Backchecking: 6 Points for the New York Islanders

I have not had the opportunity to write as much as I would have liked this season on my thoughts for the New York Islanders. With the season entering the final quarter, the trade deadline on Monday, and the Islanders fighting for their playoff lives, there are some comments Id thought to share with the Isles faithful. There are repeating themes for many Islander fans this season that range in desire, frustration and just plain head scratching. As we wind through the difficult terrain of the final 21 games of the 2011-12 season, these are my thoughts, concerns and hopes for the Islanders.

I would add that the Isles are about where I thought they would be as far as their wins and losses. I assumed they would be on the bubble of the playoff mix this season and my hope in September and October was that this hockey clubs next logical step in the rebuild was to be playing important games in February and March. Right now, that seems to be the case. It is February 25, and the New York Islanders are playing important games. While the playoffs are still on the outside, but this point last season, the year was, in essence, over already. This may not be the progress fans would have liked this year, but it is progress.

The Men
Lets start with the POSITIVE — John Tavares is everything the Islanders could have asked for and more. Together with Matt Moulson, these two Islanders are the real deals and clearly are consistent performers over the course of the season. Perhaps Moulson is the beneficiary of playing alongside an elite talent, but he still has to be in the right place at the right time, and Moulson is doing just that. In Tavares, the sheer determination — the unbelievable effort he is putting into most games and most shifts is simply something we as Islander fans have not seen in a very long time.

He is not there yet, but Travis Hamonic is quickly becoming as good as any top pair guy in the NHL. Nick Lindstrom  or Shea Weber he ain’t but he is showing that he is very valuable and one of the better young blueliners in the league. His play has been steady from game #1 of the season. His loss over 9 games from his broken nose had a massive impact on the team. Andy MacDonald has become a steady defender as well, but has had more poor games then I would like to see, but he too has become a core player for the Isles on the blueline.

The Islanders have been dancing with NHL .500 for a while now. Having found themselves in a pre-Thanksgiving swoon for the second consecutive season, the Islanders are struggling to reach the .500 mark, and then cross it. This week, the team began at .500 and lost 2 games — 2 critical games to Ottawa and Buffalo. Had the Islanders won those two games, they would be right inside the heart of the playoff race for the 8 spot currently held by the Panthers.

All season long, the Islanders have struggled to attain a consistency, and it has been maddening. I am sure it is as troubling for the coaching staff and players as it has been for us fans and my hope is that it is part of the learning process young players go through on their path to reach their potential. With last nights victory over the rival Rangers, the Isles once again find themselves a game below .500 and going into Ottawa to try and reach level ground again. The boys can also exact a small measure of penance for the lack of effort they displayed against the Senators last week when it mattered most. Last week, it would not have been impossible for the Islanders to give Ottawa a small scare with a win, perhaps making both 7th and 8th place up for grabs in the East. (I suppose it still is if a team can string some wins together).

Garth Snow has said that the first order of business is to get to .500. He is 100% correct. But for whatever reason, the team seems to mail in a clunker every time they have reached NHL .500 and they have slipped back a game or 2 under, then reach it again, only to falter again. Maddening!

Buying or Selling?
Lets be honest, 6 points back with 21 games to go is not an insurmountable goal for any team. Theoretically, if the Islanders can beat Ottawa and Washington in their next 2 games, and if Florida who sits 8th struggles, the Islanders can find themselves interestingly close. In the end, with everything so tight in bottom 8 teams in the east, it is almost anyone’s to take — even the Hurricanes or Canadiens. A run of 3-4 wins in a row will vault anyone into the picture.

The Islanders are in position to make things interesting for themselves. They had opportunities to close the gap to 4 earlier this week, but failed. The debate on whether the Islanders should be ‘buyers’ or ‘sellers’ has been discussed by fans, bloggers and pundits. The Islanders have been consistently sellers for many seasons, and rightfully so. As a realist, and a little bit of a pessimist, I would suggest the Islanders will fall short of landing in the 8th place spot by the time the final game against the Blue Jackets will be played on April 7. I would have to think Garth Snow knows it as well.

But becoming a ‘classic seller’ does not, in my opinion, help the Islanders cause this season or beyond unless the items you are selling yield such a profitable return, that you have no choice but to sell. The other side of that coin would be that the Islanders are too far out to be ‘classic buyers’ where they wheel and deal young talent for a ‘final piece’ to make them a contender. No way are the Islanders near that position.

So what does it mean?

It means that if you are expecting Garth Snow to be very active at the deadline, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

I am as certain as I can be as a speculator that Mr. Snow has made 29 phone calls to every GM in the NHL over the last week to gauge interest in any of his unrestricted players. But Snow has displayed patience in his dealings with trades and he has shown that he has a set price in mind for various players, and he will not dilute his price if he firmly believes he has correctly set the value to his and his teams benefit. Snow is very much about ‘winning’ in a trade. This does not mean their won’t be any moves…and the moves will be thoughtful and calculated if there are any at all.

Another solid NHL season for P.A. Parenteau has him as a coveted potential rental GM Garth Snow can turn into valuable assets for his franchise.

Who Could Go, Who Will Stay?
The players who will be likely remaining are fairly obvious. Though fans of the Leafs may want to believe otherwise, John Tavares will not be wearing Blue and White any time soon. While the Isles will likely remain quiet, there are some potential deals to be made depending on how things will shake out over the next 48 hours.

Evgeni Nabokov and P.A. Parenteau are garnering the most attention as potential players on the move. Both players have turned in strong seasons thus far. But, with the Islanders still inside hailing distance of the 8 spot, it is going to take more then a 3rd round pick to obtain either player from Garth Snow. The Islanders have a very strong, deep and well stocked farm, and are not as desperate to add picks and prospects as they were 2 seasons ago when the cupboard was still thin. Snow is likely more interested in acquiring NHL ready prospects or cap casualties that can still play meaningful minutes as part of the long term solution.

Earlier in the year, he was actively shopping Nabokov, but with the ‘on-cue’ injury to DiPietro, the ‘iffy’ consistency and injuries of Montoya and the as still not fully ready but strong potential of Poulin, the GM understands he needs Nabokov most likely beyond April. It is rumored that Snow has extended two possible offers to Nabokov. A 1-year deal, or a 2 year option. My preference would be for the 2 year deal, but Im not Nabokov. He may yet reject both offers, leaving Snow little time to try to hammer out either an agreement or potential trade.

What I believe is that Snow has a deal in place for Nabokov, ready to go at a moments notice, with one or two teams. It was likely something constructed back in December or January. If the Isles lose on Sunday to Ottawa and/or he fails to get Nabokov signed by Monday at noon or 1pm, he could pull the deal together. A second round pick plus has to be the asking price at this point in time, or an NHL defenseman (or NHL ready) who can log top 4 minutes.

If Nabokov is indeed signed, it is possible that Snow may deal Montoya, however the yield will not be there for Montoya as it would for Nabokov.

Parenteau is another matter. The announcement that he is not willing to negotiate until the end of the season could mean that he will test the waters post July 1.  Do the Islanders have a budget in mind for Parenteau and is that something P.A. would be comfortable with? If the two sides are fairly far apart, P.A. could be on his way out. Like trade value, Snow and owner Charles Wang have very clear ideas of what a particular player is worth in actual salary. If P.A. is seeking a deal similar to what Tavares received, he is pricing himself off the Island. On the other hand, if it is a 3 year Matt Moulson-esque deal, I think the Islanders would be able to get that done.

Like with Nabokov, I think Snow may have 2 or 3 potential deals ready to ‘rock-n-roll’ at the 1-2pm hour. Much may depend on if the Islanders win their game Sunday. With the kind of numbers P.A. is putting up, I would have to believe that Snow will seek a minimum 2nd round pick and true NHL ready prospect. P.A. is on pace for 74-75 point season. For those who think a 1st round pick is out of the question, or a high-end prospect and a second round pick — P.A.’s numbers will be in the range of the following types of players… Eric Staal, Claude Giroux, Johnathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Thomas Vanek, Patrick Kane, Patrick Marleau… This is based on the final stats for 2010-11.  Now I understand that P.A. is not the goal scorer per se, and does not have the complete game that some of those other stars have. But the numbers are what they are, and in a year where the free agent market is thin, his value is up. A team looking for the final piece will overpay as we have seen time and again. Snow should ask for a high end NHL ready player and a 2nd round pick or a 1st round pick if the Wild can get an NHL player, 2 prospects, a pick and conditional pick for Zidlicky.

The other players the Islanders have available are not impact players but could easily be moved for minimum returns of 3rd round picks or less. Mark Eaton, Steve Staios and Milan Jurcina are all capable defenders for teams looking for depth, and with the good play or Aaron Ness in his call-up, I would look for Snow to deal one or two of these defenders (Wishart would be the other call up to fill in.)

Brian Rolston (see below) and Jay Pandolfo will be offered up, but garner little value, and thus will more then likely remain with the Islanders.

For those of you who want to see DiPietro go — it is not happening. Not now, and not unless he retires on his own, which is unlikely to happen this season. Assume that DiPietro will be on the opening night roster in October. If there is a 1X buyout amnesty worked into the new CBA, Charles Wang may still not cut his favorite son loose. What you can be sure of is that neither Snow or Jack Capuano see DiPietro as anything more then an 8-12 game player who will then get hurt for long stretches of time. He is not an impact player on the ice any longer. What can become a factor is if the team really begins to compete and the cap hit is an issue, but as of now, they need to have that cap him to reach the floor.

My sincerest hope is to see DiPietro retire this April, but it is unlikely. He is too stupid, and stubborn. He may choose to retire after the 1012-13 season when he sees that the organization has him ranked as the #4-5 goalie behind Nabokov, Monotoya (if either or both remain) and Poulin.

Time To Relax and Just Play
Many fans assumed that Mark Striet’s and Kyle Okposo’s return would provide enough boost to the Islanders to vault them into playoff contention. That, plus the electric play of Michael Grabner should make the Islanders an offensive force. None of the above has happened the way fans wanted, nor, I am sure Striet, Okposo and Grabner.

In the case of Striet the answer is time. After missing a year of hockey, coming off the kind of injury he had, it was going to take half a season for him to find his game. I recall during a game in December that I attended and watching Streit, he just wouldn’t shoot from the point. He would load the gun, but never fire it — not like he used too. I think much of that has to do with that injury. His decision making was also off. Timing, off. It takes time for players to return, even after they “return.” Add to that the burden of being the Captain, and you get what you see. In the last few weeks, he has begun to return to his “Streit-like” self. At both ends, his game has picked up!

With Kyle Okposo, I am not sure if he suffered from the same issue during the early part of this season, or if the guy is in his head. Okposo is a skilled player with power forward potential. The ‘power’ is something he is not displaying enough of. He has been wildly inconsistent. We have seen him at times dominate his space and create for his line, and other times it just appears that he has feet of clay. He needs to make the effort to play a high tempo physical game in order to be at his most effective. I suppose like many of his teammates its a matter of consistency, but he should be more consistent as a little bit older. One can not underestimate however, Okposo has missed a great deal of time in his young career. He has one true complete season at 80 games, and not surprisingly, his best season overall. This season will more then likely be his second best, but still, not nearly enough for a guy who just signed a 5 year deal, and is a core player. The slow start hurt him, and he needs to find it for 82 games. Perhaps he can take a lesson from Matt Martin, or former Islander Darius Kasparitis. Get a big, clean hit done early to get yourself into the game!

With Michael Grabner, I am seeing so much frustration, he must be turning the stick to dust. The ‘Gremlin’ is getting his chances, although teams are ready for him, so not as often as last season. His ‘sophomore slump’ has hurt the team to be sure. This is a player who needs to relax, and keep plugging away. He is too good to just be a “1 and done” but like many goal scorers, he is clearly streaky. The groin injury earlier in the season might be hampering him as well.

The Arena
The last point of these 6 is, perhaps, the most important. No matter how good John Tavares is, no matter if Calvin de Haan comes in next season as a top rookie, or Ryan Strome gives us a dynamic 2nd line center, of Kevin Poulin wins the Calder, the state of the New York Islanders rests with Charles Wang and his ability or inability to find a new home for his hockey team.

Free agents will sign on Long Island if there is a legit chance the team can win, and if Wang is willing to pay up. But with the current uncertainty, Wang is not willing to pay up, and while the team is playing a great deal better, it has not shown itself to be capable of taking the ‘playoff’ step just yet. A winning record this season — playoffs or not — is critical to convincing potential UFAs that this team has a solid winning core, and is ready to turn the corner and compete.

As of this moment, I can’t stress enough how critical the game in Brooklyn in October will be. If we as fans ‘no show’ and there are 1,000 fans in attendance, it will communicate to Charles Wang that Brooklyn is not a viable option as a landing spot for his team. If on the other hand, we fill the arena to the shiny new rafters, it sends a clear cut message to Kate Murray, Ed Mangano, Jay Jacobs and everyone else from the Hooples of Hempstead to the Nimrods of Nassau that the Islanders have their bags packed and ready to move slightly west.It lets everyone know that Barclay’s is a viable home for the Islanders.

Queens remains a potential option as well, but is further away then Brooklyn as no arena is actually planned or under construction. Likewise, we have heard little from new County Exec Steve Bellone in Suffolk County. Other municipalities like Quebec, Hamilton, Seattle  would kill to have the Islanders.

Nassau is, as of now, a dead option. No one in the County or Town of Hempstead is showing any real interest in retaining the Islanders. In fact, the latest in a long line of planning meetings and discussions that have gone NO WHERE — there was even a suggestion that if the Islanders leave, the County could get another sports tenant to replace the Isles. (What ever that guy is smoking, I think its only right that he shares… If the Islanders leave, no sports owner with one brain molecule would consider Nassau County, or Long Island viable.)

In my writing here and elsewhere, I have called on Charles Wang to take a much more aggressive stance on this issue, to force all of these communities to come to him rather then he beg them — to operate as he has what they want to create jobs, to foster economic growth and build excitement within a community. He has failed — miserably — to play this game the right way, and both times he was soundly defeated. Either the advice he is getting is really bad, or he is not listening to good advice he might be receiving from his people. Either way, it has led us to the unthinkable.

The Islanders have, in essence until the beginning of the 2012-13 season to decide their fate. I believe the puck is on Charles Wang’s stick blade. He has his choice of scoring a game winning buzzer beater in Brooklyn, and put an end to all of the speculation and all of the non-sense, or shanking the shot wide by 6 feet. He can and MUST begin open public negotiations with Queens for an arena at Willits Point. But Charles Wang continues to drag his feet in silence. His excuse that they are trying to focus on the hockey season is laughable. Charles Wang is not the 2nd line center for the New York Islanders, worried about getting a goal in the next game. His only in-season task is signing his name to his players pay checks. Using that as an excuse at this crucial time to try and find a new home for the team is dumb and lazy. Pining away for a Nassau County that clearly does not have any desire to keep his team in the County is — I am sorry to say and putting it bluntly here — fucking stupid!

One of these two guys in playing in the NHL... David Ullstrom has been recalled to the Islanders as Brian Rolston is placed on Waivers. Sidney Crosby is still on the shelf!

Until this issue is resolved, the New York Islanders will be mostly quiet with free agents. So those of you looking for Garth Snow to sign Shea Weber or Ryan Suter to long term deals on July 1, 2012, you are setting yourself up for massive disappointment, and lots of time wasted on emails, blog posts and messages on HFBoards about how Snow is stupid and should be fired, and Wang must go. If the Islanders arena issues are solved by June 30, then you can assume the Islanders will be more active. But if not….

After a 50 game tryout, the Isles have finally decided what most of us saw after 10 games — that Brian Rolston can no longer play in the NHL. His 4 goals, 5 assists, 9 points and -13 is taking away valuable ice time from players who are better suited, younger, and can offer far more then Rolston. Arthur Staple tweeted that Rolston has been placed on Waivers. David Ullstrom has been recalled from Bridgeport. This will add a much needed element of skill and spark to the Islanders. I was very disappointed when Ullstrom was hurt, and again when he was returned to Bridgeport after he was deemed ready for play. A new 3rd line of Cizikas (who played nicely last night) centering Ullstrom and Martin should prove to be a very solid energy line. If that line can gel the way I think it can as an effective 3rd line, what happens to Josh Bailey, and where does Nino go??? Thoughts?

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About the Author: A graphic designer who loves the game....and knows that age has slowed him down — but the passion is there. Islanders fan since the 70s, Dad, Husband and Coach of the Flying Tiger's Email: Twitter:

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  1. Chris says:

    Wow…fantastic article…..and I am a 34 year fan of the isles. Well done.

  2. Big Van Vader says:

    When can we purchase tickets for the Brooklyn game?

    What could Charles Wang POSSIBLY be thinking?

    “If I say and do nothing, this whole arena thing will solve itself…”

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