Difficult '92-93 laid foundation for Rangers' Cup
Friday, 01.04.2013 / 10:00 AM
The 1992-93 New York Rangers stand as proof of the adage that it's always darkest before the dawn.
The '92-93 Rangers were a team laced with talented youngsters and experienced veterans who had lofty expectations after winning the Presidents' Trophy the prior season before a disappointing second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. With the "19-40" chants growing louder with each passing season, Rangers fans were desperately hoping 1993 would be the year that would see the franchise end a Stanley Cup drought that had lasted more than a half-century.
Instead, things went horribly wrong -- and their frustration and disappointment only grew after the Rangers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs and suffered a 26-point dip in the standings from the previous season. It was a season filled with disagreements, mainly between coach Roger Neilson and captain Mark Messier. By season's end, general manager Neil Smith had given the team a significant facelift, with numerous personnel changes that wouldn't pay off until the following season.
"Our expectations coming into [the 1992-93] season were very high," Smith said. "We had a very disappointing defeat to Pittsburgh the year before after being up two games to one. We were ahead in Game 4 and ended up blowing the game. We were pretty convinced had we not blown that one game, we could have won the Cup that year."
The 1992-93 Rangers featured Hart Trophy winner Messier as their captain and Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch leading their blue line. Perennial 40-goal scorer Mike Gartner was entering his third full season in New York. Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Zubov were among a promising core of young talent. The Rangers had a fine goaltending duo consisting of former Vezina winner John Vanbiesbrouck and a young up-and-comer named Mike Richter. Perhaps most importantly, they had Stanley Cup winners on their roster. In addition to Messier, Adam Graves and Jeff Beukeboom provided a championship background from their time with the Edmonton Oilers.
Then there was Neilson. Perhaps best known for leading the Vancouver Canucks' magical run to the Final in 1982 and the famous towel waving incident, Neilson had taken the Rangers from a .500 team to Stanley Cup contender after taking over the coaching reins in 1989.
"Roger was the right coach for that team while he was coaching," said longtime Rangers TV analyst and current Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson. "There are certain coaches who get you to a certain level. He instilled the understanding of playing away from the puck, not trying to win games 8-7, because playoff games are always tighter than regular-season games."
However, Neilson's philosophy clashed with the more up-tempo style that had suited Messier for most of his career. After all, Messier had already won five Stanley Cups on Edmonton teams that were offensive juggernauts. As the Rangers stumbled to an 11-10-3 start by the time December rolled around, the rocky relationship between the two became evident.
"There was some tension there, for sure," said Rangers center and current broadcaster Eddie Olczyk, who was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets during the season.
Along with the rocky relationship between coach and captain, the injury bug bit the Rangers -- Leetch was limited to 36 games due to neck and shoulder injuries and Messier missed time with a sprained ligament in his wrist.
So what was a general manager to do? As Smith points out, it wasn't just one thing that led to the team's disappointing performance.
"There seemed to be some controversy surrounding our two goaltenders, Vanbiesbrouck and Richter, about who's No. 1," Smith said. "New York makes controversies out of things that other places wouldn't. Messier and Leetch had their injuries. A ton of different things created this feeling that we weren't going to be what we thought we were going to be; it just wasn't happening for us."
Still, the scrutiny of the New York media hovered over Neilson and Messier. With his team's Stanley Cup aspirations quickly dissolving, Smith could see that philosophical differences between the two were costing the team.
"The issue became clearer and clearer that year," Smith said. "You can see when a team has stopped playing with a certain coach. You try different things. They tried benching players and that didn't work. We tried trading players and that didn't work. You see it in their body language. There was no doubt we had to do something drastic. It wasn't a surprise move at the time."
The move Smith is referring to happened on Jan. 4, 1993, when Neilson was dismissed as coach after posting a 19-17-4 record in the first 40 games of the season.
"Roger was one of the best people I've ever known. He was very good about it," Smith said. "I was more distraught than he was. Roger and I had a good relationship. He was the elder statesman of the two of us. He had been around a long time, and here I was in my fourth year. I felt horrible, I felt like I had let him down. He handled it very professionally."
Neilson's successor, Ron Smith, had been a successful coach in the American Hockey League but didn't have any such experience at the NHL level. With Neilson out of the picture and Messier still leading the team, fans were hoping the shakeup could turn the team around in time for the playoffs. However, the team did no better under Ron Smith. So after a 12-10-7 record following the coaching change, Neil Smith made another big move.
On the night of March 17, 1993, with the Oilers in town, Neil Smith pulled off a trade that saw 22-year-old Doug Weight and 28-year-old Esa Tikkanen switch locker rooms, and teams, prior to the game that night. Although Weight had already shown ability with 30 points in 53 games during his rookie season, Neil Smith knew that Tikkanen's grit and championship experience were essential for the Rangers to take the next step.
"At that time, although you could see the potential that Doug had, our Stanley Cup window was right there," Smith said. "We needed people who had been through the wars, and Tikkanen was one of them."
"Our expectations coming into [the 1992-93] season were very high. We had a very disappointing defeat to Pittsburgh the year before after being up two games to one. We were ahead in Game 4 and ended up blowing the game. We were pretty convinced had we not blown that one game, we could have won the Cup that year." -- Former Rangers GM Neil Smith
Davidson agreed that while Weight was talented and went on to score more than 1,000 points in his career, acquiring Tikkanen was crucial for the Rangers at the time.
"There was a winning pedigree there," Davidson said. "When you try to win, your window is very short, so sometimes you have to make deals that you think will put you at the top or over the top. Doug Weight was going to have a terrific career and was young, but you have to do what you have to do."
Even with a good chunk of Edmonton's Cup dynasty now calling Madison Square Garden home, the Rangers still couldn't get over the hump. They lost 11 of their last 12 games to finish with a record of 34-39-11, dropping them to last place in the Patrick Division. It was the first time since the introduction of the Presidents' Trophy in 1986 that a team missed the playoffs after winning it the previous season; it has happened only one other time since.
With little to show for the moves he had made, Neil Smith wasn't immune to the whispers concerning his job security.
"There were some people out there who thought I could get fired because we had a good team who had underperformed," Smith said. "I fired the coach and it didn't work out; we missed the playoffs, so [they said] 'They're going to fire Smith.' I don't feel pressure from what others think or say, I just feel it from myself. I can honestly say that I wasn't going home every night thinking I was going to get fired. What was on my mind was that I wanted to win the Stanley Cup. I kept thinking, 'I'm so close, I can't let this happen, I can't let it go.'"
Although Ron Smith did what he could, Neil Smith was determined to land an accomplished coach who could get his talented team to the top. That coach turned out to be Mike Keenan, who had led the Philadelphia Flyers to two Stanley Cup Final appearances during the '80s and made a third with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1992.
"In the last couple of weeks of the season, I told ownership that we needed to get a veteran [coach] who had experience winning with stars in his dressing room," Smith said. "There were three that I could think of: Al Arbour, Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan. Mike hadn't done it in the Stanley Cup, but he had done it in the Canada Cup. We weren't going to get Al from the Islanders, and Scotty was in Pittsburgh, so we wanted to go get Mike."
The timing of the hiring was as much a statement as the hiring itself. Just one day after the conclusion of the 1992-93 regular season, the Rangers held a press conference and introduced Keenan as their next coach.
"My goal was to tell the fans immediately that we were not happy and made immediate changes," Smith said. "By doing it that quickly when the season ended, I wanted to stop the negative autopsy that would go on."
The rest was history.
A Presidents' Trophy, a guarantee from Messier, a "Matteau, Matteau!" cry and a hard-fought seven-game win against Vancouver laid the "19-40" chants to rest forever as the Rangers won the 1994 Stanley Cup.
Although winning the championship has largely erased the memories of the disappointing 1992-93 season, Davidson feels Neilson's coaching and teaching had a significant impact on the 1994 Cup-winning team.
"The foundation of that  club was from what Roger had taught them, not a doubt in my mind," Davidson said. "Roger Neilson was a terrific hockey man, a terrific hockey coach. You get different styles of play, different personalities, different positions for the franchise, and sometimes it's better with different people running it. I admired what Roger did with the New York Rangers, and I admired what Mike Keenan did in winning with that crew. I admired what Neil Smith did in making changes that would allow Mike to win with the trades that were made."