New York Rangers, 1989-2000
New York Islanders, 2006
President’s Trophy, 1991-1992, 1993-1994
Patrick Division Titles, 1989-1990, 1991-1992
Atlantic Division Title, 1993-1994
Playoff Appearances: 1990-1992, 1994-1997
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1994
Stanley Cup Victory: 1994
Neil Smith holds a unique place in the annals of hockey history. He is the only man ever to serve as GM for both the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders. Like Buffalo’s Darcy Regier, Smith is a product of the Bill Torrey managerial tree by way of Jim Devellano.
Neil Smith was born in Toronto and played junior hockey in Canada before attending college at Western Michigan University—where he excelled as a blue-liner. He was drafted by the New York Islanders in 1974 (the first ever student from WMU ever to be drafted by the NHL).
Smith never played a single minute in the NHL. He was a career minor-leaguer who eventually ended up with the Indianapolis Checkers of the CHL (where he caught the keen eye of Bill Torrey’s prize pupil and second in command, Jim Devellano).
Devellano, sensing Smith’s potential, literally took him under his wing when he moved to Detroit to become GM of the Red Wings. Smith served as an assistant coach in Detroit before becoming general manager of the Wings’ AHL affiliate Adirondack Red Wings; managing them to two Calder Cup titles in 1986 and 1989.
The Calder Cup triumph in 1989 drew the attention of the New York Rangers who had fired their GM Phil Esposito and were searching for a replacement. Smith got the nod and took over as their GM.
The Rangers had underachieved under Espo. Although they had made playoff appearances they never played above mediocrity. Neil Smith needed to cleanse the Augean Stables fast.
Rangers stars Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, and Tony Amonte were already drafted and in place when Smith arrived. His first draft in 1990 brought in more golden prospects: Sergei Nemchinov, Sergei Zubov, and Doug Weight. Alex Kovalev came in 1991. The young talents made the Rangers contenders throughout the early 1990s.
But it would take more than youth to make the Rangers contenders and champions. In 1991 (in one of the famous trades in NHL history) Neil Smith acquired Mark Messier from Edmonton. The Oilers facing financial problems was divesting itself of its dynastic players. The cash rich Rangers was more than willing to solve the Oilers dilemma.
Messier was a perfect fit for New York. He was acquired to supply the leadership and X factor needed to win the Stanley Cup.
To make Messier feel even more at home Neil Smith acquired several Oilers teammates from the glory years: Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, and Glenn Anderson to name a few.
On the surface Neil Smith had built the perfect machine but machines need proper handling to run efficiently.
Mark Messier had come from the greatest offensive team in NHL history and now he was playing for a coach (the late Roger Neilson) who was one of hockey’s greatest defensive coaches of all time.
Conflict was inevitable and when it came it was well played out in the New York press. In January 1993 Roger Neilson was fired.
After playing out the string Smith knew he needed a bronco head coach to ride herd over the bronco talents he has acquired. When he hired Mike Keenan to become head coach Neil Smith got more than he bargained for.
The Rangers dominated the NHL during 1993/1994 but the story on-ice was almost obscured by the story off-ice. Smith and Keenan were at each other’s throats in a Machiavellian power struggle that was again well played out in the New York press. When the season ended with the Rangers ending their 54 year Stanley Cup drought (they haven’t won since) then the gloves really came off.
In the weeks following the Stanley Cup triumph, Keenan and Smith locked horns in a messy contractual dispute that saw the NHL conduct an investigation into allegations of tampering and breach of contract charges. The end result was massive fines for Keenan, the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, and the Rangers themselves.
When the dust settled Neil Smith was left standing but he would never recapture the magic again.
The Rangers’ fortunes declined. Smith kept trading away young talent for expensive veterans. His head coaching choices fell flat as well.
By the year 2000 he was fired as the Rangers general manager. He drifted during the 2000s doing consulting work for the Anaheim Ducks before being hired as GM of the New York Islanders in 2006. He served for all of 41 days before losing out in a power struggle with Islanders owner Charles Wang who replaced him with Garth Snow.
Since then Smith has not returned to NHL management which according to one long-time Rangers observer can be seen as a statement in its own right.
(My next column will feature former St. Louis Blues GM Ron Caron.)