Mogilny found superstar status with 76 goals in '92-93
Saturday, 12.15.2012 / 9:00 AM
Alexander Mogilny may have been only 23 years old entering the 1992-93 NHL season with the Buffalo Sabres, but he was at a career crossroads.
With his controversial defection to the United States three years earlier, Mogilny was forced to adopt a new language and culture. That difficult transition was further complicated when the young Russian was forced to confront a profound fear of flying as well as an FBI investigation that resulted in the arrest and subsequent deportation of a colleague who helped him defect to Buffalo.
By the fall of 1992, Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan had surrounded his star winger with All-Star forwards Pat LaFontaine and Dale Hawerchuk, two world-class players who could keep up with Mogilny's breakneck pace. It resulted in a historic 76-goal season for Mogilny, a campaign that almost didn't happen.
Mogilny's issues with air travel and his former comrade inspired countless trade rumors. But despite numerous offers, Meehan refused to deal a potential superstar entering his prime.
"There were plenty of people who wanted to take him off our hands. I just said to all my colleagues, 'We're playing this out. There really isn't any deal you could offer that would allow us to trade a player with that promise,'" Meehan said. "Some guys would call offering draft picks or a first-line player and a backup. But we were not interested in any discussion of trading Alex Mogilny."
When Meehan started negotiating with the New York Islanders to acquire LaFontaine early in the 1991-92 season, Mogilny's name came up one more time.
"[Islanders GM] Bill Torrey said, 'This deal can't happen without one of two young players; either Pierre Turgeon or Mogilny.' Alex was the guy we were acquiring LaFontaine to play with," said Meehan, who ultimately dealt Turgeon in the six-player trade. "We had Pierre Turgeon, who is a great player, but he was a different style of player. He played a more deliberate game. Mogilny was a breakaway artist. Speed was his essence. Until LaFontaine came into the picture, we didn't have a player that could complement Alex's great speed and skills."
Their first season together in 1991-92, Mogilny and LaFontaine missed a combined 44 games due to injury. Yet Mogilny scored a career-high 39 goals and LaFontaine registered 93 points in 57 games. Entering the following season, the Sabres were expecting big things from their dynamic duo. And by the beginning of training camp, there was already a buzz about what the pair could do in a full, injury-free season.
"There was a Sabres practice early in the season. I remember talking to [LaFontaine] and Patty said, 'He's going to score 70 goals,'" said Ken Martin, the NHL's vice president of community and diversity programming, who at the time was in the Sabres public relations department. "Patty predicted the 70 goals. The chemistry they had was great."
Mogilny didn't disappoint.
In the season opener, he scored a hat trick in a 5-4 loss to the Quebec Nordiques, with LaFontaine setting up all three goals and scoring one of his own. But before the Sabres could build on their high-scoring start, their superstar winger hit a speed bump.
One game into the 1992-93 season, an injury forced Mogilny to miss three weeks of action. In his absence, Bob Sweeney was elevated to the top line alongside LaFontaine and Dave Andreychuk and collected 11 points in seven games. After the Sabres went 5-2-0 without Mogilny, he returned to score two goals in a 4-4 tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
From that moment on, he refused to look back.
"The way he was scoring, it was pretty incredible to watch," Sweeney said. "He had such a quick release for his wrist shot. He would go from backhand to forehand and then snap it top shelf. I think the goalie probably knew where it was going but it was tough to stop. You felt bad sometimes for the goalies."
Despite missing seven games, Mogilny scored six goals in October, which he followed with 10 in November. Most NHL players would have considered 10 goals in one month a career milestone. But Mogilny was just getting started.
"He had a shot. I told him, 'Alex you have a hell of a shot, start shooting the puck,'" LaFontaine said. "I told him, 'Between the blue lines give me the puck, just use your speed and I'll find you.'"
After opening December with one goal in a three-game span that saw the Sabres go 0-2-1, Mogilny rebounded with a hat trick against the Boston Bruins. From there, Mogilny went on a scoring surge the likes of which the NHL has rarely seen. It was during the holiday season that he notched 24 goals in 14 games, fitting in a scorching five-game stretch in which he scored 13 times. In February, Mogilny registered two four-goal games two weeks apart.
On the tail end of a bittersweet run that saw their NFL Bills lose four consecutive Super Bowls, the city of Buffalo had by now embraced its newest star.
"He was a superstar who lived a real superstar life," Martin said. "He built this unbelievable $500,000 house in Buffalo at a time when people weren't building those kinds of homes. He had a Rolls Royce -- just your superstar, bachelor life."
The speed and talent on the Buffalo roster helped Mogilny put the puck in the net. But the sudden scoring surge was also precipitated by a small tweak coach John Muckler made to the Sabres power play. In an effort to find a way to play Mogilny, LaFontaine and Hawerchuk together, Muckler moved Hawerchuk to the point. With the scoring center – who had seven 40-goal seasons before coming to Buffalo – quarterbacking the man advantage, the Sabres' power play became one of the League's best. Mogilny served as the finisher in that unit, scoring 27 power-play goals, which ranked third in the NHL behind Brett Hull and Andreychuk, who was traded to Toronto in a midseason deal that brought Grant Fuhr to Buffalo.
"We improvised as good as anybody. To me that's the key on the power play," Hawerchuk told NHL.com. "When you have that kind of talent on the ice, you let the instincts take over. It didn't take me long to figure out to get the puck to Mogilny or LaFontaine.
"I remember we played in Hartford one night and Pierre McGuire was coaching. We scored five or six power-play goals against him and he got fired the next day. Years later when I ran into him, he said, 'You guys cost me my job.'"
Mogilny finished the season with a slight slump (two goals in seven games) to fall short of 80, but he continued his output in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, registering six goals in the Sabres' dramatic four-game sweep of the heavily favored Bruins. But both he and LaFontaine sustained serious injuries that forced them to miss much of the second round and Buffalo's season ended with a sweep at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.
Twenty-five years later, Mogilny's 76 goals remain the fifth-highest single-season total in NHL history. The feat was matched that same season by Winnipeg Jets rookie Teemu Selanne, who did it in seven more games with 27 more shots. Injuries limited LaFontaine to 16 games the following season, and Mogilny never regained that incredible scoring touch before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 1995.
"He was such a pure talent," Martin said. "On a superstar level, it's hard to duplicate that every night. I think that was some of the frustration with some of the fans, they would expect him to have 76 goals every season. It didn't happen and when his production tailed off, I think there was frustration because of whom he was.
"I remember he enjoyed Buffalo, and when he was traded to Vancouver, it was mixed emotions for him. I don't think he was a guy who had his heart on his sleeve, but I know it bothered him."
In the end, Mogilny's landmark season wasn't just about his goal total. He also proved remarkably clutch, tying for the League lead with 11 game-winning goals, which accounted for 29 percent of Buffalo's 38 wins.
And for the man who set up so many of those goals, it was a unique capsule that will always be a big part of NHL history.
"If Dave Andreychuk wasn't traded for Grant Fuhr, it would have been the only line in the history of hockey where every person on the line scored 50 goals. We traded him when he had 45 goals," said LaFontaine, who finished that season with 95 assists and 148 points. "When things are in synch and there is really good chemistry, you can do special things."