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.


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