After 35 years as a GM in the NHL, Glen Sather could have been excused for going out with a whimper, the way most veterans do. But let the record show that the last trade Sather made as a GM was a substantial one, which actually was far more fitting.
After all, there are few executives in NHL history that enjoyed the horse-trading business more than Sather did. It’s safe to say, too, that nobody in the history of the game made more transactions than Sather did. His last one sent Carl Hagelin and two draft picks to the Anaheim Ducks for Emerson Etem and a second-rounder. Just prior to that, Sather dealt goalie Cam Talbot and a pick to the Edmonton Oilers for second-, third-, and seventh-round picks.
Those deals will not define his legacy, but it’s interesting that both of them were done with an eye to the future, which really wasn’t Sather’s way of doing things. Particularly in his tenure with the New York Rangers, which ended Wednesday when he handed the reins to assistant GM Jeff Gorton, it was always about the here and the now. Sometimes it worked, others it failed miserably.
But it was almost always interesting. Sather started coaching the Oilers in 1976-77 when he was a player-coach and was named GM of the team in time for the 1980-81 season. That gave him 35 years in the business, tying him for the longest run as a GM in NHL history with Jack Adams, the former Detroit Red Wings GM. At 33 years and counting, David Poile may surpass both of them, but it’s a pretty good bet he’ll never equal Sather’s five Stanley Cups, largely because Sam Pollock, with nine, and Conn Smythe and Adams, with seven each, are the only men to win the Stanley Cup as GMs more than Sather did.
And Sather did it in an era where it was more difficult to win than did any of his contemporaries. Adams and Smythe won their Cups guiding Original 6 teams, while Pollock won his during the post-expansion era, with the league at 17 teams by the time Pollock won his last Cup in 1979.
Sather didn’t just win, he did it with an enormous amount of elan. In Edmonton, he was instrumental in building the most dominant offensive dynasties the league has ever seen, or probably will ever see. He helped change the way the game was played, for the better, and provided fans with some of the most exciting hockey the NHL has ever seen. By winning so often, he forced the rest of the league to try to keep pace.
By the time he left the Oilers, they were falling upon hard times and the thinking was that with a big-budget team like the Rangers, the Stanley Cups he won in Edmonton would follow him. But that never happened, in large part because Sather seemed to forget about his roots, scooping up one expensive player after another at the expense of drafting and developing young players. Whether it was Eric Lindros or Pavel Bure or Brendan Shanahan or Jaromir Jagr or Rick Nash, it seemed as though the Rangers relied on big-name, big-money talent the way most of us use oxygen. That tendency certainly waned in recent years and the Rangers started to win again.
Cap concerns and a couple of trades to dump salary aside, Sather actually leaves the Rangers in pretty good shape, which is more than he can say for the way he left the Oilers. The core of a team that won five playoff series over the past two years, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final, remains intact and the Rangers are reasonably well stocked for the future. In doing so, Sather went from having a Hall-of-Fame career to a Hall-of-Shame career before redeeming himself. His move to turn a terrible signing in Scott Gomez into a brilliant trade for Ryan McDonagh is a perfect example. Sather got himself into jams, but was pretty adept at getting out of them, too.
There are some concerns in New York for Gorton to be sure. Two of their top forwards in Hagelin and Martin St-Louis are gone, as is their top prospect in Anthony Duclair. And the Rangers do not have a single Stanley Cup to show for the Glen Sather era. But it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. One thing you can say about Sather is that he never sat back idly and waited for things to happen.
Sather plans to stay on as team president, but the NHL just got a little less exciting. It certainly marks the end of an era for the league. With Lou Lamoriello giving way to Ray Shero in New Jersey, we have two Hall-of-Fame executives stepping down in the same off-season. How often do you see that happening?