Bill Torrey’s best deal was one he refused to make

Denis Potvin, captain of the four New York Islanders teams that won the Stanley Cup from 1979-1982. (Kathy Willens/AP)

As we continue to marvel at the incredible success of the newest expansion team in the NHL, sadly we also say goodbye to the architect of another pretty special one.

Maybe it wasn’t special in its first year of existence like these Vegas Golden Knights, but greatness came soon enough.

The hockey world lost the great Bill Torrey on Thursday. He was 83.

Torrey, one of the really good guys in the game, was involved with several expansion franchises during his career, first with the Oakland Seals, making them better after taking over as general manager. Despite having wonky ownership, then a meddling owner, Charlie Finley, Torrey helped the Seals to improve quickly.

But his best work, which earned him the title "The Architect" began in 1972, when he became the first employee and general manager of the New York Islanders, who quickly became one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history.

Torrey, who never really played at a competitive level and had a business background, understood the game well. He knew you had to draft and develop to build a sustained winner.

His first couple of seasons with the Islanders were rough, very rough, but he kept with his plan adding key pieces such as coach Al Arbour, goaltender Billy Smith in the expansion draft and defenceman, and eventual captain, Denis Potvin in the entry draft, along with the likes of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies. All of them own Hockey Hall of Fame jackets.

Maybe one of Torrey’s greatest moves was a trade he didn’t make. The old master, Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock, who had fleeced a few GMs over the years for their top picks, tried to do the same with Torrey, offering five players off his roster for the pick that turned into Potvin.

Torrey held firm and he took to his grave the names of those five players, always refusing to give up the names.

By their third season, the Islanders were in the playoffs, knocking off the arch-rival Rangers in the first round, then becoming just the second team ever at the time to rebound from a 3-0 series deficit against Pittsburgh to win. In the third round they fell behind 3-0 to Philadelphia and came within a win of adding another chapter to the history books and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

Torrey, who never sought the spotlight, continued to add pieces and the Isles continued to improve year after year, but they also continued to stumble in the playoffs, failing to get over the hump until 1980.

That’s when Torrey found the missing piece and in the process made the days around the trade deadline meaningful.

Torrey believed the Islanders needed a second-line centre to take the pressure of Bryan Trottier. He tried to get Darryl Sittler away from Toronto, but Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard got in the way. Instead, Torrey acquired Butch Goring from the Los Angeles Kings.

It worked, big time.

That spring, the Islanders went on to win the first of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. Over five playoff years, the Islanders won an incredible 19 consecutive series, yes, 19 consecutive series, before finally losing to the Edmonton Oilers, just a few wins away from a fifth Cup.

 
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Indeed, the Islanders were one of the greatest dynasties of all time and remain the last team to even win three Cups in a row. Their four in a row is second only to the 1950’s Montreal Canadiens and remember, with no disrespect, the Habs won 10 consecutive series to win their five championships.

A handful of teams, Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 90s and the current Penguins, have won two in a row, but not even the 80s Oilers could string three together, though four in five years and five in seven years was pretty impressive. That the current Penguins, in a salary cap, 31-team league, have won two and still have a chance for three is very impressive, too. No surprise, their general manager Jimmy Rutherford has said he learned a lot watching Torrey over the years.

After Torrey moved from the Islanders, he became the president of the expansion Florida Panthers in 1993 and by their third season they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Another impressive build.

Remember, too, that with both the Islanders and Panthers, the expansion draft rules weren’t even remotely as good as what Vegas had to work with in terms of a talent pool, though the Knights’ story is impressive. But with the new draft, the Knights should have been good, just maybe not as good as they’ve so quickly become.

Anyway, Bill Torrey was a great hockey man, one of the best general managers ever, a master builder. And a really nice man.

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