UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It was 1977 and the New York Islanders had a decision to make.
“We had the 15th pick,” recalls Jimmy Devellano, who was then a member of the team’s front office. “We debated between two players: Dwight Foster and Michael Bossy.”
It wasn’t a simple choice. Foster was a better defensive player. Bossy could score, but he didn’t check much. Taking Bossy was a bit of a risk. The Islanders went for it.
Bossy is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame after helping New York to four consecutive Stanley Cups. Foster played for several teams over a 10-year career.
“What if we’d taken Dwight Foster?” Devellano says. “We could have. Lucky us.”
What’s remarkable about the Islanders run from 12-win expansion team to hockey dynasty was how well everything seemed to work out. They had almost no whiffs, from Denis Potvin (fairly obvious) to Bossy (not as obvious). Even the little things worked out, like when they announced a “double chili” promotion night if the team scored double-digit goals against the Rangers. The team scored 10.
Now, after decades of mistakes (they’re still paying Alexei Yashin), the Islanders are finally showing glimpses of that kind of charm again. Former No. 1 overall pick John Tavares is a certified star, in the thick of the league’s scoring race at age 24. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, two players who weren’t even on the team a year ago, now comprise one of the better defensive pairings in the NHL. And Jaroslav Halak has at least temporarily solved a goalie issue that’s plagued the franchise for a while. The Islanders are one of the youngest teams in the league, which is another similarity to the team of the glory years, which grew up together and eventually won together. Things are working, and working out.
The question for this era is: How long will this charmed stretch buoy the team in Brooklyn?
This spring is a golden chance for the franchise. The Islanders have snuck up on the region and the league, nearing the top of the standings for the first time in years. Fans are coming to the Nassau Coliseum in a way they haven’t in a while — 20 sellouts this season is the most in nearly 15 years — for both nostalgic reasons and because the team is actually quite good. Garth Snow’s maneuverings have positioned him as a potential GM-of-the-year candidate and positioned the team in a spot where it will be watchable once it moves to Barclays Center as well. Tavares is a reason to go now and he might be enough of a reason to go next season in the new building.
But all that might still not be enough of a reason to keep going. The heart of the fan base is still in Long Island, and those fans will be asked to commute a long way to see their team in Brooklyn. The city itself is Rangers country — always has been — and it’s not like the Blueshirts are struggling. That team is as good as the Islanders, with a star in Rick Nash who has as much wattage as Tavares. Momentum will be harder to come by, and soon.
"Leaving here is certainly going to be bittersweet,” Tavares said. “It's going to be a different way of life for all of us in here, just like the fans. It's been one way here for over 40 years. And I'm sure there's going to be a breaking-in period once we do go. But I think things will be great in Brooklyn, too."
The team has faltered a bit of late, losing three straight at home after threatening to rise to first overall in the Eastern Conference. Even before the playoffs, it’s clear that youth is the enemy of the young. When the Rangers came in for their last regular-season visit to the Coliseum last week, they spoke of achieving consistency going into the postseason. They know it from last season’s run to the Cup Final. For the Islanders, a run to the Cup Final is a hazy dream scenario; Boychuck, one of the oldest players on the roster at age 31, was barely alive the last time the team went that far.
So even though the team is in a sweet spot now, benefiting from the farewell to Long Island and the thrill of sudden credibility, both those elements will reverse on the team in a few months. The Isles will no longer be in the comforts of their old home, and they will be expected to compete in a market they can’t truly share unless they win a lot. Starting in the fall, they will be in the shadow of not only their own past, but the skyscrapers across the river. The upcoming playoffs are a curtain call in one sense, but a Broadway audition in another.
For now, though, this is a rare New York story: a team performing above and beyond expectations. For now, this team has the chance to be something that the glory teams were: a very pleasant surprise.