Revisiting Rangers’ doomed 2004 NHL trade deadline

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The New York Rangers sell off in 2018 is still fresh in the minds of most fans thanks in large part to the infamous “Letter” released by the organization indicating a change in direction prior to the 2018 NHL trade deadline.

After years of “going for it” at the expense of draft picks and prospects, then-general manager Jeff Gorton pivoted to what amounted to a rebuild.

Rewind a decade and a half earlier, and then-GM Glen Sather had a similar approach to an aging roster going nowhere, leading to the first great sell off in modern Rangers history.

As we approach the 20-year anniversary of the 2004 trade deadline, how did things turn out? Simply put: not well.

Sather made an astounding nine trades between March 2 and 9, sending out everything from aging veterans and depth players to picks and prospects, all in an attempt to retool a franchise on its way to missing the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.

Let’s examine each trade in chronological order and see what was left after Sather’s March Madness.

Related: What could have been had Rangers not drafted Lias Andersson, Vitali Kravtsov

Revisiting Rangers’ doomed 2004 NHL trade deadline

March 2, 2004: Alexei Kovalev to Montreal Canadiens for Jozef Balej and 2004 second-round pick (Bruce Graham)

Do you remember Jozef Balej? Bruce Graham? See, not off to a good start.

Kovalev’s second stint with the Rangers wasn’t as productive or long as his first, which, of course, included the 1994 Stanley Cup championship. This one lasted just 13 months without a postseason appearance following a February 2003 trade brought him back from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kovalev tallied 23 goals and 55 points in 90 games with the Rangers before the forward was shipped to Montreal for Balej and the second-round pick.

Balej, then 21, had five points in 13 games as a Ranger for the remainder of the season. The forward spent all of 2004-05 with Hartford of the American Hockey League before he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for Fedor Fedorov just before the start of the 2005-06 season. Graham, meanwhile, never played in the NHL.

March 3, 2004: Brian Leetch and conditional draft pick (Edmonton’s 2004 fourth-round pick – Roman Kukumberg) to Toronto Maple Leafs for Maxim Kondratiev, Jarkko Immonen, 2004 first-round pick (later traded), and 2005 second-round pick (Michael Sauer)

This hurts on two fronts: trading away arguably the greatest player in franchise history and not having much to show for it.

Leetch was in his 17th season as a Ranger and had really done it all. He was a Calder Trophy winner, a two-time Norris recipient, a Conn Smythe award winner and a Stanley Cup champion. He certainly earned the right to remain a Ranger if he wanted to, right? Right?

Nope. Sather traded the then 35-year-old to Toronto days before the deadline for a large, if not spectacular, return.

Kondratiev was a 21-year-old blueliner who had appeared in seven games with the Maple Leafs that season but spent most of his time in the American Hockey League. He’d get 29 games with the Rangers during 2005-06, amassing three points before getting shipped to Anaheim in January.

Immonen, a former eighth-round pick, appeared in just 20 NHL games, all with the Rangers, scoring three goals and eight points. When his contract expired, he headed back to Europe and spent a majority of his time in the KHL.

The Rangers traded up in 2004, using the pick from Toronto to swap with Calgary to select Lauri Korpikoski. The forward played 68 games with the Rangers and 609 total in the NHL.

The 2005 choice was used to select defenseman Michael Sauer, who was turning into a strong shutdown blueliner with the Rangers when his career was tragically cut short by a concussion just 19 games into the 2011-12 season. 

It’s impossible to know what Sauer would have become, but his hockey ending just adds salt to the wound on what could be described as one of the worst trades during the Sather era.

Petr Nedved and Jussi Markkanen to Edmonton Oilers for Dwight Helminen, Steve Valiquette, and 2004 second-round pick (Dane Byers)

We’ve covered this trade in more depth when looking at the Czech Line trade tree, but like the last two, not a whole lot was added to the organization with the departure of Nedved outside of goalie Steve Valiquette, who was a decent backup to Henrik Lundqvist and is still around the team as a studio host on MSG Network.

Helminen and Byers combined for one NHL game. Enough said.

March 6, 2004: Chris Simon and 2004 seventh-round pick (Matt Schneider) to Calgary Flames for Blair Betts, Greg Moore, and Jamie McLennan

Tough guy Chris Simon is more often remembered around these parts as an Islanders, who tried to decapitate Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg in a game on Long Island.

But Simon did spend 65 mildly-productive games with the Rangers in 2003-04, scoring 14 goals and 23 points to go along with an 225 PIM. It wasn’t enough to keep him in the Big Apple.

The 23-year-old Greg Moore gave the Rangers an impressive six games, two more than the netminder Jamie McLennan.

But Betts turned into a fine depth center during the post-lockout Tom Renney teams. His offensive output was non-existent, but his defensive game was especially strong, and he became one of the League’s best shot-blockers in the late 2000s. He spent four seasons with the Rangers before finishing his career with the Flyers.

March 8, 2004: Vladimir Malakhov to Philadelphia Flyers for Rick Kozak and 2005 second-round pick (later traded)

Defenseman Vladimir Malakhov was on the wrong side of 30 when he signed as a UFA with the Rangers in the summer of 2000 after stops on Long Island, Montreal and New Jersey.

An injury limited him to just three games his first season with the Rangers, and he didn’t crack 30 points in either of his two full seasons with the club, so he was dealt to the rival Philadelphia Flyers.

Rick Kozak was a third-round pick the year prior, but never made it to the NHL. The second-round selection was part of a trade New York made to move up in 2005 draft to select Marc Staal with the No. 12 overall pick.

So, not all bad?

Related: Rangers need to pull off another big deal ahead of 2024 NHL trade deadline

Matthew Barnaby and 2004 third-round pick (Denis Parshin) to Colorado Avalanche for David Liffiton, Chris McAllister, and Florida’s 2004 second-round pick (later traded)

If you’re of a certain age, you love Matthew Barnaby. A scrappy, undersized player who wasn’t scared of anyone, he was a player you hated until he was on your team.

And despite his reputation as a pugilist, Barnaby had some pop offensively. He scored 34 goals and 89 points in 196 games during some of the worst seasons in Rangers history.

So did the Rangers flip Barnaby for assets down the road? Not exactly.

David Liffiton and Chris McAllister combined for one assist in 15 games with the Rangers, and the Blueshirts traded the second-round selection.

March 9, 2004: Greg de Vries to Ottawa Senators for Karel Rachunek and Alexandre Giroux

Defenseman Greg de Vries signed with the Rangers in the summer of 2003 and was out the door by March. The Stanley Cup champion in Colorado had three goals and 15 points in 53 games as a Ranger before finding his way to Ottawa.

Karel Rachunek had a decent year-plus with the Rangers, scoring seven goals and 30 points from the blueline before signing with the Devils after the 2006-07 season. 

Alexandre Giroux did not have the same success Claude (no relation) did in the NHL, and appeared in just one game with the Rangers.

Martin Rucinsky to Vancouver Canucks for Martin Grenier and R.J. Umberger

Martin Rucinsky is in elite company as a player who had three separate stints with the Rangers. His second tour of duty was fairly productive. He had 13 goals and 42 points in 69 games.

But Rucinsky was traded to Vancouver for Martin Grenier and R.J. Umberger. Grenier never played for the Rangers. Umberger also never wore the Blueshirt, though the forward did play 779 games with the Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Fear not, though, Rucinsky returned for his third and final act on Broadway the following season in 2005-06, when he scored 12 goals and 33 points in 52 games.

Paul Healey to Florida Panthers for Jeff Paul

We forgive you if you don’t remember this blockbuster.

Healey, 28 at the time, appeared in four games for the Rangers that season before heading to Florida for Jeff Paul, who never played a game for them and finished his career with just two games of NHL experience.

The verdict on Rangers deals ahead of 2004 NHL trade deadline

It’s nearly impossible to spin the 2004 trade deadline as any type of success for Sather and the Rangers. If you want to zoom out further, yes a pick they received got flipped to acquire Staal. Players like Betts and Valiquette were fine in the moment, but didn’t move the needle in any way.

The outlier of course is Sauer. We’ll never know what he could have been, but even with the rosiest outlook, him being the best return for trading a Rangers legend is a difficult pill to swallow.

In total, the Rangers shipped out 10 players in nine trades over a seven-day span. The results did next to nothing outside of free roster space. No one acquired played much of any role in the team’s renaissance that would begin during the 2005-06 season thanks — almost exclusively — to the success of Jaromir Jagr and a young Swedish goaltender named Henrik Lundqvist.

The 2004 sell off walked so the 2018 version could run … or at least walk a little faster.

Matt Calamia spent six seasons as a digital content producer and writer for the New York Rangers. Prior to... More about Matt Calamia