1995/96: The Year the New York Rangers Should Have Won the Stanley Cup

Luc Robitaille was one of the many superstars on a promising 1995/96 Rangers team.

At the culmination of the 1993/94 NHL season, the New York Rangers snapped a 54 year Stanley Cup drought, with their thrill-ride seven game series victory over the Vancouver Canucks. This team, the assembly of which, is one that people only dream about today,and has perhaps gone unmatched in hockey over the last 17 years, with its combination of veteran leadership, superstar power, clutch goal-scoring ability and goaltending, and a much less talked about presence of skillful youth. This is the one lineup, that, if given the opportunity, any fan of this team would ask for. However, two seasons later, the Rangers arguably fielded an even better team, but one that is largely forgotten, due to it being sandwiched between the Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory and the ensuing lockout, and later, the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in New York, to re-team with Mark Messier, a duo which won four championships in Edmonton. The mid-1990’s was the most exciting time to be a Rangers’ fan since probably the 1970’s. Anyone who has read Losing the Edge: The Rise and Fall of the Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers (Pub. 1995), by Barry Meisel, knows that GM Neil Smith was poising his team to become a dynasty, but unfortunately, it never happened, and the Rangers would have to settle for only one. The 1995/96 season had even more promise at the start than 1994 did, and although they finished lower in the standings, this had all the makings of another championship.

The year after the lockout was a murky one for the Rangers, as they struggled to just make the playoffs with an 8th place finish, but the next season, there was no doubt; it could have become one for the ages. The Rangers retained much of the 1994 corps, in Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, Mike Richter, and Alexei Kovalev, as well as the role players Sergei Nemchinov, Alexander Karpovtsev, Doug Lidster, Jeff Beukeboom, and Kevin Lowe, and even their backup goalie Glenn Healy. The Rangers, at the end of the previous season, added another superstar in Pat Verbeek, and then over the summer, signed future hall-of-famer Luc Robitaille, the highest scoring left-winger in NHL history. This is a team that had two 40-goal scorers—Messier (47) and Verbeek (41)—and three players to finish with more than 80 points (Messier-99, Leetch-85, and Verbeek-82). In total, there were six players with 22 goals or more and seven players who reached the 50-point mark and beyond. Their third-line center Nemchinov scored 17, and depth defenseman Bruce Driver put up 34 assists. This was the real dream team. By the 65 game mark, Ray Ferraro had 25 goals, but was swapped for the legendary “Finnish Flash”, Jarri Kuri, who came from Los Angeles. He was struggling on the season and at the tail-end of his career, but had nearly 600 NHL goals upon his arrival. Kurri was also a former Oiler, and much like in 1994, Neil Smith was bringing in whichever of Messier’s old cronies were available for the taking.

The Rangers also had plenty of toughness; five players reached beyond 100 penalty minutes, and one even eclipsed 200. The lowest plus/minus rating amongst any of the regulars was Darren Langdon at a +2. The oldest forward on the team, until a 35-year-old Kurri arrived, was Messier at a still spry 34; just on the cusp of passing his prime. Kevin Lowe remained the elder statesman on defense, at 36 years old and more than 1100 games played. The youngest was still Kovalev, at a budding 22 years old. This was the team that could do everything: they had speed with Verbeek, finesse with Kovalev, offense from the back-end with Leetch, bone-crunching toughness with Beukeboom and Ulf Samuelsson, and of course, a plethora of leadership and offensive threats with Messier, Robitaille, Graves, and later, Kurri. The ages of the players were not nearly as all-around old as the 1994 championship team, yet the leadership and mileage was there. For goaltending, Healy actually played more games than Richter, and the two combined for 41 victories.

The Rangers went on to finish second in the Atlantic Division to the Philadelphia Flyers, and dispatched the Montreal Candiens in six games in the quarterfinals. Their next opponent, a superior Penguins team with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Ron Francis, then took care of the Rangers in five games the following round. Thus ended the magical season, over as quickly as it began. The team that had four Hall-of-Famers upon their retirement, four 1000-point getters, three eventual 600-goal scorers, a 500, and one more with 400, as well as a 1000-point defensemen could not withstand the test. As the above referenced book mentioned regarding the playoff loss in the previous season, simply,  “…the team was losing the edge.” This was the best chance the Rangers had, not even with Wayne Gretzky coming to Broadway the following season, and leading the team even farther. This was the real beginning of the end, as Smith could not help himself but to trade young players for old veterans passed their prime. It worked in 1994 and almost again in 1996 and 1997, but he kept pushing and pushing, until finally, not only were the Rangers not making the playoffs and the laughingstock of the league, but had no farm system to offer assistance.

The reason I write this article is not to depress anyone (even though that is the effect it is leaving on me as I wrap things up), rather, it is to illustrate how far this organization has come. Glen Sather has always been blamed for the team’s misgivings, especially in the years leading up to the lockout, but he did what he had to do—there were no promising youth to be had in Hartford, so he went out and did exactly what Smith did. However, what Sather did that Smith did not was plan for the future. The Rangers may not win a Stanley Cup with ol’ Slats at the helm, but he has certainly set up his successor to look like a genius. This also shows that a team full of superstars rarely gets the job done, except under extreme circumstances. Teams need role players to win; the grinders, the guys that do the dirty work. Yes, they need stars, but not a lineup loaded with them. True championship teams build from within. I look at the roster from 1995/96 and only see five major contributors to success that were actually drafted. The current New York Rangers team has nine, plus Girardi who was not drafted by anyone but came up through the system. The Rangers are headed in the right direction, my friends, and that is something we can smile about as the year 2011 comes to a close.

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2 thoughts on “1995/96: The Year the New York Rangers Should Have Won the Stanley Cup

  1. FrankieB

    Hey Greg….interesting article, I can’t believe it was almost 20 years ago. Wow, time flies.

    I enjoyed your reminiscing and can appreciate some of your points. But on the major point you try to make — that this was the Rangers best chance to recapture the 1994 Cup — I have to disagree. I think that the 1996-97 team was better in that they went to the Eastern Conference Finals despite Gretzky’s winger Sundstrom being out after being slashed in the Devils series. That killed us in the Flyers series next.

    There’s no doubt that some of the trades for Old Oilers were probably suggested by Messier or Messier’s family. Larry Brooks of the NY Post was writing ominously all year about friction between the Messier Clan and Rangers GM Neil Smith. It was cryptic and ambiguous but it all became clear when Messier left less than 3 years after leading us to the Cup and 1 year into Gretzky’s return. The team death-spiraled mostly because of the after-shocks of Messier’s departure, not necessarily the trading of the young talent which most thought was overkill. To do it in 1994 with the Cup missing all those decades was one thing. To do it again in 1997 with a cup 3 years in the rear-view mirror was not smart.

    However, and this is going to seem strange to Knick and Ranger fans, the ownership of the Rangers was a combined Cablevision-ITT who were NOT opening the wallet. Cablevision’s stock price and cash flow were in the toilet through early-1997. Normally, without a salary cap, you would expect Smith to use the Rangers financial heft to address shortcomings but that was NOT an option. All year there had been talk about getting Gretzky a true sniper to pass to; Niklas Sundstrom was a 3rd line player and Robittaile was past his prime.

    The hot rumor was they were going to go after Alexander Mogilny, 4 years removed from his 76 goal season (Don’t know about you, but I look back at the goal and point scoring 25-30 years ago with Gretzky-Lemiux etc. and it seems surreal). Vancouver missed the playoffs that year and he was available a year after scoring 55 goals. Not sure why the deal didn’t happen, but I do remember Smith had his hand$$$$ somewhat limited in what he could accept. I recall the team’s payroll was about $36 MM or so (Gretzky had taken a pay cut to come to NY) and taking back a bad contract and ‘eating it’ was not an option for Smith and the Rangers.

    The Rangers simply didn’t match up well with the Penguins. They should have beaten them in 1992 but blew that Game 4 when they were up by 2 goals and had a PP early in the 3rd period. The Penguins were alot like today’s Kings: big…fast….tough to knock off the puck.

    Ironically, a few years later Dolan and Cablevision put a gun to Smith’s head and forced him to spend money on free agents he really didn’t want (like Theo Fleurry). By then Cablevision was flush with ca$h but it was too late. The Rangers core had deteriorated…Messier was gone…Gretzky was taking a final lap….the farm system had nothing. Smith still deserved a better fate than being fired with 4 games left in the season — you know Checketts hated that gutless move and you know it came from above.

    For me, the 1997 and 1992 teams are the ones I wish had gone a bit further. I have no doubt that if Sundstrom was healthy we beat the Flyers and also the Red Wings. As for 1992, I think you can make a case that team was better than the 1994 Cup Winner. The 1992 team didn’t quite have the grit of the 1994 team because of the 1994 deadline deals, but it was more explosive, faster, and wasn’t much worse in goal despite employing a 2-goalie approach.

    Fun times….let’s hope we can soon add the 2015 team to the Cup winners !

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