Last Monday, two former New York Rangers entered the Hockey Hall of Fame: Václav Nedomanský and Sergei Zubov.
Nedomanský, a Czech icon, was the first player to defect to North America to play in the NHL. He split the final season of his NHL career with the St. Louis Blues and the Rangers in 1982-83. Zubov, of course, won the Cup with the Rangers in 1994 and with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He played 16 seasons of NHL hockey and dressed for 1068 games with the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Dallas Stars.
Without him, Rangers fans might still be waiting to break the curse that haunted the team for over half a century.
Zubov was the Rangers top-scorer in the 1993-94 regular season with 89 points in 78 games — which is 10 more points than Brian Leetch amassed in 84 games. He followed the regular season with 19 points in 22 postseason games on the way to the Rangers defeating the Vancouver Canucks to earn the Stanley Cup. He was fourth on the team in playoff scoring and second among all d-men in playoff scoring that year, behind only Brian Leetch who scorched the scoresheets with 34 points in 24 games.
That season was Zubov’s first full NHL campaign after he split the 1992-93 season between the big club and the Binghamton Rangers (AHL). In those first 49 games of his NHL career, Zubov piled up 31 points at the age of 22 after honing his skills in the Soviet Union with CSKA Moscow where he played with future NHLers Sergei Brylin, Slava Kozlov, Boris Mironov, Nikolai Khabibulin and others. So, big things were expected from the 85th overall pick of the 1990 Draft in his second season and he definitely delivered.
Following his breakout sophomore season, Zubov picked up 36 points in 38 games in the lockout-stunted 1994-95 season, which was his last as a Ranger. The Russian blueliner finished third on the team in scoring that season, behind Mark Messier (53) and Leetch (41). In the 1995 offseason, Rangers general manager Neil Smith dealt Zubov and Petr Nedved to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Ulf Samuelsson and Luc Robitaille — who were both in their early 30s.
Zubov had fallen out of favor with Smith and then Rangers head coach Colin Campbell after he insisted on undergoing wrist surgery early in the 1994-95 season and for the trademark high-risk, high-reward play that made him such a productive player on the blue line. Reportedly, the Rangers nearly moved him at the 1995 trade deadline to the Quebec Nordiques in a deal involving Mike Ricci. However, that didn’t happen. Smith alleged that Quebec general manager Dan Lacroix tampered with his player by asking if Zubov would accept a deal to the Nordiques and things soured.
By trading Zubov, Smith aimed to give the Rangers two elite scoring lines and give Messier another chance to guide the team to the Cup. Of course, that didn’t happen. The Rangers have not won a Cup since 1994. In Pittsburgh, Zubov and Mario Lemieux didn’t like sharing the spotlight or the puck on the Penguins power play, which resulted in the Russian d-man landing in Dallas after a one-for-one deal that sent Kevin Hatcher to the Penguins. Needless to say, the Stars won that deal when Zubov won the Cup with Dallas in 1999 playing with Kevin’s brother Derian.
Between the 1996-97 and 2006-07 seasons, Zubov was second only to fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom in scoring among defensemen. A prodigious puck-mover, Zubov scored with 510 points in 783 games in that span, including 277 points on the power play. However, he did not finish in the top-three in Norris Trophy voting until his age 35 season in 2005-06. It should be noted that Lidstrom won the Norris in five of those nine seasons in addition to earning recognition as the league’s top defender in 2008 and 2011. He was also quite good at hockey.
Looking back, it’s clear that Smith gambled poorly when he chose to deal Zubov and Nedved for Samuelsson and Robitaille. The Rangers lost to Zubov and the Penguins in the 1996 Conference Semifinals — a series in which Zubov had five assists in five games — and fell to the Flyers in the 1997 Conference Finals before missing the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons. The Rangers wouldn’t return to the postseason until Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist guided the team back in 2006.
Robitaille had 117 points in 147 games with the Rangers, scoring 23 goals in his first season on Broadway and 24 the following year. Smith, who was vocal about being disappointed by the future Hockey Hall of Famer and had seen enough after two seasons, dealt him to the Los Angeles Kings for the 32-year-old Kevin Stevens. Stevens had back-to-back 40-point campaigns, but was battling drug addiction and left the team after entering the NHL’s substance abuse program in the 1999-2000 season. Fortunately, the former Ranger is in recovery and is currently a scout in the Penguins organization.
“It can’t be classified as anything but disappointing, because Luc didn’t end up producing what we expected. I thought at times he showed he was going to go back to the form he showed in nine seasons in [Los Angeles], but he never regained that over any longer period of time ... You bring in a Luc Robitaille to put numbers on the board and he was not able to do that.″ - Neil Smith after dealing Robitaille to the Kings in the 1997 offseason.
One can’t help but wonder how things may have gone differently if Smith and Campbell demonstrated a little more patience with a Russian defender who was just entering his prime.
Remember, Leetch was 27 when the Rangers dealt his power play partner to Pittsburgh. In 1993-94, Leetch and Zubov had a combined 26 goals on the Rangers’ power play, 17 of which were scored by the Texan. No two defenders on the same team have matched that number of power play goals in the last 25 years and only three d-men — Adrian Aucoin, Mike Green, and Sheldon Souray — have bested Leetch’s 17 power play goals in a single season since.
To say that the Rangers lost the trade that sent Zubov to the Penguins would be an understatement. The Blueshirts lost a historically significant player who was, in many respects, ahead of his time. Before his final two seasons, which were spoiled by injuries, he was a truly elite offensive defenseman and a maestro on the man advantage. Zubov is responsible for three of the top-five highest-scoring seasons among Russian defensemen in NHL history; the other two belong to Sergei Gonchar.
Zubov is just the second Russian/Soviet-born defenseman to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. The first was Slava Fetisov, who was inducted in 2001. He’s also the fourth member of the 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup-winning team to enter the Hall, the others being Messier, Leetch, and Glenn Anderson.
All data courtesy of hockey-reference.com, EliteProspects.com, and NHL.com.