Islanders are on thin ice
There is just no sugarcoating it. The New York Islanders look like the worst team on paper heading into training camp.
It’s sad, too, for such a tradition-rich franchise that’s always had to work a little harder to gain the attention and respect while playing in the long-cast shadows of the New York Rangers or other high profile teams in the East. Well, that is since the organization’s salad days of four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s.
Now, the fan base has dwindled to the point the Isles attract the smallest home crowds in the league, and they’ve begun credentialing bloggers to try to stay as visible and relevant as possible. The team went into late summer before finding a radio station to carry their games. Of course, when you don’t win and you’re not exciting or entertaining in the least, what do you expect?
Nassau Coliseum, while full of tradition and character, is old and in desperate need of a major upgrade, both structurally and on the ice. Or maybe there’s a reason it’s just a little darker inside than any other barn in the league.
How the Islanders are going to emerge from that darkness into a better light is a very good question. General manager Garth Snow says it’s time to go with the youth. Remind us, exactly how long have the Isles been rebuilding now?
A difference of opinion between Snow and Ted Nolan cost the coach his job, but the decision wasn’t reached until mid-summer. With the coaching carousel already in full swing, New York opted for Scott Gordon. The Isles decided to go with a coach who had success in the minors, a teacher who relates well to young players. In doing so, the Isles said no to more experienced coaches such as John Tortorella, Paul Maurice, Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley.
It’s not like the Isles were alone with this type of thinking. Atlanta (John Anderson), Florida (Peter DeBoer) and San Jose (Todd McLellan) all went with men with no previous NHL head coaching experience, too.
There really are no shortcuts to improvement in the salary-capped NHL. It’s all about drafting, showing patience and making a commitment to development. Even if the Isles could throw any kind of money at players, they’re still in a position where recruiting is very difficult.
So it is with a patchwork lineup of castoffs and a couple prospects sprinkled in, the Isles will try to make a go of it and, well, we’ll see what happens.
Last season: 35-38-9, 79 points, fifth place Atlantic Division, 13th place Eastern Conference. The Islanders were really never a threat or a factor in the playoff chase last season, finishing a whopping 16 points behind the next closest division rival and 15 off the eighth-place pace.
Imports: D Mark Streit (2007-08 team: Montreal Canadiens), C Doug Weight (Anaheim Ducks), G Yann Danis (Montreal Canadiens), C Mike Iggulden (minors), LW Mitch Fritz (New York Rangers), D Brett Skinner (Boston Bruins), D Joe Callahan (minors).
Three keys to the season: First, Rick DiPietro must stay healthy or have backup. He has shown he is an outstanding goaltender and deserving of much better goal support, but he can’t help his team when he’s injured and that’s been the big bugaboo ever since he signed that controversial 15-year contract several years ago. DiPietro was cruising along last year, keeping pace with virtually every other top goalie in the league, even if it was hard to notice in front of New York’s pop-gun offense, until disaster struck during All-Star weekend. DiPietro sustained a hip injury during the skills competition and wasn’t the same afterward. That led to a second surgery, one on each hip, in addition to an arthroscopic clean-out of a knee, and don’t forget his concussion issue, all of which occurred since he signed his deal.
DiPietro isn’t a lock to be ready for the season opener. New York turned to a battling Wade Dubielewicz much of the second half of last season, but the former back-up goalie took his trade to Europe this season, and the Isles are turning to career minor-leaguer Joey MacDonald to bail them out if DiPietro falters. Either way, the team is going to keep close tabs on DiPietro’s workload, so MacDonald or someone is going to have to be ready to make a contribution.
Second, the Isles just have to find goal-scoring somewhere. That doesn’t necessarily mean looking up and down the roster of forwards. It more often means spending less time in your own end and finding a defenseman who can make that first pass to kick start an attack.
For now, we will focus on what’s up front. Mike Comrie led with 49 points, an almost laughable figure really. He’s undersized, but the best the team has at center. New York reached out to Doug Weight in the hopes of filling a No. 2 role. Unless no one else has noticed, Weight’s offensive production has taken a dramatic slide the last two years.
Bill Guerin is still the team’s top right wing. New York has to see progress from youngsters Kyle Okposo, who played in just nine games late last year, Sean Bergenheim, Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen and Jeff Tambellini. Oh, and besides the offense needing to improve from its worst-in-the-league status (2.30 goals per game), the 29th-ranked power play could use a shot in the arm, too.
Third, the defense is going to have to find a way to stay healthier this season, and it must come together as a group. Brendan Witt and Andy Sutton, two lumbering blue liners, missed time along with young hopefuls Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais. Radek Martinek, who has had injury problems in the past, was the only defensemen to see more than 60 games of action.
The group should benefit from the free-agent signing of Mark Streit, who made strides in Montreal before jumping ship. The Islanders shouldn’t ask too much of Streit, but don’t be surprised if he finds himself getting more ice time and playing in all different situations.
On the hot seat: Snow was credited with helping the Isles return to the postseason in 2006-07, his first season as a GM, when in addition to other moves he secured the services of Ryan Smyth just before the trade deadline. It didn’t go nearly as well last year, obviously, and that means there better be progress this season or New York could be pondering who might be the team’s sixth GM.
Poised to blossom: Okposo is the biggest and maybe only rookie hope for this season. The sixth overall pick in 2007 is exactly the kind of player the Isles need to develop going forward. Okposo plays bigger than his size (6-foot, 195 pounds), wins most one-on-one battles, has offensive awareness to find open spots on the ice, is excellent with his stickhandling, possesses a strong shot and, most importantly, is defensively sound. The St. Paul, Minn., native scored two goals and five points in a nine-game look-see late last season when the Isles were out of playoff contention.
Analysis and prediction: It’s really hard to imagine the Islanders being able to hang with the big dogs as long as they did last year, considering the few upgrades. Certainly it will be interesting to see what Gordon can do with this group. It probably didn’t help that his most experienced assistant, Gerard Gallant, decided to take on a different responsibility (consultant). It will be interesting to see if maybe Snow tries to change things on the fly, and maybe somebody will step up and make a big impression during camp and preseason. If not, it’s going to be a long, long season.