Greats Who Got Away: Part One

About two weeks ago we looked at former Rangers draft picks who are still in the league and making a mark with opposing teams. This time around we’re going further back in the timeline and focusing on great players who started their careers in New York (both drafted prospects and undrafted free agents).

The word "great" has many definitions to many different people, especially in the world of sports. What is a great NHL career? What makes a great hockey player? What about great players who were plagued by injuries? There’s no pleasing everyone’s definition of the word great, so I settled on some basic prerequisites and qualifiers to guide me. My cutoff for forwards was 600 points in the NHL. For defensemen I lowered the bar to 400 points and for goaltenders I settled on 250 wins.

The idea behind those qualifiers wasn’t to exclude players who had more defensive accumen than offensive skills, but to reward players who enjoyed long careers. This is particularly relevant because of how brief the average NHL career is. Typically, you have to be special (or “great”) to play well beyond five seasons.

We’ll start our list with the 1980 Draft and move towards present day. Maybe at a later date we’ll dust off the history books and look further into the past, but for today it’s Part One: Players selected or signed from 1980 to 1985.

Ulf Dahlen

966 GP | 301 goals | 354 assists

Dahlen was the seventh overall pick of the 1985 Draft. The Rangers took Mike Richter in the very next round. Not a bad way to start a draft, huh?

The big Swedish winger scored 34 even strength goals in his first two NHL seasons on Broadway and finished sixth in Calder voting in his rookie year. The Rangers traded Dahlen during his third season with the team on March 6, 1990 to acquire veteran speedster Mike Gartner.

Dahlen would go on to play 777 more NHL games, 369 of them with the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise. He scored the final goal in North Stars history and went on to play for three more NHL teams including Washington where he played for three seasons before returning to Dallas to finish his career as a Star.

Given Dahlen’s size and the era that he began his career, it’s amazing to think that he had only 230 penalty minutes in his career. It’s no wonder he regularly received votes for the Lady Byng, especially towards the end of his career.

Dahlen ranks 15th all-time among Swedish-born players in NHL points. Since the Blueshirts drafted Dahlen in 1985 the team has selected only five players who have eclipsed the 655 points he amassed in his 14-year career.

Mike Ridley

866 games | 292 goals | 466 assists

Signing undrafted free agents is hardly a new thing for the Rangers. Long before Cam Talbot and Neal Pionk the Blueshirts signed Mike Ridley as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Manitoba in September, 1985.

Ridley wasted no time making the Rangers look smart. He scored 65 points as a 22-year-old rookie with the Rangers in 1985-86. Ridley led the Rangers in scoring that year, but Phil Esposito had other plans in mind when he took over the team.

In Ridley's sophomore year the Rangers dealt him to the Washington Capitals along with Bob Crawford and Kelly Miller for Bobby Carpenter and Washington's second round pick in the 1989 Draft (Jason Prosofsky). It was not a good deal.

''I've been interested in Bobby Carpenter for the past month or so,'' Esposito admitted after pulling the trigger.

Carpenter lasted just 28 games in New York.

Ridley went on to establish himself as a consistent and valuable player in Washington. Only seven players have scored more points for the Capitals than Ridley did in the 588 games he played there. He retired from the NHL at 33-years-old after a 52 point season with the Canucks in 1996-97.

Dave Gagner

946 GP | 318 goals | 401 assists

New York selected Sam Gagner's father with the 12th overall pick of the 1983 Draft. But Dave struggled to hold on to a roster spot in the three seasons he spent with the Rangers. He managed to score 27 points in 80 games before general manager Craig Patrick decided it was time to move on.

The Rangers dealt Gagner and Jay Caulfield to the North Stars for Jari Gronstrand and Paul Boutiller. It turned out to be a very bad deal.

Gagner would go on to put up five consecutive 70+ point seasons with the North Stars after a rocky first season in Minnesota. He had nine 20+ goal seasons in his career and as a result is ranked sixth in the Stars franchise in goals and seventh in points.

Gagner retired after the 1998-99 season as a Vancouver Canuck. He was 34-years-old when he hung up his skates.

Tomas Sandstrom

983 GP | 394 goals | 462 assists

Sandstrom is probably best known for his time playing with the Kings, but his career started on Broadway. The Rangers drafted Sandstrom with the 36th overall pick of the 1982 Draft. It was pretty much a home run. The power forward spent the first five-and-a-half years of his career in New York.

Sandstrom scored 380 points in 407 games as a Ranger. He also scored at least 25 goals in each of his five full seasons in New York. His best season with the Rangers was likely his 40 goal, 64 game campaign as a 22-year-old during his third season on Broadway.

In January of 1990 Neil Smith dealt Sandstrom and Tony Granato to the Kings for Bernie Nicholls. Nicholls would later be part of the trade that brought Mark Messier to New York after he failed to show the 150 point form he displayed as a King. Nicholls scored 70 goals in the 1988-89 season.

Sandstrom went on to win the Cup in 1997 with the Red Wings after coming close in the early 1990s with Wayne Gretzky and the Kings. He also twice won the Viking Award for the Best Swedish Player in the NHL. If Sandstrom had avoided the injuries that spoiled so many of his seasons he might have approached or even eclipsed the 1000 point mark- a feat that only four Swedes have accomplished.

Sandstrom finished his NHL career in 1998-99 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim with 32 points in 58 games. He finished his hockey career in the SEL with Malmö through the 2001-02 season.

James Patrick

1280 GP | 149 goals | 490 assists

Patrick’s hockey career is pretty remarkable. He was the Rangers 9th overall pick of the 1981 Draft after being a standout at UND. Patrick played in New York for ten seasons during which time Patrick became an alternate captain and played a key role in helping to develop Brian Leetch.

After a decade of hockey on Broadway Patrick was traded to the Whalers after Mike Keenan made it known that he wanted Steve Larmer on his team. Neil Smith made it happen. Early in the 1993-94 season Patrick and Darren Turcotte were dealt to the Whalers for Larmer, Nick Kypreos, Barry Richter and a sixth round pick.

"There's no anger," Patrick said after the trade. "I understand the team didn't make the playoffs and he feels he's got a job to do and some of that means making changes. That's his decision. If he felt I couldn't help the team, that's okay."

The Whalers later moved Patrick that same season to the Flames where he played for four more seasons before joining the Sabres for the 1998-99 season at 35-years-old.

Patrick would go on to play six seasons in Buffalo.

The Rangers, of course, won the Cup in 1994 after dealing the blueliner. Patrick would play in the NHL until 40-years-old without ever lifting the greatest trophy in all of sports. He was also never named an NHL All-Star which is an oddity for a player who played nearly 1300 games.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to call Patrick’s career “very good” rather than great, but his longevity does set him apart from the masses. Patrick ranks 70th all-time in NHL games played. He sits just behind New York Rangers great Jean Ratelle in the history books in that category.

John Vanbiesbrouck

882 GP | 374 wins | .899 Sv%

Since the 1978 Draft the Rangers have selected five goaltenders who have gone on to win at least 100 games in their career. In that span Vanbiesbrouck's 374 career wins is second only to Henrik Lundqvist's 405 among goalies who started their careers as Rangers. Beezer ranks fifth all-time in goaltender wins with the New York Rangers franchise.

New York selected Vanbiesbrouck in the fourth round of the 1981 Draft. In his second full season with the team he won 31 games at 22-years old and was named an All-Star. After the season was over, he won the Vezina. Vanbiesbrouck would finish in the top six in Vezina voting four more times in his next seven seasons with New York.

Vanbiesbrouck was the bee’s knees until a young goaltender named Richter started challenging him for starts. With the Florida Panthers coming into existence in 1993 the Rangers could only protect one goalie in the expansion draft. Neil Smith chose the 26-year-old Richter over the 29-year-old Vanbiesbrouck.

The Rangers dealt him to the Canucks for future considerations (Doug Lidster). New York wanted to get something instead losing Beezer for nothing. Florida selected him in the expansion draft and the Canucks didn’t lose Kay Whitmore (Kirk McLean’s backup at the time).

"Normally when players are traded, they go to teams that want them," Vanbiesbrouck shared after the deal on June 20, 1993. "Right now, I'm going to a gray area. It's really something that's hard to deal with. I feel that I'm established enough and experienced enough to be the number one guy."

The Rangers went on to win the Cup that year. Vanbiesbrouck went on to prove he was still very much starting goaltender material. In 268 games with the Panthers Vanbiesbrouck posted a .912 save percentage and won 106 games.

In 1996 he carried the Panthers to the Cup Final before Florida was swept by the Avalanche. If Miami’s team won the Cup that year, Vanbiesbrouck would have taken home the Conn Smythe without contest.

Vanbiesbrouck has played in and won more games than any other American-born goaltender in NHL history. Ryan Miller is currently 16 wins behind the all-time great.

Honorable Mentions: Tony Granato, Reijo Ruotsalainen, Norm Maciver (undrafted)