Saturday, March 6, 2010

The New York Islanders Will Rise Again...

During the late 1960's and early 1970's the NHL enjoyed a time of great expansion; going from the Original Six teams to twelve in 1967. The Los Angeles Kings, California Golden Seals, Minnesota North Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and the St. Louis Blues all joined the league. For the 1970-71 season, the Vancouver Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres joined in the hunt for the Stanley Cup and two more teams brought the league to sixteen teams in time for the 1971-72 season as the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders came into being.

Bill Harris was the first ever selection by the Islanders in the 1972 amateur draft, playing in 500 games on Long Island before a trade sent him to Los Angeles in March of 1980. The 1973 draft started a collection of players that would bring the Islanders into the realm of the great dynasties by the 1980’s. Denis Potvin was selected first overall in the 1973 draft, followed by Clark Gilles (1974), Mike Bossy (1977), Steve Tambellini (1978), Duane Sutter (1979), Brent Sutter (1980) and Pat Lafontaine (1982). With strong draft picks and tremendous coaching from Al Arbour, the Islanders became a dominant force in the NHL, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983. Seven members of the Islanders dynasty have joined other hockey legends, enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

With the emergence of the Edmonton Oilers and a young man named Wayne Gretzky, the Islanders hold on the Cup was finally broken in a hard fought Final in 1984. New York is still waiting for the chance to challenge for the sporting world’s greatest trophy once again, a task made more difficult now that the league is comprised of 30 teams. Despite New York’s poor showing in recent years, they could emerge again as a legitimate contender with the arrival of another young goal scorer, reminiscent of Mike Bossy, a young man from Mississauga Ontario, John Tavares.

In the late eighties, nineties and early part of this decade, the Islanders continued to flounder. A new generation of great players joined the team in the early 90’s, Pierre Turgeon, Ray Ferraro and Glenn Healy to name a few, and if not for a Dale Hunter hit from behind on Turgeon while he celebrated a goal during a hard-fought playoff series, the Islanders may have competed for the Cup again. A twenty-one game suspension went to Hunter for the blatantly dirty hit, but without Turgeon, the Isles were over-matched against a team of overtime destiny and heroics from Montreal, led by a young man named Patrick Roy.

The Islanders have become a joke in the league in the eyes of some analysts, with bizarre moves from the ownership and management in the past decades. Inconceivable trades and roster moves, as well as an unsatisfactory arena, have left fans of the once proud franchise reeling, wondering what will happen next to keep the team in the bottom of the league. When former Islander back-up goaltender Garth Snow retired unexpectedly to become the teams General Manager, fans, experts and analysts cried, “Now what?”

However, Snow has become a very competent GM in the league, earning the respect of his peers and his players. Perhaps it is the fact he recently played in the league and is aware of the challenges of life in the NHL that has bridged the gap between management and the players. When he signed goaltender Rick Dipietro to a 15-year contract, which eased the burden on the team’s salary cap, spreading the amount of Dipietro’s contract across several years, the experts decreed, “Here we go again.” However, have we not seen this trend emerge as a legitimate money saver? Once the “experts” stopped chuckling at the silliness on Long Island, they realized that Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit is now in possession of a twelve-year deal, as are Marian Hossa in Chicago and Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. Maybe Snow was on to something after all...

Which brings us to the modern day Islanders squad, a group of youngsters currently fighting for their playoff lives after an unexpected quick start to the season. Led by John Tavares, the building blocks are beginning to find their places in the organization and a solid foundation is forming. The next step facing Garth Snow is how to build upon the talent already on the team and bring the franchise back to respectability, all the while, the spectre of moving hovers over the franchise as owner Charles Wang and Nassau County debate the merits of Wang’s Lighthouse Project - a debate that has gone on for over eight years.

For more on the Lighthouse Project - visit the TVOS Archives:

Today’s Islanders face not only a tough battle to regain the support of their fans; they are also in one of the toughest divisions in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins are comfortable at the top along with the New Jersey Devils, and the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will not simply step aside in the Atlantic Division for the up and coming Islanders. Many tough battles lie ahead for Tavares and his teammates.

Leading the way this season is Kyle Okposo, a tough as nails forward from St. Paul Minnesota. In his second full season on Long Island, Okposo has already surpassed his previous point total (39 point last season), and looks to be a legitimate NHL player and team leader. While he is having a terrible season in the plus/minus category, that is more of a reflection on the overall team as opposed to Okposo himself. Joining him at the top of the team is previously unknown left-winger Matt Moulson. A ninth round selection of the Penguins in the 2003 entry draft, Moulson has found a home in New York with his off-season training partner Tavares. Everything Moulson accomplishes this season is a career high. Before the current season, he had played in 29 NHL games and accumulated 10 points. This year he has played in 64 games and his 22 goals leads the team in that category and his 38 points places him second on the team in scoring, two behind Okposo.

Which brings us to the possible Rookie of the Year - John Tavares. A goal scoring machine in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), many wondered if his skill would translate into NHL stardom. At this point, Tavares has been as advertised, a legitimate franchise player on a team in desperate need of stars. While these are just three young men making a difference for the Islanders, several young prospects are set to join the franchise in the coming years. One in particular that the Islanders’ fans can look forward to seeing in New York, perhaps as soon as next season, is OHL defenseman Calvin de Haan. The 12th pick overall in the 2009 draft, de Haan is currently a member of the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. In his two seasons with the Generals, he has played in 102 games and accumulated 87 points from the blue line. He is only 18-years-old but he could be ready to make the jump into the NHL.

While no team wants to finish at or near the bottom of the league, the prospect of drafting a franchise player with a lottery pick is proving to be a key to turning around a team in today’s salary cap world. With only 60 points, the Islanders are near the bottom again this year, currently sitting in 27th place in the league. They are in a battle with Florida (60 points) and Carolina (59 points) in the East for a lottery pick. Toronto and Edmonton appear to have a lock on the 29th and 30th spots in the NHL, giving them the best shot at the first and second picks in the draft - but keep in mind that the Boston Bruins are the owners of Toronto’s number one pick.

Wait until next year is a phrase the Islanders fans are growing weary of hearing but allow me to say it anyway - wait until next year... Tavares, Okposo, Moulson and the other youngsters on the team will grow together as a group. With the addition of more prospects and a timely free agent signing or two, this franchise is on the verge of returning to the playoffs and making some waves in the NHL. It is a blueprint that has worked in Pittsburgh, Washington, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Colorado; there is no reason to believe that it will not work for New York. The stability Garth Snow has brought to the team, coupled with a new arena deal and the Islanders could be the team to watch in the coming seasons.

Photo by ShutterSpeak on Flickr.

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