Nov 22, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; New York Islanders defensemanThomas Hickey
(14) and Pittsburgh Penguins right wingBeau Bennett
(19) collide along the boards during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
A quote springs to mind. And no, it doesn’t involve the words “passengers,” “battle level,” or “smart and hard.” It’s safe to read on. I promise. The quote isn’t even hockey-related:
"“Without question there are rodeos, and this is not their first.”—Art Briles, head football coach, Baylor University"
He was, of course, referring to the Oklahoma State Cowboys—his team’s opponent in last Saturday’s Big XII conference showdown in Stillwater, OK—but the quote is strangely appropriate in the context of the 2013-14 New York Islanders season.
Or more specifically, in the context of what Islanders fans are enduring. Again. Because this is definitely not their first rodeo.
They say that the best gifts are the ones that keep on giving, but I’m not sure an Islanders fan would tell you that. Then again, “gift” doesn’t exactly describe what those fans have been given each November for the past four (full) NHL seasons.
Perennial losing streaks certainly keep on giving, but not in the way that anyone wants to receive a present. As fans on Long Island have learned, punches to the stomach tend to have a negative effect.
Injuries to Evgeni Nabokov, Brian Strait and Lubomir Visnovsky have combined to turn what was the smoldering wreckage of the team’s inauspicious start into the equivalent of a full-scale nuclear accident.
The fans are out in force—whether it’s on Twitter proposing trades or on a street corner wearing sandwich boards, yelling that the end is nigh—and it’s hard to blame them. Rebuilds can’t go on indefinitely. (Stop me if you’ve heard that line before.)
The Islanders are 8-13-3 (19 pts) through 24 games. They’re in last place in the Metropolitan Division, a division that’s unlikely to send two teams to the postseason via the wild card. If the Isles are going to make the playoffs this year, they’ll have to climb their way up the ranks much like last spring.
“Started from the bottom,” indeed.
But, are fans going about this the right way by demanding firings and fire sales and seriously burn it all down because that involves fire too? We’ve written about managing expectations on this site before; at the risk of yelling into the abyss, we’ll touch on them again here.
Would firing head coach Jack Capuano solve the Islanders problems? Unlikely. He may not be Al Arbour, but even ‘The Architect’ couldn’t will this team to the Stanley Cup Finals. “But the Flyers fired their coach and they’re AWESOME now, bro!” Stop. That’s more the result of Peter Laviolette falling out of favor with his team and his front office than the coaching change itself. Capuano hasn’t lost his team, which is why he’s still behind the bench.
Would trading for a reliable defenseman fix all that’s broken? Eh. To be honest, there aren’t any names out there that would be worth parting with picks and prospects for, especially when other GMs know that Garth Snow is dealing from a position of weakness. Why mortgage the future to secure a player if the Islanders aren’t built to challenge the league’s elite teams?
And would acquiring a goalie turn the season around? Re-read my argument against trading for a D-man for that answer.
Point being: there’s a difference between the fan base “holding the organization accountable” and “inciting a fan rebellion because the Islanders aren’t Cup contenders.”
Contrary to popular opinion, the Islanders aren’t in the tank. They’re dealing with injuries, historically bad special teams, and overall poor performance on the ice. Could any or all of these issues have been foreseen and fixed before they submarined the season?
Only to a degree.
If Snow had traded for a big-time goalie and/or a blue-chip defenseman at a reasonable price over the summer, that the Isles still wouldn’t be leading the Eastern Conference right now. No team overcomes the loss of its starting goaltender, the loss of a top-four blueliner (who also quarterbacks the power play), and a string of other man-games lost to injury.
To be fair: the Islanders squeaked into the playoffs in a lockout-shortened season without having to face the Western Conference. The roster that secured an eight-seed in last year’s playoffs? It’s basically the same one we’re seeing this year.
Did Snow overestimate how far his defense and an aging goalie would take him this season? Perhaps. But that’s also low-hanging fruit on the angry fan tree. It’s easy to blame Snow with Nabokov sidelined and Visnovsky only just now starting his rehab.
It was never in the plans to transform this team into a late-round playoff threat overnight. The window for this franchise is still opening and the players are still learning what it takes to become a consistent team. That lack of experience, coupled with the injuries, is what’s holding the Islanders back this year.
They’re young. They’ll learn. It might be the hard way, but they’ll learn. The good news is that it’ll only be their “first rodeo” once.
Go ahead, get it off your chest. Post your thoughts in the comments section or tweet them to me (@MichaelWillhoft) and we’ll talk it out.