Neil Smith should be considered to return as Rangers President

Neil Smith was the man who built a winner. (AP)

Glen Sather is stepping down as President of the New York Rangers hockey club. He will remain as an advisor to owner, James Dolan but going forward there will be a new man leading the rebuild and a hopeful return to Stanley Cup glory.

JD or bust?

As it stands today, it appears that the Blueshirts are banking on John Davidson to leave Columbus and run the team. According to the NY Post’s Larry Brooks, the Rangers don’t appear to be searching hard for a replacement, in essence they are pretty confident that Davidson will join the organization once Columbus’ season concludes.

There is no doubt that everyone loves a good coming home story. When JD left the Rangers to go run the St. Blues, the team where he came from as a player, it was a sad day. Every time, he returns to the Garden, those feelings of nostalgia and his signature, “Oh Baby!” brings back the joy of 1994. It really makes him the obvious choice.

Still there is another name, one that made a triumphant return to the Garden this season that could bring back those same feelings, but also a history of winning in New York; Neil Smith.

The Championship Architect

“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.

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 and when he traded for Mark Messier in 1991 he put an exclamation point on it.

The Rangers would go on to win 2 Presidents’ trophies and the 1994 Stanley Cup ending a 54 year drought. Neil Smith had done what no GM could do since 1940, and no other GM has been able to replicate.

The price of the Cup

1994 (Nancy Siesel/The New York Times)

In order to win that Cup, Neil Smith traded away two of his most promising young forwards, Doug Weight (for Esa Tikkanen) and Tony Amonte (for Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan). The cost of that championship didn’t end there either.

Trying to recapture another Cup was filled with additional moves that gutted the future such as trading Sergei Zubov, Petr Nedved, and Mattias Norstrom. Neil Smith did bring in Wayne Gretzky and paired him with Mark Messier in 1996-97 for the Rangers best run at a Stanley Cup since 1994. Sadly, it ended with a sweep to the Eric Lindros led Flyers in the Conference Finals. The same Eric Lindros that Neil Smith acquired in a blockbuster deal that was undone by an arbitrator named Larry Bertuzzi.

Correction: The Ranger won game 2 against the Flyers and lost the next three.

What could have been for Smith and the franchise had Lindros become a Ranger in 1992? How many Cups would a team centered by Messier and Lindros have won? Sports like life is littered with what ifs, but it is hard not to wonder.

The dismissal of Smith as President and General Manager

In the book “Behind The Moves,” by Jason Farris, Neil Smith explained how his refusal to trade for Pavel Bure in January of 1999 was the beginning of the end of his tenure in NY.

“There was a deal on the table for Pavel Bure when [Brian] Burke was in Vancouver, and he was shopping Bure to us and Florida….Burkie wanted [Manny] Malholtra, [Dan] Cloutier, and some other young guy which was like stripping me of what I thought at the time were my best guys. I was trying to rebuild the team, and [Wayne] Gretzky was on the team and now Pavel Bure was available, so our owners here wanted me to do everything I could to get Bure. They were new owners and they didn’t understand that you had to do [to rebuild]. I was like, ‘No f**king way. I don’t want this guy. Even if I could get him on the team for free, I’m not going to do it.’…That’s what ultimately led to the end of me [as Rangers GM]. [Owners Charles and James Dolan] didn’t analyze the club to see [where I had] brought it since 1989. They just said, ‘Today. Today. Today.’….They went out and got Glen [Sather] and paid him a bunch of money, and he got rid of all of my young guys and brought in all old guys. And they missed the playoffs for four more years.”

Neil Smith in Behind the Moves

Pavel Bure was holding out in Vancouver and forcing a trade in 1999. He was also coming off a career threatening injury. Florida eventually paid a huge price that included star defenseman Ed Jovanovski and Bure had two monster seasons with 58 and 59 goals. Still, he was battling knee issues and when the Rangers finally did trade for him in 2001 his career on Broadway lasted just 51 games. Bure’s last game was March 15th, 2003 and he officially retired in 2005.

That following summer Smith made trades to rebuild for the Rangers future. Before the 1999 draft, he traded away Dan Cloutier and Nicklas Sundstrom to TB for the #4 pick in the draft, Pavel Brendl. He doubled down by moving Marc Savard to Calgary for the #9 pick Jamie Lundmark, a 3rd round pick, and the rights to Jan Hlavac. Those picks didn’t work out but you have to ask if they were ever really given a chance?

According to Smith he wanted to rebuild, but ownership was adamant they had to win now. So when free agency opened up he went on a spending spree that landed Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky, Sylvain Lefebvre, Stephane Quintal, Tim Taylor and goalie, Kirk McLean. All those signings came out to over $67 million. Yet, they would miss the playoffs again that season, and it was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. Neil Smith was fired towards the end of the 1999-2000 season in March.

Burying the hatchet

Neil Smith truly loved being a Ranger. He immersed himself in the team’s tradition and history upon his hiring in 1989. When he was dismissed reports said he was emotional and did not speak on his firing for years.

When he eventually did, Smith blamed management publicly for not having the patience to rebuild and in a way forcing his hand. This caused a rift between Smith and Dolan that lasted until this February when the Rangers invited him back to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Championship.

Could now be a perfect time to bring in the only man to lead the franchise to a Stanley Cup post WWII? Since being let go by the Rangers, Smith has been involved in the game in many ways. He’s been an analyst for the now defunct Versus Network, ESPN and NHL Network and was the owner, president and GM of the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL. The team relocated to South Carolina and became the Greenville Road Warriors (now Swamp Rabbits). He sold them in 2012 and continues to provide analysis for the NHL Network.

How fitting would it be for Neil Smith to return and complete the rebuild he never truly got a chance to finish? I reached out to Neil on the subject and although he certainly would be intrigued he doesn’t feel it is in the cards.

In truth, maybe it is too early in the mending process for this to happen. Maybe Neil Smith has been away from the NHL in a management capacity too long to make him a top candidate. And yes, John Davidson makes the most sense and checks all the appropriate boxes too. Still, it would be worth it to at least have a conversation.

While it may seem like nostalgia gone too far, it can certainly be classified as due diligence also. The Rangers ultimate mission is to win the Cup and only one man we know of has been able to do it.

At the very least it is an interesting thought.