Impeaching Neil Smith


This is a tough time for presidents. nn nn nn nn nnnEvery goal Pavel Bure scores for the Florida Panthers— and he tallied eight in his first six games— is another indictment against Rangers president­general manager Neil Smith. To Smith’s detractors, Bure is more than the one who got away, he’s the latest evidence of the high crimes and misdemeanors committed against that partisan segment of Rangers fans— many under 30 years old— who have suffered mightily though all of four Stanley Cup­less campaigns with no end to the drought in sight.

Their calls for Smith’s impeachment and removal have heated up the phone lines at that reservoir of hockey wisdom, WFAN. Like the case against another president, there are aspects of Smith’s performance that should be questioned, and, in deconstructing his performance, there is some ambiguity. But the truth is, not only does the evidence not rise to a level that would necessitate change, it also shows that Smith is probably the right guy to fix what’s wrong.

Should Smith get the ax, it wouldn’t be the first time the Rangers dumped the best man for the job. “They never should have fired [former GM] Craig Patrick in ’86,” says Ira Gitler, the renowned jazz critic and occasional hockey author, who, at 70 years old, has probably seen more Ranger games than just about anyone alive. “But he was a quiet guy and the Post writers, especially, didn’t like that. They called him ‘Vague Craig’ and, when he didn’t make enough trades, they called him ‘Craig (Stand) Patrick.’ ” So the Garden fired him and installed the flamboyant, popular Phil Esposito, who was a disaster. Patrick would go on to lead the Penguins to two Stanley Cups, and he’s kept them competitive even though the team is now bankrupt. “Those same writers later called him the best GM in hockey,” says Gitler.

Today’s Rangers, in a four-way battle for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, won’t become a power this season, but they’re better than last year. Smith has rebuilt the defense corps and tried to atone for his trade of all-star Mattias Nordstrom by importing experienced defenders Petr Popovic, Mathieu Schneider, and Chris Tamer. His November acquisition of 23-year-old Stan Neckar, who has the potential to become a top Rangers blueliner, provides depth down the road.

The real problems are up front. Give them a power play and the Rangers forwards function better than most (they currently rank third in the NHL). However, until the rules change to permanently allow them an extra skater, they are just too slow, old, and inconsistent at even strength— easy prey for a solid defensive opponent. To the charge of dealing away speedy young scorers, Smith is guilty. But Darren Turcotte, Doug Weight, and Tony Amonte yielded Steve Larmer, Esa Tikkanen, Stephane Matteau, and Brian Noonan— and without them, the drought would now be at 59 years and counting.

His swap of Alex Kovalev for Peter Nedved might yield better results if Nedved didn’t have to skate against the opposition’s top center each night. Wayne Gretzky and Marc Savard are too small to check first-line centers. Adam Graves might have done that job, but because the Rangers lack depth on the wings, Graves returned to the left side. As Gretzky’s linemate, he leads the team in goals. The remaining wings have had their moments, but the truest measure of the distance between the Rangers and the Stanley Cup is embodied by Mike Knuble. A fourth liner with the champion Red Wings last season, Knuble plays on Nedved’s first line in New York.

Free agency caused Smith his biggest woe— allowing Mark Messier to walk. On the ice, Mess had faded and his personality ruled the dressing room, perhaps inhibiting others from blossoming. But he gave the team its identity and that has not been replaced. Smith retained Mike Richter in a free-agent showdown last summer, and the goalie is probably the team’s MVP. Captain Brian Leetch is headed for free agency, as are Graves and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. Before the March trade deadline, Smith will probably move at least one of them for a scoring winger (Mark Recchi, Theo Fleury, and Brendan Shanahan are on the grapevine) or more youngsters. A deadline deal snared Todd Harvey last year, and anyone complaining about that move hasn’t been paying attention.

Drafts require patience (not an attribute found in Smith’s accusers), but it’s a patience that can be rewarded. It’s no coincidence that Detroit and New Jersey, perhaps the decade’s strongest franchises, have also retained the most drafted players.

And who do you think built the Red Wings? Prior to his Rangers gig, Smith handled scouting for Detroit and his picks were very impressive: In ’83 alone, he tabbed Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert, Petr Klima, Joe Kocur, and Stu Grimson; the next year, bona fide NHLers Doug Houda and Shawn Burr; Brent Fedyk and Randy McKay after that; Joe Murphy and Adam Graves in ’86; Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov in ’89; Keith Primeau and Slava Kozlov in ’90. The man has shown he knows young talent— even the trade for Harvey, a forgotten former first-round pick by Dallas, demonstrates that knowledge. If youth is the direction the Rangers are taking, why replace Smith?

Yes, his Rangers picks have been less stellar, but he’s been drafting here with fewer high choices. Still, Smith grabbed Kovalev, Niklas Sundstrom, goalie Dan Cloutier, and, last year, Manny Malhotra.

The last three were the price sought for Bure. There are rumblings that Vancouver might have taken less (in the end, they did from Florida), but amid the spin doctoring in the trade’s aftermath, that can’t be proven. However, if you’re trying to rebuild, if you’re not truly chasing the Cup, why sacrifice the team’s future for one great player? Plus, Bure’s net-crashing style has caused him numerous injuries, including a ’95 knee reconstruction. Another serious injury to Bure (Hey, whaddya know— he’s hurt right now) and where would the Rangers be?

It’s hard to swallow, of course, that Bure got more goals in two weeks than Malhotra has for the season. But Malhotra is 18 and the kind of player who one day might give the Rangers their identity— if not the next Messier, maybe their Ron Francis or Yzerman. With his size, strength, intelligence, and skill, he’s projected as a minimum 30-goal power forward with good hands and defensive instincts. Plus he brings an intangible type of leadership. “He’s really a great kid,” says TV analyst John Davidson.

“Who would you replace Neil with?” Gitler wonders. “I value Neil for bringing the Cup here. But I also respect his hockey smarts, and I think he’s the man to bring them back. Not every trade he’s made has worked, but it’s not fair to criticize him for the trades that brought the Cup. He’s shown a dedication to rebuilding the team this year, and I think you’ve got to go with him and let him do it. If you want to replace him, give me the name of someone who is going to do better.”

The defense rests.