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A Matter of Time: Don Maloney Out as Isles GM

David Stauss

When it comes down to it, Don Maloney could have wheeled and dealed the Islanders to another four Cups, but he would never have been able to shake the fans' most basic distrust of him, never would have been able to eliminate his one basic flaw in the eyes of Islander backers. You see, Don Maloney was once a Ranger. And on top of everything else, this is a sin without pardon for those that follow the blue, white & orange of Nassau Coliseum.

But the Islanders did not win a Cup under Maloney's management -- in fact, just the opposite. A team that made a surprising run on emotion and goaltending to the Cup semifinals in 1993 slid to last place in 1995 and a dismal start this season, and Maloney's goose was cooked.

Maloney was praised this last summer for hiring Mike Milbury to be the Isles new coach, despite the fact that anyone paying attention could see Milbury would sooner or later have his job. Perhaps he simply gave ownership the easy way out, since the best candidate for a replacement GM was now already in the building. CEO and co-chairman Robert Rosenthal said at the inevitable "Don Must Go" Islander press conference that there would be no speculation on possible replacements for the ousted GM "with the exception of two people in this room." He was looking squarely at Milbury and interim GM, Darcy Regier, Maloney's former assistant.

VP of Hockey Operations Al Arbour will lead up the selection process for a replacement. Arbour stated right up front he was not considering the job. And while former Isles star and Hall of Famer Denis Potvin, now doing commentary for the Panthers, expressed interest, he was not given serious consideration.

As of this writing, it still seems obvious that Milbury can have the job, if he wants it. A simple equation for management. The question, of course, given the dismal state of affairs on the ice, is whether Milbury or anyone could handle the dual job at this point in time. Former Winnipeg GM Mike Smith is the only other serious candiate.

For his part, Milbury, who may be the only coach in history considered for a promotion at the time his team was 6-15, faced the press after the Isles' solid 4-1 win over the Devils December 2nd and told reporters the victory "was not because Don Maloney was not here. It was because Don Maloney did some good things when he was here."

The problem is that Maloney's good things did not outweigh the bad things. He was, is, undoubtedly a nice guy, a personable guy who was consumed by the pressures of his job and the expectations of the fans -- which, after the success of the late 70s and early 80s, were much higher than the current team has met.

Maloney retired in 1991 after a 13 year NHL career with the Rangers, Whalers and Islanders. He became an assistant to Isles GM Bill Torrey and engineered the 1992 Draft Day trade which allowed the Isles to move up and select Darius Kasparaitis with the Maple Leaf's pick. When the current management group took over in 1992, he replaced Torrey and became the league's youngest GM.

Maloney's first mistake came in late 1992, when he exposed winger Bill Berg to waivers and lost him to the Leafs. While Berg wasn't and isn't the missing link to a Cup, he's a capable pesky winger whose type of grit the Isles have lost over the years several times, forcing the team to trade to fill the holes left by their departures.

It was, probably, the events of June 1993 that first hurt Maloney badly in the eyes of Islander fans. Coming off the emotional upset of the Penguins that May, the only time in the Isles' history they have defeated the defending Champs in the playoffs, Isles fans had deluded themselves into thinking Glenn Healy was a star goalie. Maloney saw the 1993 team as one step away from being a true contender, and not the 40-37-7 team they were, and traded backup goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick to the Quebec Nordiques for Ron Hextall. Unfortunately, the expansion draft the next day only allowed teams to protect one goaltender, and Maloney exposed Healy. The popular goalie was taken by the Ducks, then the Lightning, and then traded to the Rangers. The Isles also lost feisty forward Tommy Fitzgerald, another "grit" player they would end up having to replace, by choosing to protect oft-injured Wayne McBean instead.

The next year at the draft tables, Maloney traded Uwe Krupp and the 12th overall pick to the Quebec for Ron Sutter and the 9th overall pick, using the pick to select Brett Lindros. While Lindros has developed very slowly, he was coveted by several teams at the draft, including the Leafs, who complained to the Canadian media the following day that they'd been swindled by the Nords. Eighteen months later, this is a good example of Maloney taking two steps back after one step forward. Lindros is a struggling winger, having problems with concussions, and his $1.5 million contract is thought to have been the one that started the dissention in the Isles' locker room. In the meantime, Isles fans remember that Detroit had offered Keith Primeau straight up for Krupp just months before the draft.

Just before the 1994-95 season, Maloney decided that Ron Hextall would never be forgiven by the fans for being shelled by the Rangers the previous year, and traded him back to the Flyers for Tommy Soderstrom. Soderstrom has struggled in his year plus with the Isles, doing a good impression of Mario Lemieux's personal five-hole patsy, while Hextall leads the NHL in goals against this season.

April 5, 1995, came the trade that ultimately led to Maloney's downfall. Pierre Turgeon and Valdimir Malakhov to the Habs for Kirk Muller, Matthieu Schneider, and Craig Darby. Muller never wanted to come to the Isles, whining like a baby that he didn't want to play for a rebuilding team, and after a pathetic start this season was sent home by the team November 12 awaiting a trade. Turgeon is scoring for the Habs and was just named the captain in Montreal. Despite the fact the Schneider for Malakhov side of the trade is an amazing win for the Isles, fans couldn't forgive the trading away of the Isles' marquee player.

While the Muller situation continues to haunt the team, the most emotional loss was that of team leader Ray Ferraro to the hated Rangers. By not signing Ferraro to a contract above the league average, the ten year veteran became a free agent and signed with the crosstown rivals.

This is not to say Maloney did nothing right while with the team. He obtained highly rated prospect Eric Fichaud from the Leafs for winger Benoit Hogue. Holdout Steve Thomas, whom everyone in the league knew was not reporting to the team, nevertheless was moved for Wendel Clark. He managed to get Milbury as coach when most believed he couldn't, and signed Todd Bertuzzi one minute before he would be returned into the draft this summer. Bertuzzi's been one of the team's few bright spots this season. Maloney presided over several promising drafts for the team, including the 1995 draft where he resisted temptation to trade away his second overall pick and selected Wade Redden, a talented defenseman who will likely be in Uniondale next season.

But, weighing both sides, Maloney was undone by the choices he made. He was undone by taking big gambles that didn't work out. In the end, the team management couldn't ignore the loud chants of the 9,000 faithful still coming to the Coliseum, the chants of "Don Must Go!" And in the end, the team's fans couldn't ignore the fact that Don Maloney was once, years ago, a Ranger.

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