Bill Torrey drafted 19 problem children to the NY Islanders in the Expansion Draft

Bill Torrey on Drafting Denis Potvin
Bill Torrey on Drafting Denis Potvin / IslandersPride

Hall-of-Fame General Manager Bill Torrey is forever known as "The Architect" for building the New York Islanders dynasty, but the first team he built on Long Island was the worst in NHL history.

Torrey was the organization's first hire, and when he started, he neither had an office nor a phone. Another thing he didn't have was players. We assume he had an office and phone by the time of the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft on June 6, 1972, when the Islanders and the Atlanta Flames, the two new teams drafted from a list of unprotected players from the 14 established teams across the NHL.

"I told [Islanders owner Roy] Boe, 'O.K., you're going to go through the expansion draft and get 19 problem children. Either the guys can't play, they're too old, or they have personal problems," said Torrey in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article on the 1972-73 team.

He was right, but it was worse than that.

The World Hockey Association (WHA) had come to be the second professional hockey league in North America, and there was concern that players taken in the expansion draft could break away from their NHL contracts and skate over to the WHA. Torrey had been led to believe by NHL President Clarence Campbell that the players' NHL contracts would be upheld by the courts, but that didn't turn out to be true. Of the 19 players Torrey drafted at the Expansion Draft, seven signed with the WHA, including two with the New York Raiders, which was especially embarrassing for the team on Long Island heading into their first season. The Flames signed 19 of their 21 picks.

The draft turned out to be far from all bad news for the Islanders. With his second pick, Torrey drafted future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Billy Smith from the Los Angeles Kings. Veteran Ed Westfall was taken with the ninth pick from the Boston Bruins and became the team's first captain. Other picks eventually ended up being trade pieces in deals that brought back Bob Bourne, JP Parise, and Jean Potvin. Coincidentally, Parise and Potvin were then both traded for Wayne Merrick.

"There were a handful of players the Islanders lost to World Hockey that year, it was their initial year as well," Westfall told the Talkin' Isles Podcast in 2023. "It was only two or three of us who knew each other at [Islanders] training camp."

The Islanders always knew they would be bad in their inaugural season and were a virtual lock to finish dead last in the loaded East Division. They finished the season with a 12-60-6 record, enduring a 1-24-3 record between Nov. 22 and Jan. 16. The first head coach, Phil Goyette, didn't last the season and was mercifully fired by Torrey and replaced by scout Earl Ingarfield.

Of course, finishing last had a perk. The Islanders would select Denis Potvin as the No. 1 pick overall at the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. From there, Torrey's master design would soon come into focus as the Isles morphed into a playoff team in 1975, a perennial Stanley Cup contender through the 1970s, and then a championship dynasty in the early 1980s.