We all know about the New York Islanders return to relevance this season, proven both in the results on the ice and in the stands, as fans flocked back to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum once again in playoff style and took everyone, including many in the hockey media, back to the early 80s heyday when the old barn would rock regularly.
It has been written about in just about any publication or form of electronic media you long to get your eyes on during the morbid summer months when no talent being displayed on defrosted ice surfaces all around the league.
In an off-season that was ceremoniously frantic on day one but surprisingly and never before seen dead silent in the days that would follow, general manager Garth Snow did not make any earth shattering moves, as expected. Instead he continued his smart, frugal and down right fiscally responsible re-building of this once and will be again great franchise.
With a full 82 game slate coming up starting in October, it begs the biggest question of them all however ; Are the Islanders a better hockey team than the one that bowed out in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins? I believe they most certainly are and below I will tell you why.
1. Commitment And Building From Within
Instead of going out and making a huge splash in free agency on overpriced talent, Snow has worked diligently to re-sign his core players, showing them the commitment from the franchise that has been so widely reciprocated by any who give this organization a chance to shine. Coming into the 2013 off-season there were a number of pressing priorities for the Isles in their own free agent backyard. First, they had to come up with a goaltender as they had none signed entering July 5. I will readily admit, and as many who read me regularly know first hand, Evgeni Nabokov was not my first choice. But he ended up being the BEST choice. As the popular saying goes, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t’. With the market quickly drying up with the trade of Cory Schneider to New Jersey (thereby taking Roberto Luongo out of the mix), Ryan Miller proving to be way too expensive for his talents, Ray Emery choosing familiarity and unproven youngsters such as Anton Khudobin singing quickly elsewhere, there was no where else for Snow to turn but the friendly Russian who is well liked in the dressing room as much as he is by Stan Fischler. The worst thing the Isles could have done at this point was to ruin the outstanding team chemistry they have nurtured.
Secondly, he needed to lock up future franchise defenseman Travis Hamonic. Now being a restricted free agent is much different than being an unrestricted one, as the player just does not have much leverage in negotiations with the exception of a hold-out. Everyone who knows Travis would have told you that was never a possibility. But the pressing need to get him locked into more than just a one year filler deal was, in my opinion, second on Snow’s list. All Garth did in this situation is set the tone that, if other general managers follow, will avoid a lock out when the current CBA expires. He locked up ‘Hammer’ to a seven year, 27 million dollar deal, providing not only stability and length for both the player and organization but an extremely cap friendly bottom line that will only appear ten times cheaper if and when Hamonic develops into his full potential.
In Hamonic fashion, Snow continued to lock up who he considers at this point to be core Islanders, as he inked Josh Bailey to a 5 year contract extension worth 16.5mm. While a high number I feel for his production to date, Bailey has shown steady improvement each season and shows exactly what Snow’s style is. Similar to the DiPietro deal (not in length but philosophy) the Isles are betting on Bailey to be way above comparable in 2-3 years as his game improves and grows.
With 23 year old backup goaltender Kevin Poulin accepting his qualifying offer of one year, 577k it leaves only Thomas Hickey as the remaining contract that Snow needs to get a signature on. While important, Hickey is hardly considered critical to the future development of the product on the ice however as the goaltending and Hamonic/Bailey were. What that shows is that Snow has his priorities dead straight about who gets top billing in negotiations.
2. Addition By Subtraction
Isles leaving Long Island are basically addition by subtraction. Not only did they provide little last season but there is only so much room on the NHL roster. With the stable of young talent getting more seasoned year over year in Bridgeport, you can only keep those kids down there so long before they have to be given a chance. While it is very likely we see Matt Donovan and to a little less certainty, Ryan Strome ; there still lies Griffin Reinhart, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Audrey Pedan, Calvin DeHaan and further down the development ladder, this season’s top pick Ryan Pulock.
Departing from last season’s squad are nobody’s favorite fourth line center Marty Reasoner, Jesse Joensuu, who could never carve out a significant role with numerous chances, David Ullstrom, Keith Aucoin, Mark Streit and Brad Boyes. All brought something to the table but just could not deliver on the tremendous promise from the first day they signed or were acquired. The trade of Nino Niederreiter, who basically whined his way off the Island, for spark-plug Cal Clutterbuck is going to pay dividends immediately. Fans are going to love Cal’s rock em-sock em robot mentality and he does have seasons of 15 and 19 goals under his belt. He and Matt Martin are not going to make the Isles a pleasant team to play night in and night out.
Free agent acquisition Peter Regin will fill a third line and penalty killing role with speed (could you imagine Regin and Grabner killing penalties? Nightmare scenario for defensive cross zone passes) and fellow newcomer Pierre Marc Bouchard is slated to be given first crack at the prime wing slot next to John Tavares and Matt Moulson.
I will never forget the feeling I got in my very soul when the New York Islanders finally clinched their return to the NHL post-season. The jitters and butterflies that I have not felt this late in a season since 1993 came back in a hurry prior to game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was not until after game three that I really felt the Isles had a legitimate shot at an upset. After Brooks Orpik fired home the game winner in overtime of game six, I just stood (as I had for the entire game) and stared at my television for what seemed like hours. I think my wife and son did not speak to me for ten minutes as they did not have the words. See, they are both Rangers fans but not like the ones you see trolling Facebook and Twitter from time to time. They were actually pulling for the Isles and even if just for my sake, would have liked to have seen them win.
If it was that kind of experience for a fan like myself, could you imagine what it was like for the players? Even though it was only six games, it cannot properly be calculated how valuable that was for the entire roster. We saw Tavares step up and lead the club as we expected he would, producing a 3-2-5 stat line in the series and producing some very big moments for a player on that stage for the first time. Casey Cizikas was spectacular the entire way through and Kyle Okposo continued his late surge by playing in absolute beast mode. Hamonic invoked memories of Isles folk hero Darius Kasparaitis with his abuse of Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin. Always remember in 1979, the Islanders exited the playoffs in supposed demoralizing fashion against the hated New York Rangers only to start a string of 4 consecutive Stanley Cups the very next year.
After dropping game one 5-0 and looking like a deer in headlights, they bounced back and showed resiliency, pride and character. We knew they always had it, and now they know as well. I guarantee when the team returns to the post-season in 2014, game one of that series against whichever opponent they end up playing, will go much differently thanks to the experience garnered in the spring of 2013.
I am not one to run from early assumptions and I will not here either. I was not a huge fan of Jack Capuano when he was first hired and through his first two seasons coaching the club. I am extremely glad to announce I was DEAD WRONG.
He clearly, over three seasons, has gained the respect of the front office, underlings on his own staff and most importantly, the players. They have bought into his system and he has allowed stars to play like stars and offer them offensive freedom and creativity.
It has not been all peaches and cream, as the Isles still sometimes have issues with their transition game but I would place more of an emphasis on personnel when it comes to that deficiency. Doug Weight and Brent Thompson round out an impressive duo of assistant coaches who both bring the elements required to succeed at this level. Some see Weight as head coaching material sooner rather than later. Mike Dunham might finally get his chance to show what his training could do for Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, as one of them is projected to have their first prominent role this season, backing up the returning starter Nabokov.
Do I think Cappy can become a Lindy Ruff and coach this team for the next 15 seasons? Hardly, as that is a rarity just not seen in today’s sports landscape anymore. He will not be remembered for being a legend of the game, nor will his plaque grace the walls of the Hall of Fame in Toronto. But he does have the necessary attitude, makeup and tools to lead this team of Islanders to where they need to go.
From a fans perspective, we need to manage our expectations carefully. Yes, I just laid out 4 good reasons why I think the Islanders are a better team today than they were 2 months ago, but we are nowhere near competing for a Stanley Cup championship. And that is not being pessimistic, just realistic. I realize ‘anything’ can happen and you could point to teams in the past that have surprised on their way to the cup final but keep in mind the last four Stanley Cup winners were the semi-finalists this season.
The rebuild is working, starting to bear fruit and we will be a contender for years to come. Just give it a little more time, let management continue their work of shaping the newest batch of players that some day we might possibly remember as Islanders legends.