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.

1 comment:

  1. Probably should test this comment thing. Is this thing on?