The trade deadline has traditionally been a time when the Rangers add to their roster in an attempt to make a push. In between adding Pavel Bure in 2002 and Eric Staal in 2016, the Rangers added Anson Carter, Sandis Ozolinsh Nik Antropov, Ryan Clowe, Martin St. Louis and Keith Yandle in the days surrounding the trade deadline. Last year represented a bit of a shift in pace, seeing the trades of Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden. That was a mere sprinkle compared to the monsoon of fifteen years ago, when the Rangers traded away nine players from their NHL roster in a span of a week.
The 2003-04 season opened with mixed expectations. The previous season opened with big hopes, after the big free agent splashes of Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis. Those expectations fizzled quickly, but there was some layer of optimism still there that hadn’t yet been completely snuffed out upon the beginning of the following season.
On January 24, 2004, the Rangers traded Anson Carter to Washington for Jaromir Jagr, with the Capitals agreeing to absorb $20 million of the $44 million remaining on Jagr’s contract. This ended a long standoff between the Rangers and the Caps which reportedly almost came to a trade at the 2003 entry draft. At the time of the Jagr acquisition the Rangers were in 10th in the East, just two points out of a playoff spot–the playoffs being something they hadn’t seen since the 1996-97 season.
A month after the trade, it was becoming clear that the move was not going to push them back into the playoffs. On February 25th, the Rangers sat 14 points out of a playoff spot and were trending downward. Because the success wasn’t coming and also because he had a lot work to do in his role as general manager in the coming weeks, it was decided Glen Sather would step down as head coach, leaving the reigns to assistant Tom Renney (NY Post). Long-time member of the Rangers front-office, Renney was tagged as Sather’s lead assistant the previous summer. In a league that had largely already figured out the ideal was to have two individuals for the two roles of coach and GM, the Rangers were entering the season with one man in the dual-role so they needed a lead assistant they could rely on. The job went to Renney after speaking to Herb Brooks and Peter Laviolette about taking on the role (NY Post).
With Sather able to focus solely on his front office role, the first dominoes fell when the Rangers traded Alex Kovalev to Montreal late on March 2nd and Petr Nedved to Edmonton early on March 3rd. Kovalev returned 21-year old winger Jozef Balej and a 2004 2nd round pick. The Rangers reportedly had the option to take back Tomas Plekanec, Ron Hainsey or Marcel Hossa in the trade, but opted for Balej instead. Balej had 58 points in 55 AHL games at the time of the trade. He finished up the season with the Rangers, tallying a goal and 5 assists in 13 games as Mark Messier’s regular winger (he had the primary assist on Messier’s final goal). Balej’s progress stagnated from that point, however, as he dropped to 42 points in 69 games for the Wolfpack the following season and was traded for the shot-in-the-darkiest of all shot-in-the-darks in Fedor Fedorov after Balej failed to take hold of a roster spot seemingly his before the 2005-06 season. Nedved was traded along with backup goalie Jussi Markkanen for Dwight Helminen, Steve Valiquette and a 2004 2nd round pick. Helminen, billed as a future NHL defensive forward, forced some attention onto himself when he put up 33 goals and 23 assists in 77 games in his second AHL season in 2005-06. That was the peak for Helminen in the Rangers’ organization. He ended up playing 27 NHL games for the Sharks and Hurricanes. Valiquette, a 26 year old goalie with 7 NHL games at the time of the trade, put up an impeccable season with the Wolfpack during the 2004-05 lockout season (19-11-1, 0.935 SV%, 1.77 GAA, 7 SO), and left for a season in the KHL before returning to the Rangers’ organization to play as the backup to Lundqvist.
Kovalev and Nedved were two players in their second stints as Rangers who had similarly disappointing 2003-04 seasons. Nedved’s second stint with the Rangers started with the end of Kovalev’s first, as the two were traded for each other in a five player deal in November 1998. Kovalev’s second tour with the Rangers started just over a year before his eventual trade to Montreal, in what was essentially a sale for the financially-troubled Penguins. The Rangers received Kovalev, along with Dan LaCouture, Janne Laukkanen and Mike Wilson (the latter two being AHL players owed a combined $3.425 million) for Mikael Samuelsson, Rico Fata, Joel Bouchard, Richard Lintner and $4 million less a penny (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The players the Penguins received ranged from serviceable to passable, but it’s clear the chief motivation of the trade was financial. Along with late summer free agent signing and former Nedved linemate Jan Hlavac, Kovalev and Nedved formed a line that looked like it was about to take over the league in training camp and preseason (NY Daily News). That didn’t materialize. At the time of their trades, Kovalev had 13 goals and 29 assists in 66 games and Nedved had 14 goals and 17 assists in 65. For both players, it was a 35% drop in points per game from the previous season. Both enjoyed succcess with their new teams, though, as Nedved had 15 points in 16 games during an Oilers run at the playoffs that fell just short, and Kovalev put up 10 points in 11 playoff games for the Habs after a rough finish to his regular season.
At the time of the Nedved trade, Larry Brooks reported that a trade of Brian Leetch to the Maple Leafs was imminent. Brooks listed the Leafs, Bruins, Stars, Canucks, Flyers and Devils as the teams that were interested in Leetch. The discussions with the Devils reportedly ended when Sather made it known that Zach Parise needed to be a part of such a deal (NY Post). Brooks reported the Rangers asked for Patrice Bergeron from the Bruins, but the B’s eventually traded for Sergei Gonchar from the Capitals. With the Leafs’ other target in Gonchar off the board (Globe and Mail), they moved quickly to acquire Leetch. The Rangers received defenseman Maxim Kondratiev, center Jarkko Immonen, a 1st round pick in 2004 and a 2nd round pick in 2005 for Leetch and a conditional fourth round pick. Brooks reported the Rangers didn’t want Leafs’ consensus top prospect Carlo Colaiacovo, but rather preferred Kondratiev. The remark seems like posturing coming down from the organization, as he reported earlier in the day that the Rangers wanted Colaiacovo but were turned down.
The trade was a tough one for many to stomach, especially Leetch himself. Because of the trade, Leetch would return to the playoffs after a seven season absence, but the move was not something he welcomed, as he was clear he wanted to stay in Ranger blue (NY Times). Years later, Glen Sather said, “I don’t know whether I’d do it again, but at that time it was the only thing I could do.” Leetch’s Ranger career came to a close with him in second place on the all-time Rangers scoring list with 921 points. He had won the Calder trophy, the Conn Smythe trophy and the Norris trophy twice.
Maxim Kondratiev would play 29 erratic games for the Rangers in 2005-06 before being traded to the Ducks for Petr Sykora. Sykora filled the 2nd line right-wing slot that was a serious weakness all season after Jozef Balej failed to grab hold of it. Sykora registered 16 goals and 15 assists in 40 games with the Rangers. Jarkko Immonen will always be a bit of a wonder for me. Scoring 129 points in 141 games in two AHL seasons, Immonen only got 20 NHL games in (3 goals, 5 assists) before departing to continue his career overseas. A problem with Immonen was that he struggled to stand out and make his presence felt at the NHL level. In his brief NHL career, he was an easy player to forget about unless you were specifically looking for him. I wonder if he could have been another bland yet effective player had he been given more of a leash at the NHL level.
With the gut punch that was the Leetch trade behind them, the Rangers abstained from trading off any more players for the next two days. They were back open for business on March 6th, trading Chris Simon and a 2004 7th round pick for 24 year old center Blair Betts, University of Maine winger Greg Moore, and backup goalie Jamie McLennan. Blair Betts would go on to play for the 2005-06 Rangers that made it’s way back to the playoffs after an extended time away. Betts was the second Ranger to score a playoff goal since the 1996-97 season. He played for three other Ranger playoff teams, being among the top 4 in short-handed ice-time in each of his four seasons with the club. After 4 games with the Rangers in 2003-04, Jamie McLennan signed with the Florida Panthers after the lock-out. Greg Moore would play three seasons with the Hartford Wolfpack after his collegiate career was complete. His 26 goal, 40 assist 2007-08 season (72 games) earned him a 6 game showing with the Rangers.
The Rangers signed Simon to a one-year, $1.5 million contract in the summer of 2003. Simon’s value was at a low point when he signed with the Rangers, as a shoulder injury had hampered his ability to fight, and (less notably) engage in other on-ice activities. The Rangers got a more healthy version of Simon than the Blackhawks had before them. Simon fought 15 times in 65 games with the Rangers. He also formed a reliable pair with Matthew Barnaby, the two usually being centered by one of Mark Messier or Eric Lindros. Simon put up 14 goals and 9 assists for the Rangers, and would later score 5 goals during the Flames’ trip to the Finals. Despite being a serviceable player for them, Simon and the Rangers will most notably be linked together because of Simon’s slash to Ryan Hollweg’s face in 2007.
Simon’s frequent linemate, Matthew Barnaby–a fan favorite who seemed to legitimately enjoy his time with the team–was traded to Colorado on March 8th along with a 3rd round pick for an early 2nd round pick, enforcer Chris McAllister and prospect David Liffiton. McAllister was a body that helped the Rangers fill out their roster for the rest of their season, and what would be the conclusion of McAllister’s NHL career. The scrappy David Liffiton would eventually fill in for the Rangers for 3 games in 2005-06 and 2006-07 when they were more than a few injuries deep on the blueline.
In what was a rare event, Barnaby reportedly had a representative call the Islanders, who scouted him heavily, to tell them not to bother trading for him.
On the same day, one day before the deadline, the Rangers traded defenseman Vladimir Malakhov to the Flyers for prospect Rick Kozak and a 2nd round pick. Malakhov signed a four-year contract with the Rangers in the summer of 2000 for a total of $14 million. In 211 games with the Rangers, often playing on the right of Brian Leetch or the left of Boris Mironov, Malakhov totaled 12 goals and 53 assists. Rick Kozak put up impressive penalty minute totals wherever he played, but only played 5 career AHL games and never established himself as a legitimate NHL prospect.
The day of the trade deadline, the Rangers moved out another defenseman they acquired through free agency by moving Greg de Vries to Ottawa for Karel Rachunek and Alexandre Giroux. The Rangers had signed de Vries just the summer before for a commitment of four years and $13 million. The Rangers rid themselves of the final three years of the commitment with the trade. After failing to impress in his playoff run for the Senators, de Vries was shipped out after the 2004-05 lockout along with Marian Hossa for Dany Heatley to Atlanta, where he would finish out the contract. The night before the deal, Larry Brooks suggested some names that the Rangers might take from the parties interested in the veteran defensemen: including Patrick Sharp, Matt Stajan, John Erskine and Mike Cammalleri. As sometimes happens, the eventual return had less glamor than some of the options Brooks presented.
Rachunek finished the 2003-04 season picking up 1 goals and 3 assists in 12 games with the Rangers. He elected to play the next two seasons (one lockout, one not) overseas instead with the club who traded for him, before returning for the 2006-07 season, tallying 6 goals and 20 assists in 66 games before the Rangers decided not to tender him a qualifying offer. Rachunek died September 7, 2011 in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash.
Alexandre Giroux was a prominent offensive contributor for the Wolfpack for two full seasons after the 2003-04 season. He played one game for the Rangers in 2005-06.
The one trade chip that didn’t fall until the moments before the deadline was Martin Rucinsky. Rucinsky was a late summer signing, inking his deal on August 28th along with Jan Hlavac, giving the Rangers some much needed left-wing depth. Unlike Hlavac, Rucinsky proved to be good value at $1.65 million. Rucinsky’s 42 points (13 goals and 29 assists) was one point shy of Mark Messier for 2nd on the team at season’s end. Given his salary and production, there were many suitors for Rucinsky’s services. Brooks listed Vancouver, St. Louis, San Jose, Detroit and Atlanta as potential options. In the end, the Canucks landed the winger for Martin Grenier and R.J. Umberger.
Grenier, a bruising defenseman, never really challenged for the Rangers roster. He played 111 games for Hartford through the 2005-06 season, tallying 21 points and 519 penalty minutes in that time. R.J. Umberger was a unique type of trade asset. In a contract dispute with Canucks’ GM Brian Burke three years out of his draft year, Umberger’s exclusive rights were to expire within months, with a compensatory 2nd round pick being due should the window expire without a contract for the player. The Rangers did their due diligence on Umberger. The center skated with the Wolfpack, but in the end Umberger became an unrestricted free agent on June 2nd and signed with the Flyers for the rookie maximum.
With the lack of success of the 2003-04 team, it would be surprising to learn that a number of the players they traded away would desire to return in free agency. But that sentiment was there for Chris Simon, Petr Nedved and especially Matthew Barnaby and Martin Rucinsky. Barnaby would eventually secure a 3-year commitment with the Blackhawks. Rucinsky, whom Brooks reported the Rangers would “definitely attempt to sign again as a free agent”, would be the only one of the group who re-upped with the Rangers after the 2004-05 lockout, marking his third stint with the team. He would go on to put up 16 goals and 39 assists in 52 games for the Rangers’ 2005-06 team.
The last-minute trade with Vancouver meant the Rangers made deals with all six Canadian teams in a one week period leading up to the deadline.
The Rangers entered the final day of the season with a chance at finishing 5th (meaning a small chance at the Ovechkin lottery) or 6th from the bottom of the league. A win on a Bobby Holik overtime goal ensured they would finish in the sixth slot. In an especially weak 2004 draft class in which the Rangers loaded up on picks from this sell-off, they exited the first round with Al Montoya and Lauri Korpikoski, but did manage to find Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan in later rounds.
A revival was in the cards for the Rangers following the sell-off, but it wasn’t largely due to the spoils of the sell-off itself. It was largely due to the emergence of 2000 7th rounder Henrik Lundqvist and the revitalization of Jaromir Jagr. Lundqvist would be a Vezina trophy candidate and Jagr a Hart trophy candidate (setting Rangers records in goals and points) in the Rangers’ return to the playoffs in 2005-06. Following seven seasons out of the playoffs, the Rangers went on to make the playoffs in ten of the next eleven seasons, playing in 22 playoff series over that span (only Pittsburgh had played in more).