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Why only one Stanley Cup? 1994 Rangers championship team wasn't built to last

Former GM Neil Smith recalls trades that were made with a win-now philosophy that sacrificed sustainable skill and talent. 

Former Rangers Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Adam

Former Rangers Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Adam Graves look on during the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1994 Stanley Cup Championship team at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

By the 1990s, after 50-plus seasons without the Stanley Cup, Rangers fans would have done just about anything to win the Cup, just once. When it finally happened, in 1994, it was like a dream come true. The images of Stephane Matteau scoring in double overtime to beat the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final; of Craig MacTavish winning the last faceoff in the Cup Final against Vancouver at the Garden; of Mark Messier grabbing the Cup, with that big grin, and hoisting it over his head, live and on video, are burned into fans’ memories forever. And there was the one fan who made that iconic sign that said, “Now I can die in peace.’’

On Friday, before the current team’s 3-0 loss to Carolina, the Garden brought back the ’94 team for a celebration of that Cup, their only one in the last 79 years. They certainly won’t win another one this year, and most likely won’t win one next year, either. So, who knows when they might win another one?

But here’s the real question: Why didn’t that ’94 team, as great as it was, with that nucleus of Messier, goaltender Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, et al, win more than one Cup? The Devils, whom they beat in ’94, won the Cup the next year, in 1995, and followed with titles in 2000 and 2003 – three Cups in eight years. The Colorado Avalanche won twice in five years, 1996 and 2001. The Detroit Red Wings three times in five years – back-to-back in 1997 and ’98, and again in 2002.

Yet the Rangers won just that one time. How come?

Essentially, they were not built to last, according to the man who built the team, GM Neil Smith.

“It’s like, if we were building a building, it was, ‘Level the space, put up the building within a month,’ ’’ Smith said Friday, before the reunion celebration. “Whereas the other guys sort of went slowly, building, building, building, and had a good team, we were like, ‘OK, [we’ll trade] you for you; you for you; you for you – I think we’ve got it right! Let’s go! Hurry up!’ And that’s not the way to build it to last. But they didn’t care about sustaining it here. They just wanted one!’’

Despite being in first place overall at the time, Smith, at the urging of coach Mike Keenan, made five trades at the trade deadline in ’94, trading away skill and speed for veteran grit and toughness. The principal players exchanged were speedy forward Mike Gartner shipped to Toronto for Glenn Anderson; Tony Amonte to Chicago for Matteau and Brian Noonan, and 20-year-old Todd Marchant to Edmonton for the 35-year-old MacTavish, the last player to play in the NHL without wearing a helmet. The players who came in would all play important roles in helping to win the Cup. But the Rangers had given up a good chunk of their future. Marchant went on to play 1,195 games in the NHL, and Amonte scored 416 goals and 900 points in a 15-year career. MacTavish and Anderson left as free agents in the summer.

But, bigger than that, Keenan left, too. He and Smith never saw eye-to-eye, and, barely a month after the Cup victory, Keenan abruptly forced his way out of New York to take the GM/coach job in St. Louis. The ’94 Rangers were effectively broken up, and that, Messier said, was a shame.

“I would have really loved the opportunity keep the team together that was at the end of that [1994] year, with Mike, and given ourselves the opportunity to [repeat],’’ Messier said. “We never got that opportunity. One, we got the lockout, so we had half a season; Mike had left, and we made some other changes and we never really got back there. We got to the [Eastern] conference finals in ’97, but it was a different team, and we got up against Philly, ‘Leetchie’ with a broken wrist, so we had too many injuries.

“But I would have loved nothing better than to come back the next year, for the full season, with the same team, with Mike coaching, Neil managing and taken another shot at it,’’ Messier said. “Because our core was still very young, with Leetchie and Ricky [Mike Richter] and Alex [Kovalev] and Zubie [Sergei Zubov] and Adam [Graves], so we had a great core and we had a lot of depth. To this day, it’s actually disappointing we never did.’’

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