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Wheeling and Dealing on Thin Ice
Michael Farber
April 06, 1998
Coach-G.M. Mike Milbury tried to beat the clock, revamp the Islanders and save his job
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April 06, 1998

Wheeling And Dealing On Thin Ice

Coach-G.M. Mike Milbury tried to beat the clock, revamp the Islanders and save his job

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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� 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.

"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 me 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 health."

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, gel 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 Island.

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