What if … the Islanders never hired Mike Milbury? (NHL Alternate History)

(Ed. Note: Thus begins another summer series here on Puck Daddy. We’ve had Mount Puckmore [what, no Jagr?] and Weird NHL and A-to-Z and so many others. And now, for 2017, one of our more ambitious ones: NHL Alternate History. We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team?

First up: Our old FanHouse buddy Kevin Schultz presents an alternate history of the New York Islanders. Enjoy!)

By Kevin Schultz

How do you choose just one moment or decision to revise in Islanders history?  Is it possible to go back and save the Titanic by jumping in the icy water and pushing your hands against the hull?

The 2017-18 season marks the franchise’s 45th season in existence, the first half littered with Stanley Cups and Hall of Famers while the latter half has been mostly known for poor personnel decisions, never-ending arena sagas, and generally mediocre hockey save for John Tavares. Thanks for choosing me to jump in that icy water Greg. This must be some kind of cruel joke.

There are so many ways to go, that my one Golden Ticket to put one revision into in Islander history is not nearly enough ammunition. But after some careful thought, there’s really only one option that would fix this franchise for the long run.

So, what would a retired and cranky Islanders writer chose to do with said Golden Ticket? We can start with the obvious choice and the one that anyone who follows my rants on Twitter can guess:

Not hiring Mike Milbury.  

Believe me I’ll get to that one, but let’s look at some other options as well.

There’s a fun one – the Drive for Five. What if the Islanders beat Gretzky & Co. for a second straight year, securing a fifth straight Stanley Cup? Or what if a number of different playoff series went another way? (The 1993 series against Montreal, 2002 versus Toronto, 2015 against Washington).

Or there’s more obscure changes that could be made. How about a fun fact: that Nassau County had thought about building a state-of-the-art arena as far back as 1956 but decided against it after private money financed Island Garden? Or we can go with avoiding the various contract disputes with star players throughout the years (John Tonnelli, Pat LaFontaine, and Ziggy Palffy immediately come to mind).

There’s a number of different owners that could be nixed. John Spano, a literal criminal, for one.

Let’s start with the Big Mouth Mike Milbury, whose tenure is probably the biggest trash fire in recent hockey managment memory aside from whatever it is the Leafs were doing between 2005 and 2015.

The idea would be to never hire Milbury and avoid a disturbing amount of bad personnel decisions, right? Right.

A quick glance of the potential missed pitfalls of this non-hiring are obvious, but for the sake of fun and having my childhood die a little bit more inside, let’s quickly list what may have been avoided:

  • Not trading Zdeno Chara or JP Dumont or Todd Bertuzzi or Roberto Luongo
  • Drafting Jason Spezza instead of trading that pick to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin and buying him out
  • Not making Tommy Salo cry during an arbitration meeting
  • Presumably not missing the playoffs for 7 straight seasons and, presumably, winning a playoff round somewhere between 1994 and 2015
  • Not having to be pissed off on a weekly basis from having to watch one of the biggest trash fires of a GM get paraded around as an expert on NBC. (To really sum up the depths and depravity of Milbury’s mismanagement, here’s a lovely flowchart of all his moves from @webbard. The final summation of his moves is practically nothing.)

That list even cuts Milbury slack on the Zigmund Palffy trade, which was mostly management directed (and if at this point you’re wondering where the 15-year DiPietro contract is, that was actually under Garth Snow’s rule). Maybe in some alternative reality the Islanders could have potentially fielded an All-Star team if they had a GM that sat on their hands instead of trading away any young player who didn’t immediately score 50 goals.

What’s that you say? The Islanders did have someone in the organization at the time Milbury was hired who may very well have been a GM who could have handled this better?

Here’s Newsday from December 3, 1995 the day after then-GM Don Maloney (also a crap Islanders GM, can’t let you skate by on this one, Don) was let go:

On the July day that Don Maloney presented Mike Milbury as the sixth head coach in the history of the Islanders, there was rampant speculation that the general manager also was introducing his successor….. Certainly, co-chairman Robert Rosenthal left the door open yesterday after he announced that Maloney was relieved of his duties. Although he promised the Islanders would conduct a “thorough” search before naming a new GM, Rosenthal indicated the names of both Milbury and Darcy Regier, the assistant GM and director of player personnel, would appear on any short list.

(*screen fades to black and the credits roll while telling us about the future outcomes of the characters involved*)

“Darcy Regier would be fired by the Islanders in 1997 and become the GM of the Buffalo Sabres for 16 seasons, running them reasonably well, reaching one Stanley Cup Final and winning one President’s Trophy”

“Mike Milbury would be fired by the Islanders in 2006 and go on to.. Well, you know…”

So would never-ever going within 100 miles of Milbury fix the Islanders?

Yes in some capacity, because anyone willing to either sit on their hands or throw darts at a board could have done better, but in the long run, no.

The only thing that might reasonably fix the Islanders in the long-term is a stadium deal. A good one, too. Not the half-cocked basketball rink in Brooklyn. An actual stadium that is (1) convenient to Long Islanders and mass transit, (2) doesn’t have crowded concourses, (3) is made to fit a hockey rink, (4) doesn’t financially suffocate the team, and (5) is located on Long Island.

I can at least dream of having all those things, can’t I?

A franchise can survive an Idiot-in-charge. Those come and go. Hell, the Islanders have survived multiple strikes from Idiots-in-charge. However, a franchise cannot survive if it physically does not have a place to play, or if it does manage to survive, it will do so in a perpetually uncertain and nebulous state. The Islanders are the latter and have been dogged by relocation rumors and stadium troubles for much of their existence.

Here’s Newsday’s Mark Herrmann just 10 days after the Maloney firing on December 13, 1995, when Milbury was officially appointed GM:

If Milbury fails, it is quite conceivable the other “S” word will come into play: sale. Or South, as in Nashville or Atlanta. Although the Islanders’ unique lease with the Coliseum runs through 2015 and is considered ironclad (Nassau County has authority to veto a sale, and therefore a franchise shift), a hockey source said: “In this day and age, any lease can be broken.”

The arena troubles of the team really date back to it’s origin in 1972 in the new Nassau Coliseum, built by the County. To put it very succinctly, here’s Nick Giglia who chronicled the saga throughout the early 2000s.

“The Islanders exist wholly because Nassau County wanted to keep the upstart WHA out of the soon-to-be-built Nassau Coliseum, and the NHL was all too willing to oblige… The Coliseum itself is a compromise and an accident that became obsolete minutes after the ribbon was cut.  County Executive Nickerson, who envisioned a county-wide destination on that land ever since it was ceded to the county by the Kennedy Administration in 1962, was rebuffed in his efforts to build a 20,000 seat arena with an underground station for the Long Island Rail Road.  Some undoubtedly assumed the Islanders were a placeholder and would leave the area as a distant memory once the WHA folded and a major metropolitan area came calling.”

There’s been many twists and turns to the Islanders arena saga, it’s too hard to go through them all, but here’s a few choice cuts. In the late 90s, owners desperate for a real estate deal tried to get the Coliseum condemned, threatening to play games in another location until the State Supreme Court blocked the action. In the 2000s, owner Charles Wang, after striking out with the Lighthouse Project and, later, a public referendum for a bond issue, moved the team to Brooklyn in 2015. That move was preceded by years of uncertainty related to Wang’s true intentions as he kept silent (also remember this is around the time Jim Balsillie was trying to buy his way into the NHL).

Despite the move to Brooklyn, the arena was never built to properly host hockey and hasn’t drawn in the Long Island fanbase in big enough numbers. To that end, the saga continues as the arena looks toward an opt-out clause in the team’s contract and the team looks toward a potential RFP at Belmont Park. Not only that, but even the Coliseum the Islanders left was refurbished in a way that is not suitable for NHL hockey. The Islanders search for a good arena deal is an unkillable zombie and we will be writing and talking about it until the undead are purged from the earth.

So if I could go back and use Greg Wyshnyski’s Alternate History Golden Hockey Ticket™ on the Islanders, if I’m not using it on Mike Milbury, I would build the Lighthouse Project.

The Lighthouse Project was a massive real estate-arena combo deal that would have totally revamped the 60 acres that the Coliseum sits on proposed by Charles Wang in the 00s. It would have not only redone the arena but would have also built shops, housing, offices, a hotel, and a giant 60-story lighthouse tower. It was a massive project to revitalize what is known as ‘the hub’ of Nassau County. That gigantic vision, and the never ending political corruption and NIMBY-ism on Long Island killed the project. The project was later downsized and approved by the County but died a long, slow death at the hands of the Town of Hempstead. The Town delayed, and delayed, and asked for revisions, and asked for more downsizing, and asked for more environmental reviews, ad infinitum until Wang and his partners gave up and walked away.

Here’s Nick again:

I had never dwelt on the dead Lighthouse Project for long enough to come up with a pithy synthesis of what had happened.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, I had a moment of perfect clarity, and blurted this out:

“Because there are people who would let Long Island sink into the ocean, while they sat on their decks and preened to nobody in particular about what a great place Long Island is.”

It’s hard to really imagine what this project would have looked like at completion, especially since the “new” and renovated Coliseum that is there today sits on the same foundation and acreage of asphalt that it has since 1972. And also when you consider that such a large project could hit financing issues, delays in construction or other problems, it may not have been the grand plan that was first proposed.

But dammit, this is my Golden Ticket and I’m going to use it how I please. In this timeline The Lighthouse Project gets built, it turns out to be all that was promised and more, so that the Islanders have a shiny new arena, an owner with cash to spend on players who does not need to pursue real estate deals, and we all live happily ever after in Nassau County, killing that damned arena zombie once and for all.

Kevin Schultz is the former editor of Islanders Point Blank. He is an avid Islander fan and can be found yelling into the void on Twitter @schultz88. Please direct all hate mail to @Wyshynski.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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