Monday, December 29, 2014

Big Boy Pants Shopping

About a week prior to the Christmas break, the New York Islanders got sucked into a media black hole originating in Edmonton.  The dumpster fire-level state of the Oilers franchise - a familiar one to us Isles fans - exploded after the firing of head coach Dallas Eakins.  The general manager Craig MacTavish insinuated that a full reassessment of the players could lead to a trade of anyone, including the top guys.  The best player on the team happens to be a top-line left wing, a position that Islander fans have been looking for their GM to fill for franchise center John Tavares.  The perfect storm of trade rumors spun up quicker than you can say "E5".

To be fair, I took part in the flurry a bit myself.  Trade talk is genuinely fun for any sports fan.  It's why sports trade rumor web sites exist.  No fan is immune to its appeal.  On the rare occasion when a team executive steps up and directly throws big names into the air, they become the Outbreak monkey.  The rumors quickly spread from there and not long after, we're all in an episode of The Walking Dead, just trying to survive the trade speculation zombies.

All teams have their fair share of rumor mongers.  Fans of bad teams want to change everything.  Fans of good teams want that final piece to guarantee a championship.  The common thread is that the team can be fixed (or solidified) with one magic trade.  Happily the Isles are one of the better teams this year, but there's a consensus that they could use a top left wing to play along side Tavares and right wing Kyle Okposo.  I don't disagree with the need for a top line left wing, which made it easy to understand why the supposed availability of someone like Edmonton's Taylor Hall - an all-star calibre left wing - caused such a reaction.

As fun as coming up with trade ideas for Hall was, the reality was I didn't want to see it actually happen.  Not because I didn't like the idea of having him on the Islanders, but because in the real world, acquiring a player like that would subtract a handful of good players who are providing important contributions every game.  No general manager, even the one responsible for the mess that is the Edmonton Oilers is going to trade away their best player without getting a boatload of players and prospects in return.

If the Islanders are going to transition into a contender, they do not make that trade.  Especially in December.  They have no leverage and, most importantly, no need.  They do not need a top line left wing.  They are winning without one.  Contending clubs do not make trades that impact the roster negatively.  And yes, getting Taylor Hall would have had a negative impact on the overall roster.

Big boy clubs don't act like that.  They wait until the deadline when they have more leverage and can get the best deal.  Luckily, Islanders GM Garth Snow didn't participate in any of the silliness.  All of the credible people covering the team said no trade was ever discussed.  From a fan perspective, I've come to appreciate Snow's patience.  It's a trait that annoyed many fans during the rebuild, but it's essential to a successful rebuilding and equally important to maintaining a competitive roster.

Not only did the front office not bother with silly early season blockbuster trades that would decimate the depth of the roster, but the players themselves did their part by winning back-to-back games (one on the road) against very good opponents in Detroit and Tampa Bay.  The latter game was one of the more exciting outcomes as the team scored two goals in 12 seconds to take the lead late in the third period.

Getting their big boy pants on is one thing, but making sure they fit properly is another.  After the thrilling win over the Lightning, they lost at home to the Montreal Canadiens thanks to a great performance by their goaltender Carey Price.  Christmas dinner didn't taste any worse because of that loss.  The Isles were still near the top of their division and one of the best teams in the league.  It was fun to see my Ranger fan family members for the holidays.

I was still heating up leftovers for my meals when the NHL returned from the holiday break.  I was enjoying my warmed up lasagne when the team took a 3-0 lead against the worst team in the league, the Buffalo Sabres.  However, like they did in back-to-back games earlier in the month, they would blow the 3 goal lead and lose (this time in a shootout - their first OT/SO loss of the year).  Seems the belt buckle on those big boy pants came lose again and the Islanders got caught with their pants down.

Buffalo is terrible, but they've won their share of games.  They've beaten a number of top teams.  Even though the loss was tough to accept, one of the central themes of this season was making sure the team reacted positively to such losses.  When the next game came around - this time against division rival Washington - they pulled up their big boy pants again and took a 3-0 lead in the 3rd period.  Then the Capitals scored.  Then they scored again.  Then again.  And here we were.  Pants down.  Again.

Speaking of "final piece" trades, the acquisition of Johnny Boychuk (and Nick Leddy) was a contributing factor to me starting this blog.  Those trades felt like "final piece" trades.  History will tell us if they really were, but for this game one of those guys were the right piece.  Boychuk scored in OT to win the game and averted a fan crisis after another squandered lead.  The big boy pants still don't fit, but they're back on and the team is adjusting the belt.

Which is better than I can do after all that lasagne.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To Be Rid Of It

The journey to elite status for a franchise is never quick.  In order to get back to being a Stanley Cup contender (especially in the salary cap era), there's lots of heartache and despair to endure.  A number of teams have made the journey from irrelevance to contender, but the New York Islanders have have laid out quite the path for fans over the last 20 years.  One does not simply walk into the Final.

It's not too big of a stretch to imagine Isles fans as the hobbits of the NHL fanbase.  Small in numbers.  Proud but lacking importance.  Happy to live in their own corner of the world without wanting to be bothered.  When outsiders happened to come by, we'd try and tune out the ridicule until they passed.  When it got real bad, some of us would just want to disappear.

It was sad, of course, to feel like this about your favorite team.  Apathy takes root and it's grasp is tough to break free from.  Coping mechanisms like cynicism become reflex actions.  Just how ingrained this is in me became apparent over this past weekend.  The Islanders had suffered through their second 3-game losing streak.  After the first set of losses,  I wrote about the conscious effort I went through to fight these old habits.  I felt I was getting better at handling disappointing games.

Then the Isles took a 3-goal lead into the 3rd period in Minnesota and bad things happened.  I went to bed pissed, which was a regular occurrence in previous years and really snapped me back to a mindset I thought I'd left behind.  Another loss followed and I was living in flashbacks of Novembers past.  As frustrating as it was, it was also familiar.  Prior to the game against the Chicago Blackhawks, I attended a wedding that had plenty of Ranger fan friends and family members.  There was a lot of ribbing back and forth and lot of self-deprecation on my part.

In other words, the same conversations I'd had many times over the previous years.  It was as it had always been.  It was easy.  I embraced it.  Then the Islanders beat the Blackhawks and I thought to myself, "Well at least they were able to win that game."  It felt like all the other "nice games" the Islanders had surprised me with over the last 20 years.  It was how I processed wins that I felt in my subconscious shouldn't have happened.  A tendency I've had for as long as I can remember.

And I didn't want it anymore.

Transforming from an apathetic fan to one that's invested in expectation is a hell of a thing.  The Islanders had (if we're being totally honest) a shocking offseason and a great start to the year.  We were on our way and it felt different right from the start (hence the existence of this blog).  It was all going to change and I wanted to experience every part of it.

This also meant experiencing the tough stretches in a different way.  It's nearly guaranteed that the Islanders will face another losing streak (or 2 or 3).  Even the top teams go through slumps.  However, when there's such an easy response you can dial up at a moments notice, handling those slumps with positivity has proved to be as hard as giving up the Ring.

This adventure is focused on me as a fan and my support - my Fellowship - is the team.  They are on the journey with me, learning and growing as well.  However, they are also more experienced and sure of themselves than we fans are.  Kyle Okposo provided some needed Gandalfian wisdom after Saturday's victory (as quoted by NY Daily News beat writer Stephen Lorenzo):

Guide us, o wise one.

I'm not sure how far we'll all get on this season's quest, but it's never been about winning a Stanley Cup (although that would be quite swell).  When it ends, I want my reflex action to be the positivity I currently must consciously conjure.  I want to be rid of the apathy and save the sarcasm for the minor moments of levity.  I just hope I don't have to toss any of my fishsticks memorabilia into a pit of lava.  That stuff seems like it's going to be worth something real soon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Choice

Fans of perennially bad teams are the emotional lotto players of sports.  We faithfully buy our tickets every season in hopes of getting a winner.  Safe to say, we always end the season crumpling up our worthless tickets and throwing them into the trash bin.

This year (so far anyway) us Islander fans feel like we've finally hit a winner.  Following the victory over Philly in which the Isles thoroughly outplayed the Flyers, the team has continued to win regularly.  The interesting aspect of all the victories (five in seven games) is that a few key players were injured and as a result the team didn't play all that well.  Jaroslav Halak helped carry the team though the rough sea of roster callups and line adjustments.  The defense was especially affected as the team's ice time leader, Johnny Boychuk, was one of the casualties.  Other very important regulars (Lubomir Visnovsky, Travis Hamonic) also went down with injuries.  Out of the forward group, Cal Clutterbuck and Josh Bailey also got banged up and missed time.

In past seasons, such a recipe was a guaranteed disaster that would derail any positive momentum.  The caboose had exploded and the rest of the train was going to go with it.  Not this year.  Seems this team is more than capable of handling it.

The Islanders have the most wins in the league.  They are missing half of their top 6 defenseman and two important forwards.  Additionally, their top line isn't really producing at a consistent rate.  This streak is mostly about Halak, who was named the NHL's First Star of the month for November.  It's not hard to see how the team could navigate all the pitfalls of the season by leaning on it's balanced roster.  This will help preempt future anxiety for the next time the team has to deal with injuries and slumps.  That next time maybe Halak doesn't carry the team, but John Tavares and Kyle Okposo do.  Or maybe it's the SNL (Kid) Line or the top defense paring of Boychuk and Nick Leddy.  The players who will step up to carry the team when they need it could come from any place on the roster.  It's a comforting and alien thought for fans and has us thinking of bigger, shinier, silvery-er things as the season progresses.

It's not just us die-hards, either.  A number of articles were posted that dove into the Islander resurgence and the possibility of not just success this year, but long term.  The discussion is a fun one to have for obvious reasons, but it made me wonder about weighing the current season versus the next ten.

Would I take a Stanley Cup this year if it meant not winning again for 10 years OR would I accept a playoff loss this May in exchange for being a top-5 contending team - one that could maybe win multiple championships for the next decade?

It's a hell of a thing to think about.

If you ask the fans of the Anaheim Ducks or Pittsburgh Penguins, winning that one Stanley Cup was an amazing moment.  But in the years since, with all the ultra-high expectations and playoff losing, they probably have some conflicting feelings.  Since winning the championship, enjoying the regular season has been rather difficult because they all know it won't matter when the playoffs start.  And then the post-season arrives and it's:

Islanders fans have dealt with the awful play of the team for over a decade, so without expectations handling all that losing was just a matter of letting the apathy wash your pain away.  It's two different kinds of failure and honestly, I've had enough sports-related misfortune in my life to fill an empty Miami arena on a Tuesday in November.

Taking the "win now" choice, I'd have one glorious championship year that was bookended by two separate eras of differing disappointments.  I think it's a fair bet that a majority of fans would decide to take this.  It gives us a Cup, which is really all we want at the end of the day.  It may be hard to sit by during future seasons knowing that no matter how good the team is during the year, they will fail in playoffs.  This is a horrifying Groundhog Day-loop to be in as a sports fan.  So, at least having one championship eases the pain.  I'd rather be the Penguins or Ducks than (*shudders*) the San Jose Sharks or Vancouver Canucks.  This is the risk of not taking the single Cup.  You give up the one victorious year in hopes of winning a bunch in the future and it never happens.  The core players get too old or too expensive (a very, very important factor in the salary cap era of the NHL) and the prospect pool dries up because your draft position is awful.


Thinking through that side of the choice almost feels like the decision is a no-brainer.  Except when you think about what could be if the result of the rebuild goes really, really well.

Like, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings-level well.

It's probably safe to assume that fans of the Hawks and Kings are living in a golden age.  Their team is always a top contender and nearly always performs up to expectations in the playoffs.  They're having their cake and eating it too and everyone loves cake.

It's a very tempting carrot.  More so now that we've seen the team play with success across a number of scenarios and with a decent army of really good prospects yet to arrive.  This outcome is a real possibility.  If it were not, the choice would be easy.  Yet the path is lit and we fans can see it laid out in front of us.  All we need to do is sign away the Stanley Cup this year and hope that path leads to at least one or two other ones at some point.

I've mostly defended Islander GM Garth Snow.  I felt I understood the financial restrictions of the team and realized this meant restocking the prospect pool with really good young players (read: cheap) that could form a good core for a handful of years before they've earned a big pay day.  It's the long, hard plan and I was prepared to let him attempt it.  I was massively disappointed in the 2013 offseason.  Following the wonderful playoff series against Pittsburgh, everyone and their mom seemed to know the Islanders were close to contending.  All they needed to do was sign some bigger ticket free agents or trade one or two of those prospects for a top player.  The proverbial "final piece".  When that didn't happen, I blamed both Snow and owner Charles Wang for not taking the next step.  Wang for keeping the financial chains on and Snow for not using the teams assets (cap space and prospects) to acquire those final pieces.

Skip ahead one year and all that has been rectified.  Spectacularly and wonderfully rectified.

Wang, undoubtedly helped by the sale of the team to new ownership partners ("Yay, new money."), opened up the team wallet and Snow targeted the right players.  He also sat back and took advantage of other GMs in bad situations to land Boychuk and Leddy.  The Islanders adressed every need and didn't compromise their current prospect pool.  They gave up more than a few future draft picks, but that won't affect the team for at least five years.  The team is stacked for the long-term right now.  That's quite a coup.  What else could you ask from your team's general manager? 

The Islanders have as good a chance as any team to be very successful over the next five to ten years.  While that is a most tempting thought, I personally think I'd take the Stanley Cup this year anyway.  There's quite a bit of luck that goes into winning one title (let alone two or more).  That's the x-factor that can't be ignored.  For me, it's the deciding factor.  Looking historically at teams like the Sharks and Canucks plus recent Montreal Canadien and Phialdephia Flyer teams show that one bad bounce or ill-timed injury can derail a playoff run.

I'm not sure I could take the "what if" disappointment if the Islanders were to end up like that.  I'd take the one Cup and happily, if not begrudingly, hold on to it for the next 10+ years while waiting for the next great Isles team to be built.

I mean, I've gotten pretty used to doing that anyway.