Wheeling And Dealing On Thin Ice Coach-G.M. Mike Milbury tried to beat the clock, revamp the Islanders and save his job

April 06, 1998
April 06, 1998

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April 6, 1998

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Wheeling And Dealing On Thin Ice Coach-G.M. Mike Milbury tried to beat the clock, revamp the Islanders and save his job

Mike Milbury jumps up and grabs the hotel-room coffee pot even
before the coffee has percolated. Not much time left. Not for
properly perked coffee, not for the NHL trading period, which
now has 23 hours and eight minutes left--maybe not even for
Milbury himself. For the past 2 1/2 years Milbury has been
general manager of the New York Islanders, a team that will miss
the playoffs for the fourth straight season. He also has been
the team's coach since March 11, when he fired Rick Bowness.
Milbury took over because he wanted to see exactly what he had,
in the same way new owner Steven Gluckstern, who took control of
the team a month ago, undoubtedly is scrutinizing him. The
Islanders are 1-3-1 since Milbury moved behind the bench, the
mood as muddy as the stuff Milbury now pours into his cup.

This is an article from the April 6, 1998 issue Original Layout

"I don't need all the benefits of my Colgate education to know
the sands are dripping in the hourglass," Milbury says. "You sit
here, the names are ripping around, the adrenaline is flowing,
you hope you're making the team better. I could be changing our
future--and my own. If the deals don't turn out right, I'm
selling insurance."

In the 24 hours leading up to the noon (PST) trading deadline on
March 24, Milbury will sleep for only four hours and will leave
his corner suite at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver three
times: once to update three New York newspapermen on his talks,
once to buy the local papers and once, in a futile effort to get
Chinese food in a lobby restaurant, at 10:30 p.m.--when it is
1:30 a.m. in the East and Philadelphia Flyers general manager
Bob Clarke has long since turned off his cell phone. Milbury
will use three phones (a cell and two in his suite) to speak to
16 of the other 25 teams. On his desk are pads, pens, a little
black book with private numbers of the other general managers,
lists of NHL player salaries and a hardcover book Milbury has
been reading--Die Broke. This is a diary of 24 hours.

1:48 p.m. (PST)--Milbury calls the Chicago Blackhawks, who have
expressed mild interest in defenseman Rich Pilon in the few days
since teams exchanged lists of players they might be induced to
move. "We're still trying to figure out what to do with Pilon,"
Milbury says. "Test the market or lock him up." A leading
Western Conference team already has offered a third-round draft
pick for Pilon, all Milbury can expect to get for a soon-to-be
unrestricted free agent. Milbury adores Pilon, calling him "a
warrior, a guy who just wants to leave a swath of destruction on
the ice," but the Islanders are chary of paying $2 million a
year for a battle-worn 29-year-old who wouldn't be among the top
four defensemen on most premier teams. Milbury is reaching the
conclusion that Pilon is worth more signed, both to the
Islanders and to the other teams that want him.

1:55--Milbury calls Clarke, whose assistant, Paul Holmgren, has
been scouting Pilon. Milbury tosses out the names of Pilon
and--to mollify Philadelphia, which wants a young, quality
defenseman--Scott Lachance, in exchange for Janne Niinimaa, a
second-year player who projects as a cornerstone defenseman.
Milbury knows it looks lopsided in the Flyers' favor (later he
also will try to finagle a draft choice) but figures it this
way: Pilon probably would be gone after the season anyway, the
deal would save about $2.5 million in 1998-99 salaries and the
Islanders would have Niinimaa. "I wouldn't want Richie in the
same division [and have to play him] five times a year," Milbury
says. "I'd be worried about [Islanders star] Zigmund Palffy's

3:23--Milbury calls Dallas Stars G.M. Bob Gainey, who is
interested in fourth-liner Paul Kruse. The previous day Kruse
had complained about his ice time and asked out, telling one
Islanders official "to have Mike send me someplace warm." Gainey
is offering a middle-round pick, but New York has something
cooking with Buffalo that involves Kruse. Milbury asks Gordie
Clark, his director of player personnel, what he thinks of
Sabres winger Jason Dawe. "I like him," Clark says. "I think the
kid's a finisher." They check the NHL stats: Dawe has 19 goals.
Only 54 players have at least 20.

4:05--Milbury and de facto Vancouver Canucks G.M. Mike Keenan
talk for a minute. Milbury hangs up and says, "Strudwick for
Odjick, done." Milbury has picked up the Canucks' career
penalty-minutes leader, Gino Odjick, for 22-year-old Jason
Strudwick, who had risen to ninth on the defensive depth chart
but probably wasn't going to go much higher. "At least we're a
tougher team," Milbury says. "And I can do Kruse for the
middle-rounder today."

6:23--After Kim Basinger has thanked everyone she has ever
met--the Oscar telecast will be the background noise for the
real drama unfolding in suite 1987--Milbury calls Art Breeze,
Pilon's agent. Seventeen minutes later, Milbury thinks they have
a deal: $1.5 million, $1.7 million and $1.85 million for the
next three seasons.

7:26--Milbury leaves a message in Pilon's room: "Hey Rich, get
ahold of your lawyer. I'm trying to give you a ton of money."
Twenty-four minutes later an Islanders official tracks down
Pilon through the doorman at a Vancouver club. Milbury is
anxious to finalize the contract tonight because Marc Berman of
the New York Post has caught wind of the talks with Philadelphia
and a trade story might anger Pilon, who wants to stay on Long

8:51--Breeze is back to Milbury for the third time, looking for
an additional $50,000. "No more curveballs," Milbury says, his
voice rising. "I hate nibbling. I thought we were all done."
Breeze asks if Pilon is going to be traded. "I don't have
anything in the bank for Richie except $6 million," Milbury
says. Since Clarke has turned off his cell phone--the teams will
go 18 1/2 hours between discussions--this is true. Milbury
agrees to give Pilon the extra $50,000 in the last year of the

9:30--Milbury clinches the deal by guaranteeing Pilon a single
room on the road. Pilon snores. The numbers are 1.55, 1.7 and
1.9 million dollars--not bad for the Islanders, considering the
$2-million-plus contracts of comparable defensemen Jeff
Beukeboom and Luke Richardson and the $1.7 million Milbury had
penciled in for Pilon in a mock 1998-99 budget.

6:52 a.m. New Jersey Devils G.M. Lou Lamoriello has seen the
newspapers and is concerned that Pilon will wind up with rival
Philadelphia. Milbury suggests he might be willing to trade
Pilon for the Devils' Denis Pederson, a talented 22-year-old
center with bite to his game. Lamoriello says no thanks.

8:18--"Welcome to the millionaires' club, Rich Pilon," Milbury
booms into the phone. He invites the defenseman to his suite to
sign the contract. Pilon doesn't show up for almost two hours.

8:50--Milbury calls Buffalo Sabres G.M. Darcy Regier, a former
assistant whom he fired last season. "No," Milbury says, "no
awkwardness in dealing with him." Regier sends Dawe to the
Islanders for rookie defenseman Jason Holland and Kruse. Buffalo
isn't a warm place.

10:00--Milbury walks onto his balcony to place a call. Clark
tells a photographer, "Get him right as he's jumping."

10:07--Pilon arrives, accepting congratulations on his contract.
"Do you want to read this?" Milbury asks. "Nah," Pilon says,

10:29--Milbury calls his assistant, Joanne Holewa, in New York
to pull Mark Janssens' contract because the center, another
player unhappy with his minutes, has just been traded to the
Phoenix Coyotes for a ninth-round draft pick. "Joanne," he
jokes, "you're next."

10:37--Milbury phones San Jose Sharks G.M. Dean Lombardi. "I
know you're making this last-minute push for the playoffs,"
Milbury says, "and I want to help you." Shockingly, Milbury
mentions an Islanders core player. Lombardi promises he will
call back within a half hour. "You got to make the sales calls,"
Milbury declares. "Like Harry [Sinden, the Boston Bruins
president] says, 'Sometimes you have to go fishing.'" Lombardi
never calls back.

11:30--TSN, the Canadian sports network, announces that
Philadelphia has traded Niinimaa to Edmonton for defenseman Dan
McGillis. Milbury slumps in an easy chair. "I thought our offer
was better," he says with a wan smile.

12:05 p.m. The deadline is past. A record 19 deals have been
made on the final day. Thirty-eight players have changed teams.
Milbury didn't get Niinimaa or a defenseman he could expose in
the upcoming expansion draft, but he did clear out two
disgruntled players, land a potential first-line winger in Dawe,
pick up some muscle in Odjick and keep a roughneck defenseman.
Milbury's face is drawn, his eyes tired.

That night he will coach the Islanders in a game against the
Canucks. Odjick will fight Strudwick in the first period, Dawe
will not score, and Pilon will play 22 minutes and finish +2.
The Islanders will lose 4-3. The more things change, the more
they stay the same.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The Islanders landed a potential first-line winger in Dawe (below). [Jason Dawe in game]
"Welcome to the millionaires' club, Rich Pilon," Milbury booms
into the phone.