Hi, my name is Walt MacPeek and Carp asked me to limber up these over-65 year-old fingers and do a guest blog and so here goes …
I covered the Rangers for the Newark Star-Ledger from 1969-70 through 1994-95 and then yielded to some inner ear problems and tumbled off into the sunset to coach a little college softball and teach some English classes at the college level. I haven’t been on airplane since 1995 and I’ve seen only three games in person since then, even though the NHL gave me a lifetime pass when I retired. I guess seeing about 100 games a year in person for that long is enough for one lifetime but I still watch about six or seven games a week on TV and I still enjoy the game.
If you want to stump your friends, even the most dedicated Ranger fans then ask them who led the Rangers in scoring in their championship season of 1993-94.
The player who led the Rangers in regular season scoring that year may well be the most under-rated and under-appreciated player in the history of the franchise.
And on Aug. 31, 1995, in one of the most damaging transactions in Ranger history, GM Neil Smith traded this player, Sergei Zubov, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two players almost at the end of their careers, winger Luc Robitaille and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson.
At the time, Ranger officials claimed that Zubov had some vague, off-ice problems, didn’t play through injuries and had some other minor complaints but the deal never made sense on any level. Samuelsson played four undistinguished seasons for the Rangers before being dealt to Detroit for a pair of draft choices (neither of whom ever played an NHL game). Robitaille played two seasons for the Rangers, never reaching 25 goals in either season, and was dealt to the LA Kings in August of 1997 for Kevin Stevens, who scored only 40 goals over 199 games with the Rangers and struggle with personal problems of his own.
Meanwhile, Zubov went on to put up All-Star numbers (he played in three All-Star games) as a valuable first pairing defenseman and special teams star. In a season with Pittsburgh and eleven with Dallas, he collected 118 goals and 462 assists while the Rangers manned the blue line with questionable talents such as Sylvain Lefebvre, Richard Pilon, Stephane Quintal, Aleksander Karpovtsev, Jeff Finley, Eric Cairns, Boris Mironov, Chris Tamer, Dale Purinton, Dave Karpa, Peter Popovic and, well, you get the idea.
Just for the record, Zubov collected 12 goals and 77 assists for 89 points to lead the Rangers in regular season scoring for the 1993-94 regular season. Messier was second with 84 points and then came Graves and Leetch with 79 apiece. Something I’ve always wondered about and never had the tenacity to look up. I wonder, if in the history of the NHL, any other Stanley Cup championship team ever had one defenseman lead the team in regular season scoring (Zubov) and another defenseman (Leetch) lead the team in playoff scoring. I’m guessing it has never happened before or since.
For some reason, Ranger fans and officials refuse to rank the Zubov blunder up there with Rick Middleton for Ken Hodge or drafting Hugh Jessiman instead of Zach Parise but, in my opinion, it had a similarly disastrous and long-term impact on the team over a long period of time. Until recently, the Rangers compounded this error by making repeated draft day mistakes on defensemen and finally hit rock bottom in 2003-2004 when they drafted only one defenseman (Purinton, and he was awful!) who played as many as 40 games … and he was a low minutes, No. 3 pairing kind of player.
I’ll close with two memories of Zubov’s short stay as a Ranger.
The first occurred in September of 1992 when head coach Roger Neilson (my favorite of all the head coaches I covered) paused thoughtfully before answering a question following his first glimpse of the rookie from Russia. “The kid takes chances but he has a lot of talent,” Neilson observed. “He probably has enough talent — and enough nerve — to keep BOTH teams in the game.”
And then there was Mike Keenan (my least favorite head coach over my 25 years), who was being interviewed by Sal “Red Light” Messina in the next booth over from the newspaper pressbox area during the pre-season of 1993-94. I’ve never seen this written but it happened. He told Messina that Zubov was “erratic” and that he couldn’t play for him and that he would be sent to the minors very soon and “probably wouldn’t be back.”
What happened next was strange and extremely significant if you consider how important Zubov was to the Stanley Cup run. Keenan became even more upset with veteran defenseman James Patrick than he was with Zubov and so No. 21’s planned demotion was postponed (Patrick was traded to Hartford in early November in a deal forced by Keenan). Suddenly, there was an injury or two, the team was thin on defense and so the kid from Russia stayed … and went on to lead the team in scoring.
I consider Brian Leetch the greatest Ranger I ever covered and Messier was a tremendous addition and deserves all the praise he receives for being a leader and a catalyst but it always bothers me than Zubov’s role is minimized by many. The Rangers could send Leetch out on one shift and Zubov out on the next shift and no other team in the NHL could match that kind of a consistent threat from the defense.
Zubov was a terrific passer and a deft puck handler with a rare blend of confidence and nerve. I think he belongs in the NHL Hall of Fame but I wouldn’t be shocked if he doesn’t get there. Under-rating Sergei Zubov is a very common error.