#1 Mark Messier leaves to sign with Vancouver
This was an unthinkable event and shook the team to its core. It was the summer of 1997 and Messier was the face of the franchise. Not only that, it came after the first year that Wayne Gretzky played with the Blueshirts. The two 36-year old superstars had teamed to take the Blueshirts to the Conference Finals where they lost in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Messier had played six seasons with the Rangers as their Captain. The “Messiah” brought the 194 Stanley Cup to Broadway, but he also led the team to the post-season five times with two trips to the Conference Finals. With Messier, they finished first in their Division twice and they won two Presidents’ Trophies,
It was a dispute between Messier and team president Neil Smith that resulted in his departure. As a free agent, Messier was courted by many teams while the Rangers made one desultory offer of $4 million for one year. Messier publicly said that he felt disrespected by the team and ended up signing a three year deal with the Canucks for $6 million a year with an option for two more years.
Is Messier’s departure the reason that the Rangers went on to miss the playoffs for the next seven season? He did return to play four more seasons after a disastrous tenure in Vancouver, but the damage had been done.
There’s no doubt that Smith knew what he had done when he let Messier leave. That’s why the Rangers signed Joe Sakic to an offer sheet that was later matched by the Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps if the team had been able to get Sakic, it would have been a much different story.
As it is, the Messier departure signaled the end of a highly competitive era for the Rangers.