Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best New York Rangers free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
THE ALL-TIME BEST NEW YORK RANGERS FREE AGENT SIGNING
1991 – Adam Graves: Three Years, $1.325 Million
Throughout the New York Rangers storied history, they have retired eight numbers, four of them coming from the 1993-1994 Stanley Cup team that ended a 54-year Stanley Cup Drought. However, the team was not built overnight. The process began by drafting Mike Richter and Brian Leetch in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Then to acquiring Mark Messier in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. And finally, to the best Rangers signing of all time in Adam Graves.
Graves began his hockey career in 1985 when he signed to play in the OHL for the Windsor Spitfires. Graves had a solid rookie season with 27 goals and 64 points in 62 games for Windsor. This solid outing rewarded him with being the 22nd overall pick in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft to the Detroit Red Wings. His success would not stop there, as Graves would go on to have another breakout year with 45 goals and 100 points in 66 games. This sparked the interest of the Red Wings, who called him up to play in a short five-game series in the AHL. In his time with the Adirondack Red Wings they would lose the series 4-1 to the Sherbrooke Canadiens.
In the 1987-1988 season, the Red Wings finally decided Graves needed his chance. While Graves did play the majority of the season in the OHL, Detroit gave him nine games to prove himself in the NHL. Sadly, Graves was only able to account for a single assist.
The next season was a huge step in his career, and would give him a good chance to showcase his talent at the professional level. He played in both the AHL and NHL and was given more of a chance to prove his worth to the team. The young forward was given 56 games, plus five additional playoff games, to prove his NHL worth. This stint of games at the professional level resulted in seven goals and 12 points in the NHL, with 10 goals and 21 points in the AHL. The 1988-1989 season would be the last time in Graves’ career that he would switch leagues mid-season.
1989-90 and the Big Trade
The 1989-1990 season began very similar to the last few seasons Graves had played in the NHL. The Red Wings were struggling early on, going 4-6-3 and giving up 57 goals in this stretch. On November 2nd however, Graves would find himself with a new home.
In a blockbuster trade with the Edmonton Oilers, Graves would be sent up north to The Great White North, along with Petr Klima, Joe Murphy, and Jeff Sharples. The Red Wings would receive Kevin McClelland, Jimmy Carson, and a fifth-round draft pick in return. Graves’ season would take a turn for the better, as the Oilers would go 34-23-10 on the way to a Stanley Cup victory. Graves played an important role in this Cup run with five goals and 11 points in 22 playoff games.
Graves would go on to play one more season in Edmonton before becoming a restricted free agent. He was coming off two consecutive 20-point seasons and two long playoff spurts, including his 1990 Stanley Cup win and a 1991 Campbell Conference Final loss. The Rangers decided to offer him a three-year, $1.325 million contract. Edmonton would not match the offer and were awarded Troy Mallette.
This did not sit well with the Garden faithful, as Mallette was a fan-favorite who was not afraid to stand up for his teammates. While the fans did not enjoy the trade, Rangers GM Neil Smith knew it was a great deal, as he was the Red Wings head scout while Graves played in Windsor. This allowed him to see Graves during his first few years on the professional hockey radar, and gave him a good idea of where he could fit in with the organization going forward.
While Rangers fans may have been up in arms at the time of the signing, they were silenced as they watched Mallette become a shell of his former self and Graves become one of the best wingers to ever play for the Rangers. This would be the beginning of a long, 10-season stretch that would rewrite Ranger’s history.
The first season Graves put on a Rangers jersey was an overall success. The Rangers were able to acquire Messier and Jeff Beukeboom from Edmonton only a month after signing Graves. This would lead the Rangers to their first President’s Trophy since 1941. Graves was also able to break out with 26 goals and 59 points in 80 games. However, the success did not last forever and the Rangers were eliminated in the divisional round in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the Rangers may have experienced a “sophomore slump,” Graves did not. The Rangers missed the playoffs but Graves was able to add on to his impressive first year with 36 goals and 65 points. While things could not seem to get better for Graves, they certainly would in 1994.
The 1994 Stanley Cup Triumph
The 1993-1994 season was almost like a fairy tale to Ranger’s fans. It began with yet another President’s Trophy to cap off a great regular season. The Rangers then eliminated their hated rivals, the New York Islanders in a four-game sweep. After handling the Washington Capitals in five games, the Rangers would have to face their other rival from across the Hudson River, the New Jersey Devils. After a long seven-game series, the Rangers would move on to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1979. This was partly due to Graves scoring 52 goals and 79 points in the regular season. After yet another seven-game series, the Rangers would finally break the 1940 curse and win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
1994-95 The Post Lockout Year
While the Rangers as a team would struggle to find their way back to the Stanley Cup Finals, Graves did everything for his part to get them back. After a lockout-shortened season, Graves was the second leading scoring forward behind Messier. This included 17 goals and 31 points in 47 games. The Rangers would only win 22 of their 48 games but still managed to make the playoffs before a divisional round exit.
The 1995-1996 season was a bit of a step back for Graves. He was sent back down to the second line after Pat Verbeek, Alex Kovalev, and Luc Robitaille all had breakout seasons. With a number of forwards scoring over 50 points, the Rangers were able to have a much better season but would yet again struggle in the playoffs with another divisional round exit. Graves seemed to be the only Ranger consistently scoring in the playoffs with seven goals in 10 games.
The 1996-1997 season was the last season where both the Rangers and Graves would play well in his time with the team. The 28-year old winger scored 33 times with 61 points in 82 games. Graves only finished behind Messier and Wayne Gretzky in points among forwards on the team. With the two leading point scorers in NHL history on your team, it would seem that success would always follow. However, the Rangers could not find ways to utilize this talent and struggled to score against the Philadelphia Flyers. This would be the last time the Rangers would make the Conference Final with Graves on the team.
Coming to an End
The rest of Graves’ career with the Rangers was disappointing to say the least. The team would not qualify for the playoffs four years in a row. Graves only broke 30 goals and 50 points once in that time span. He would however win the Masterton Trophy after his final season on Broadway, to add to his King Clancy Trophy from 1994. His career with the Rangers would end in 2001 with a trade to the San Jose Sharks.
Graves is currently 9th in games played for the Rangers and 3rd all-time in goals. While Graves’ future in the Hockey Hall of Fame remains up in the air, he will always go down as a New York legend. Due to Graves’ time with the Rangers, no one will ever sport the number nine for the club again.