The Rangers Great Heists of 1991 and 2016
Mika Zibanejad’s tenure, thus far as a New York Ranger has been nothing short of a revelation. His continuously improving play over each of his first three seasons on Broadway have been a boost to the morale of frustrated Ranger fans. His performances over the first two games of this young season have been, in a word, scintillating. His eight total points against Winnipeg and Ottawa have put the native of Huddinge, Sweden in exclusive company as just a handful of other NHL players have accomplished this rare and difficult feat.
Legions of long time, “Long Suffering”, disgruntled Ranger fans have seen a conveyor belt of big named NHL stars signed to lucrative contracts, and suddenly forget how to play hockey and fall way short of the lofty exceptions. I simply do not have the time, nor will I subject our readers to the redundancy and list all of the members of the ‘Rangers Buy Out Club.”
I have a question for our valued subscribers of Forever Blueshirts, prior to the flamboyant, charismatic center-man who currently wears number 93, when was the last time an established NHL player came to the Rangers and completely obliterated the expectations set as they donned the Broadway Blue? After all, Madison Square Garden may be the World’s Most Famous Arena. But, in way too many cases, MSG is also a place where overpaid mercenaries come to collect their unearned, inflated paychecks.
Now the likes of Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Mike Gartner and many others met the prognosticator’s predictions. Ryan McDonagh, Henrik Lundqvist and Dan Girardi certainly exceeded exceptions. However, as we all know, those three esteemed Rangers made their NHL debuts on the corner of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street.
As you scan your memory banks and use the various online search engines to scroll through the annals of your beloved hockey team’s history, who is the only other veteran player that pops into your minds that equaled Zibanejad’s surprising and rocketing ascension? One and only one Ranger great fits the above description…
Back in September of 1991, then-general manager Neil Smith signed an obscure 4th-line forward from Edmonton to a restricted free agent offer sheet. Without boring you with the finite details, so-called restricted free agency in 1991 was archaic and antiquated to say the least. Smith and his counterpart in Edmonton, Glen Sather, were not able to agree on adequate compensation, so the issue had to be decided by an independent arbitrator.
Smith was able to convince the mediator that the rugged enforcer, and fan-favorite, Troy Mallette, was a suitable return for Graves. Much to the chagrin of Sather, Mallette was heading to the Pacific Northwest and Graves was packing his bags for the Big Apple.
Smith was lambasted in the media at that time because Mallette was beloved by the Garden Faithful and Graves was a no-name, bit player in his brief NHL career up to that point. Graves, who originally wore number 11 as a Ranger and then changed his number to 9 once Smith fleeced Sather in another acquisition a month later, turned into a legend, a record-setter and a vital cog in the 1994 Stanley Cup Championship team.
Fast forward to July of 2016. Social media was inundated with stories of fan favorite and the supremely clutch Derick Brassard being traded to Ottawa for a player who’s last name was hard to pronounce, “Big Game Brass” was a key member of the 2014 and 2015 Ranger squads that came oh so close to sipping champagne out of Lord Stanley’s Cup. Brassard was just 28 years old at the time of the transaction. Why would general manager Jeff Gorton make this trade? Sure, it helped alleviate pressure from the salary cap, but Brassard was in the prime of his career and he was such an important player to this team on and off the ice.
As Neil Smith had done 25 years prior, Gorton saw something in Zibanejad that most of Rangerstown did not. Smith had felt Adam Graves’ toughness, leadership and skill were a potential anecdote for the Rangers troubles coming off two consecutive heartbreaking playoff losses to the inferior Washington Capitals. Gorton had felt that Zibanejad, who was the 6th overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, had the potential to be a legitimate number one center for a franchise that desperately needed a premier pivot
Adam Graves and Mika Zibanejad have nothing in common as far as their style of play is concerned. Graves was rambunctious and as a tough as a five dollar steak while Zibanejad is as smooth as a brand new set of silk bed sheets. However, both came to New York as established NHL players with chips on their shoulders and both blew their respective expectations out of the water.
Graves is a champion and New York and Madison Square Garden legend whose sweater hangs, proudly, from the Garden rafters. Zibanejad has a ways to go to match Graves in the all-time great department for the Blueshirts. However, based on what we’ve seen last season and so far in this season, Mika looks to be well on his way to achieving a similar legendary status. Ranger fans and management would love nothing more than for Zibanejad’s legacy to be cemented in Rangerstown by lifting that beautiful silver chalice towards the heavens. I don’t think Mika would have to scream “1940” into the television camera, though.