robitaille, a hall of fame player,” Smith said. “And Samuelsson, who I hated because he was such a pain in our ass, but will make us tougher on defense.”
Smith looks back on the Zubov trade
As we continued to talk about the trade, Smith rightfully recollects how the trade initially worked out well for the Rangers.
“That first year it goes great and we’re a lot better off,” Smith points out. “We were going to get pummeled by the Flyers and [Samuelsson] was great for us turning our defense around. Pittsburgh wasn’t crazy about Zubov and winds up trading him to Dallas a year later.”
The Rangers did indeed finish second in the Atlantic Division that season, but fell to the Penguins in the second round. Robitaille notched 69 points and Samuelsson 19 in their first year on Broadway. Zubov notched 66 in his only season with the Penguins before being shipped to Dallas straight up for 30 year-old Kevin Hatcher.
Zubov went on to play 12 years and amassed 549 points in 839 games for the Stars.
“He had a great career in Dallas after they loosened up on those obstruction rules,” Smith explained. “He was able to do what he does and win a Cup there.”
When the Hall of Fame came calling in 2019, no one was happier for Zubov than the man that drafted him.
“I called Sergei when he was put in the Hall of Fame because I was so proud of him,” Smith remembers. “I jokingly said to him, ‘I still get crap for trading you,’ and his answer to me was, ‘But Neil, the Flyers were coming after us and you had to do something.'”
In the end, Smith trading Zubov wasn’t something he wanted to do. Circumstances being what they were at time it almost became a necessity. The Legion of Doom was just getting it going and the NHL wanted to make plastering a defenseman more common.
As a GM you have to make decisions with the best information available. The Rangers were staring at a bigger, tougher, and younger Flyers team and needed to respond accordingly. The head coach pleaded his case to do something and wanted players like Nedved or Kovalev off the team.
In fairness to Smith, Nedved scoring a career-high 99 points that season wasn’t expected. Oddly, he would trade Kovalev to get Nedved back in 1998 due to a contract dispute with Pittsburgh.
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