Warning to candidates: You'll inherit Milbury's mess

Updated: January 12, 2006, 10:23 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

How he survived the ongoing years of folly will remain one of life's great unsolved mysteries, along with Stonehenge, the Sphinx and who actually committed the Jack the Ripper murders.

In a decade-long carousel of chaos on Long Island, Mad Mike was the constant.

Ironically, in the end, he wasn't even kicked off the carousel. He stopped it himself.

Mike Milbury
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesMike Milbury will still play a part in what moves the Islanders make before the March 9 trade deadline.

"I wasn't looking over my shoulder at any time," Mike Milbury said of his controversial reign as GM of the New York Islanders. "But in this business, if you win, you're a hero. If you lose, you're a bum."

He said it. We didn't.

Dovetailing into the firing of second-year head coach Steve Stirling less than 24 hours before, Isles owner Charles Wang, Milbury's unflinching ally since taking control of the franchise, announced at a press conference Thursday that his embattled general manager had made the decision to step aside. He'll still be kept on, though, as Wang's sidekick, senior vice president of his sports properties, which, obviously, includes the Islanders.

A nice reward for a job poorly done.

In the temporary shake-up, assistant Brad Shaw takes on the role of "interim" coach, meaning he has no chance to retain the job next season, barring a boffo finish to a season fast slipping away for the Isles.

Stirling, meanwhile, will be offered a different role in the organization.

Obviously, putting the right people into place -- and there are going to have to be an awful lot of iron-clad guarantees to lure anyone of any merit, any experience, any credibility -- is going to be essential in trying to turn this mess around.

"I've been thinking about this for a long time," said Milbury, who'll stay on as GM until the a replacement has been found and will have input in identifying a list of candidates. "The plan was to have a good season, see how things went and go from there. But when the decision was made to make the coaching change, I just felt this was the moment. So, I went to Charles and told him I thought it was time to give someone else a chance.

"We'd lost our spirit. We looked dead. The players had lost contact with the coach," he said.

And, it would seem, the stubborn general manager had finally come to the realization that he couldn't get things turned around. Only one question there: What took you so long?

"Even prior to our current slump, Mike and I had been discussing the next phase for him," said Wang. "I have often challenged him about what he wanted to do when he grows up. [Wednesday], Mike came to me and selflessly said that the time had come for a change in the general manager's seat."

When asked for one word to sum up his feelings about his highly flammable time in charge, Milbury replied: "Disappointed."

He's disappointed?! What about long-suffering Islanders fans, used to the glories of Al Arbour and Denis Potvin and Bill Torrey and Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier? A once-proud franchise had been run into the ground by neglect, impatience, poor decision-making and constant turnover.

"A good part of the population was looking forward to this, I daresay," Milbury admitted candidly.

This guy went through more coaches than Mickey Rooney has gone through wives. Seven different men, in all. Twice, he removed himself from the job. (And actually -- yes, it's true -- had thoughts about giving the gig a third whirl. "Part of me wanted to do it," he said. "But if things didn't go so well real fast, it'd be more disheartening for the players.")

Throughout Milbury's tenure, the Islanders never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. For seven consecutive seasons, they didn't make it to the springtime coming-out party at all.

During the regular season, they went an unsightly 222-392-83-10 under his rule.

He drafted shrewdly and then inexplicably gave up on or gave away prospects that would help any team in hockey today -- Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden, Bryan McCabe, Eric Brewer, Roberto Luongo, Raffi Torres, Jason Spezza and Todd Bertuzzi, to name a few.

He handed that big, uninspired lug Alexei Yashin a 10-year, $80 million contract, thereby making him impossible to trade or to motivate.

The telling moment, though, was the decision to axe Stirling, a good man with no NHL coaching experience, in over his head.

"Ultimately the players are responsible for this, too," Milbury said. "We're all in the soup together."

And what a morass of murky minestrone it is, too. Heading into Thursday's game against Calgary, the Isles had lost eight of nine, their top two goalies were hurt and Cash-in Yashin isn't exactly picking the boys up by their skatelaces and inspiring them to get the lead out.

Milbury says that by the Olympic break, the Isles are bound to have a better read on whether they're still in the playoff hunt That will determine what he does trade-wise by the deadline, in his final days on the job. He could still have an impact, inflict further damage on this organization, on the type of team his successor will inherit.

Whoever takes on the role of general manager, and that of coach, quite frankly, has his work cut out for them.

"There is," conceded the soon-to-be-departing GM, "a lot of work to do."

He should know. He created it.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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