History indicates Rangers’ roster needs may not make for an NHL trade deadline win

History indicates Rangers’ roster needs may not make for an NHL trade deadline win

The Rangers were rolling along in first place but were in need of added toughness as the trade deadline approached for GM Neil Smith’s team.

This was not 1994. It was 1991, three seasons earlier, with Roger Neilson in his second year behind the bench guiding a club featuring Mike Gartner, Darren Turcotte, Tony Amonte, Bernie Nicholls, Ray Sheppard, John Ogrodnick, James Patrick and Brian Leetch. A young Tie Domi had been acquired earlier in the season.

The Blueshirts, who had finished in first place a year earlier for the first time since 1942, held a nine-point lead over the Penguins as the deadline loomed off a run in which the club had gone 7-3-3. They were 34-22-12 the day of the deadline.

Joey Kocur, then 26 and the most feared pugilist in the league, was made available by the Red Wings, for whom Smith had been the chief scout before coming to New York. On March 5, the Blueshirts traded Kevin Miller, Jim Cummins and Denis Vial to Detroit for Kocur and defenseman Per Djoos.

The Blueshirts went into an immediate tailspin, losing eight straight games and won two of their final 12 games (2-9-1) to slide into second place at 36-31-13, three points behind the Penguins. They then were taken out in the first round by Washington in six games.

Joey Kocur’s arrival was stunted by suspension and rumors of locker room chemistry issues. Getty Images

The trade for Kocur has long been cited as one in which the deal might have looked good on paper but did not translate in the room. A narrative has developed that the deal upended team chemistry. It has served as kind of a cautionary tale passed on from generation to generation.

Chris Drury, the current Rangers GM, might even be aware of this as his first-place club comes up to this season’s March 8 deadline with only two more games in which to evaluate his own personnel following Wednesday’s match at the Garden against Columbus.

Smith, however, disputed the narrative when I caught up with the only living Rangers general manager to hoist the Cup. He said the crash was not due to a chemistry issue and instead suggested it might have had something to do with the fact that Kocur was suspended for a total of seven of the 12 games that followed the deadline for two separate incidents.

Neil Smith disputes the notion the Kocur trade failed due to chemistry issues. Getty Images

“It obviously didn’t work that year, but I’m never going to say that was a bad trade when Joey was on our Cup team,” Smith said by phone on Wednesday morning. “But beyond that, I never really understood how the whole ‘chemistry’ thing developed.

“Kevin Miller was a good player but it’s not as if I ripped an integral player out of our lineup and our room.”

Miller, then 25, was the middle brother of the NHL clan that included older sibling Kelly and younger brother Kip. He had recorded 44 points (17-27) in 63 games before he was dealt to Detroit.

Kelly Miller, of course, also played for the Rangers and was included in one of the worst trades in franchise history, sent to Washington with Mike Ridley and Bob Crawford for Bobby Carpenter on New Year’s Day 1987 by Phil Esposito in his first year as GM.

“Our third game with Joey, there was an incident in Chicago where he hit Eddie Belfour and was suspended for four games, so he was gone almost immediately,” Smith said. “We had the hearing with [league VP] Brian O’Neil and I remember this sense that Joey was being suspended just because he was Joey Kocur. He said, ‘So it’s No. 26 again?’ ”

Chris Drury will have to weigh the Rangers’ trade deadline needs vs. what may come with filling them. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Soon after that, Kocur picked up an automatic three-game suspension after being assessed his fourth stick-related major penalty of the season in spearing Pittsburgh’s Ulf Samuelsson in the game in which the Blueshirts finally fell out of first place on March 17.

Kocur only played five games for the Blueshirts. He was suspended for the first game of the playoffs. He was not very good. The chemistry thing was wildly overrated.