Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Words Are Hard


I want to change the world.

Truthfully, I don't plan on this change being anything important.  I'm far to lazy for that type of change.  However I do want to add my one-and-a-half cents to the now raging debate over "what makes a sports team a dynasty".  The Chicago Blackhawks are the best team of the last five years.  They have accomplished more in this decade than any other team all while under more constraints than any of the pre-salary cap era championship teams.  This is not the debate.  They are the elite team of their era.

They are not a dynasty.

HOT TAKE ALERT


I stay away from piping hot takery every chance I get, but this debate isn't part of the usual inane click-bait-fueled cesspool.  Somehow, it's mostly a respectful discourse between two sides who - gasp! - acknowledge the other side of the argument, even while disagreeing wholeheartedly.  My assumption is that because there's no real moral ground to stick a self-serving flag in on this topic, those who wish to save their debates for "serious" issues tone down the rhetoric.  So here we all are, civilly deliberating an interesting topic about a positive event in the sports world.

I'm here to fuck that all up.

OH NO, HE'S QUOTING THE DICTIONARY...

The full definition of dynasty, according to Merriam-Webster is 1) A succession of rulers of the same line of descent or 2) a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.

The talk of a sports dynasty should start at consecutive championships.  Personally, I think three is the tipping point, but I would at least entertain the thought of a team that wins back-to-back titles as historically significant and worthy of the discussion.  Winning continuously is really the whole point, no?  Debating this makes no sense to me.  The Blackhawks fail this basic touchstone immediately.  Peter Botte of the NY Daily News summed this up perfectly:


"Dynasty" is about succession.  An unbroken period of time.  One can't use the term while making excuses for gaps in the history.  You either reign as the champ uninterrupted or...you are not reigning.

This point being lost on those on the other side is reason enough to drive me a bit crazy.  Even the folks who understand this nuance ignore it and try to go around the roadblock.  Writers will simply equate the difficulty of what the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70's and New York Islanders of the early 80's did in winning four consecutive Stanley Cups to what Chicago has done in the cap era.  This is understandable.  There is not much debating the difficulty of the accomplishment in a time of forced parity.  The great FiveThirtyEight.com outlined the historical significance of their span of non-continuous championships.  Deadspin argued that this stretch by Chicago is better than any of the "fourpeats" of the past because of how improbable the results seem.

My issue with these arguments is that they inevitably undermine themselves.  It is widely understood that the modern Stanley Cup playoffs are more of a crapshoot than ever before due to rules changes and the aforementioned parity (again, there's that "parity" that everyone refers to when declaring Chicago a dynasty).  Most series are a coin toss.  Seeing the Blackhawks overcome that is very impressive, but it works both ways.  For every clutch play made by one of the core Chicago players, there was a lucky bounce that went their way instead of against them.  Of course, there's been plenty of unlucky bounces during these last few seasons, just ask Chris Campoli:



My point is that if you want to say how much harder it is to win consistently because the teams are so close together in talent-level, then that also means it's just as easy to lose.  To me, that argument simply states that the Blackhawks might not have always been the best team.  Sometimes they were simply the luckiest.  To me, that hurts the argument more than backs it.  If Chicago wasn't always one of the best teams, how could they be proclaimed a dynasty?

When it comes to those Canadien and Islanders teams, the 90's Chicago Bulls or late 90's New York Yankees, no one really talks about them "getting the bounces".  I'm not naive to think that those teams went through all that winning without being lucky.  Of course there was luck involved.  But in a time when front offices could pay out whatever was necessary to keep elite players on the roster, most historical accounts simply accept that these teams were miles better than most of the other teams in their respective leagues.  The luck factor was crushed under the competitive imbalance.  The front offices found the best talent and made sure to overpay for it in order to destroy the other teams.  Sure it was easier for a small amount of big market clubs to do this in a "rich get richer, poor get poorer" power structure, but it's not a slam dunk that spending the most money wins a damn thing (ask pre salary-cap Glen Sather about that).  The people who put together these legendary teams had to also be very good at their job, same as Blackhawk's GM Stan Bowman.  All these teams, Chicago included, were built to win.  The difference is that the dynasties actually did.  Consecutively.  For years.

Isn't that what a real dynasty should be?  A group that figures out how to crush everyone else not just regularly but every time?  I can't look at these Chicago Blackhawks and not also see the Los Angeles Kings being in the same position.  There is no single team in power.  There is no dynasty.

MOUNTAIN...MEET MOLEHILL

Is a word all that important, though?  The essential Kevin Allen of USA Today swept away the use of the term and simply called the Hawks one of the best teams ever (and he's right). The NHL's web site maintained their usual middle ground also without rubber stamping the term (even though Commissioner Gary Bettman did).

Words are usurped and given newer, modern connotations all the time.  After a word has been re-purposed, however, it should maintain the original principle.  Otherwise, you've supplanted the wrong word.

Those proclaiming the Hawks a dynasty usually provide their own definition for the term in their argument.  Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy wrote his take, complete with a bulleted outline of his personal criteria.  When you have to give the word a new definition in order to fit the usage, you're using the wrong word.



If we're all using the wrong word, then we need to find a new one.  Nate Silver used the term "modern dynasty" in the FiveThirtyEight piece, as did Sports Illustrated.  I appreciate the effort, but that's not a solution.  And we really do need a solution.  There's plenty of teams in the history of sport that may not have won three straight championships, but have won a few and competed for a trophy regularly.  The San Antonio Spurs come to mind. (Please do get me started on those "dynasty" debates.)  These cases are common enough that I'm not surprised a word hasn't been wrested from the dictionary already.  Something to describe the powers of their era.  A word that can denote that (unlike Highlander) there can be more than one at a time while maintaining the rarity of their respective accomplishments.  "Elites"?  "Nobility"?  "Powerhouse"?

None of these sound all that good.  I like "nobility" the best but that has as much chance of adoption as calling the Blackhawks the NHL's latest "Targaryens".  What I do know is the word "dynasty" needs to be reserved for those teams that actually, you know, rule their sport without interruption.

Maybe we're all stuck on "dynasty" because this language stuff is really, really hard.  Just like winning the Stanley Cup.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Epilogue


This post was not supposed to exist for a while.


My last entry was a perfect stamp on this writing experiment.  It was very well-received and got retweeted by the great Arthur Staple, Islanders beat writer for Long Island newspaper Newsday.  He even called me "classy".


So as Game 6 against the Washington Capitals approached I decided to leave that article as my last one until the end of the playoffs.  Had the Isles lost the game, it would've taken me quite a while to process all the devastation anyway, what with it being in front of the final Nassau Coliseum crowd.  Besides, I liked the idea of it being the post everyone sees at the top of the blog.

As we Islander fans are wont to do, I was extremely nervous that the last game at Nassau Coliseum would be a season-ending loss.  The team played their worst game in weeks when they lost Game 5 so confidence was pretty low.  Even the new-and-improved optimistic version of me was cracking under the pessimism.  Turned out pessimism was only one of many emotions that would follow.


Over the next 48 hours, the Islanders went out and won Game 6 with an inspired, relief-inducing performance followed by a shocking and gut-wrenching final act in Game 7.  We had lived out Leonardo DeCaprio's final ten minutes of The Departed over the course of two games.

It was all very nauseating and exciting up until we got shot in the head.


Even though the season ended on a massively disappointing note and the team has cleared out of the Coliseum for the final time, there's also a lot to savor.  Even days later, the onion of emotion that opened up after the final horn continues to produce new layers.

La La La, I'm Not Listening

The worst part of the Islanders again losing in the first round is, unsurprisingly, the chorus of "Same old Islanders!" that rose from the ashes of Game 7.  Anyone with a shred of NHL knowledge knows that this year's Isles team is anything but the "same old" squads of the past.  But the raw facts are unavoidable: They still haven't won a playoff series since 1993.  They didn't play all that well at the end of the season and pissed away home-ice advantage.  Head Coach Jack Capuano started making bad decisions with the roster and lineups at the most crucial times.  Most the the team played terribly in Game 7.

All of these things provided ripe ammunition to opposing fans.  Especially fans of the New York Rangers, who'd just happily watched their team win another playoff round.  Hours after the loss, I'd resigned to taking a few text messages from Ranger-fan family members while stepping back from the Internet.  Most of the next day I lurked around Twitter - because who can go more than 3 minutes without checking their feed, amirite? - but avoided all the media recaps and editorials on the series.  It was for the best since entering into a rational discussion at that point was a near impossibility.  My irritability level was ultra-high, which is never a good place to be while on "teh Interwebz".


The Lights Go Off

Once the disgust and hypersensitivity wore off, a true melancholy set in.  All of those feelings from last Sunday's Game 3 came back, intensified by the finality of the situation.  Now it was truly over and the old barn would never host another game.  By Tuesday, the Web was awash in articles with quotes and observances about what the building meant for the players and fans.  I couldn't read any of them.  For a second, I understood why people would dive into the dumpsters to find a keepsake.  But only for a second because, really...that garbage picking stuff is crazy.

As before, the closing of the Coliseum led me to think about the Islanders' new arena in Brooklyn.  I'm know Barclay's Center has all the latest bells and whistles and will provide plenty of high-class amenities for fans, but it's not built for hockey.  The off-center scoreboard and horseshoe-shaped seating (which is the cause of 400+ obstructed seats) are not just quirks, they're a reflection of how the team is still perceived.

Yes, I realize that anyone proclaiming the "Isles suck" because the scoreboard under which they play is a few feet from center is not worth engaging in fun sports-fan banter with.  But still, it's going to happen and I'll have to roll my eyes at it along with everything else.  That cup has been full for decades and I fear adding more might cause a flood.  As pointless as it is to focus on the layout of the seats, I think about it quite a bit.  Only continued success will make it go away and that isn't guaranteed.  Not just yet anyway.


Armchair

Now at the end of the week, thoughts of the off-season have crept in.  Oddly, this is somewhat comforting.  Not because the team is well-positioned to contend for a few years, but it's really all I've had to work with most seasons.  The speculation about Capuano's future was quickly addressed by General Manager Garth Snow.  Personally, I agree with the choice.  Not becuase I think Capuano is a great coach (he's OK), but because it's crazy to fire a coach after the team won more games than any other Islander team since the dynasty years.  The team faltered down the stretch, but also dealt with injuries to some pretty important players.  Special teams was a big issue all year, but while the power play sputtered out, the penalty kill unit got much better.  There's plenty of better coaches out there, but Capuano deserves one more year with higher expectations before the axe is swung.

As far as the roster, there's not much to address outside of the core.  I have plenty of opinions on individual players, but I'll save that for the summer.  The good news is the team is setup very well for the next 2-3 seasons.

And...scene.

Before closing the curtain on this blog for the remainder of the spring, I'd like to thank a few folks for their help.  Dominic and Dan over at Lighthouse Hockey were kind enough to link to my blog in their daily news posts.  I would literally have nobody reading any of this without that small, but critical gesture.  I'd also like to thank Connor from IslesBlog for his feedback and kind words.

I'll be back posting again once the playoffs end.  It's possible I write something before the Cup is awarded, but my personal week-to-week deadline for posting is discontinued for the summer.  I will definitely be picking things up as the 2015-2016 season begins.  With the team in a new building and expectations at a 30-year high, I'm confident there will be plenty of emotions for me to work through.



Thanks.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Fin.


I held off on posting anything specific on Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for a number of reasons.  First, there have been almost infinite pieces written since the beginning of the year.  Some were exceptional reads while others highlighted personal memories.  Between all that was written, I felt there wasn't much to add.  Second, I had always planned to go to a playoff game this year and wanted to wait until after that experience to post something.  Since the playoffs weren't a guarantee until the last week of the season and getting tickets to said playoff game was even less of a guarantee, it took until the weekend of Game 3 for me to even consider if I wanted to write my next post about just the game and team or about the Coliseum.

Turns out, the game made the decision for me.

Not because of how exciting it was, even though it was the most exciting game I've ever been to.  Not because of how loud it was, even though it was the loudest game I've ever been to.

It was everything else.

My long-time friend and I worked on getting tickets to Game 3 early last week.  John, who I've known since high school, has been going to games with me forever.  We were able to cheaply sit five rows back from the glass in the dark days of the late 90's when I can hardly remember anyone else down there with us.  We were at Game 6 in 2002 against the Maple Leafs, losing our minds as Eric Cairns destroyed Shane Corson at center ice and Shawn Bates (Shawn Bates!) fought Public Enemy #1 Darcy Tucker.  It was, up until yesterday, the most memorable sporting event I'd ever been to.

Not long after that game we'd both find wives, get married and relocate to upstate New York.  The number of games we attended shrunk considerably, a product of both the distance and the play of the team.  The plan was hatched to attend the last home opener at the Coliseum so that could be our final game at the old barn just in case that whole playoff thing didn't come to fruition.  Happily the Islanders did make the playoffs, giving us one last opportunity to make the trip down to Long Island and tailgate.

The day began with what could've easily been the high point of the whole thing.  John and I decided to just drive down with coffee in hand and not get breakfast before leaving.  The thought of a three-hour drive at 6am on an empty stomach wasn't all that thrilling, but we wanted time to relax before the game started.  It was never said outright, but I think subconsciously we knew it was best to wait for an old fashioned Long Island deli egg sandwich instead of eating the rather pedestrian stuff we have lived with upstate.  Boy, was that the right call.

We got to the Coliseum around 9am and quickly noticed the Coliseum Deli across the street.  We were excited to get our hands on those egg sandwiches and even more excited to order a couple of Manhattans (roast beef, mozzarella & gravy on buttered garlic bread).  However, the excitement over the food quickly shifted to celebrity excitement as we saw a dapper fellow stride into the deli from the rear entrance.

"Hey, is that.." John asked as he nudged my arm with his elbow.  I turned and looked and first noticed the hair.  I don't think I stared all that long, but then again there's always that time between your eyes seeing something recognizable and your brain processing it as reality.  That might've taken an extra second or two.

"That's Matt Martin." I replied finally.

The other patrons in the deli, about six of them, seemed to do the same thing as a hush fell over the group.  The low din of early morning, tired chatter faded as Martin noticed everyone had noticed.  He had his game day suit on, looking dapper and surprisingly svelte.  He silently nodded to a few folks as he walked through to the counter.  He stood in line with the commoners as one guy broke the silence and asked for a picture.  Martin complied and was very nice.  He approached the counter to order an egg omelette and when it came time to pay he was told the prior customer had already paid for his meal.  I felt bad for him - as bad as you can feel for a professional athlete anyway - as he stood there looking around the room with the cash sticking out of his well-worn fist, hoping to find the guy and pay him back.  The generous fan had already gone.  As he waited for his order, ours was delivered and we grabbed the brown bag and headed towards the exit.  We both said "Good luck" and shook his hand as he gave us a smile.  I had to look up, but John was able to look him in the eye.  We walked out and finally let go our inner fanboys, who had been running around like a kid on Christmas inside our heads from the previous 10 minutes.

"It's going to be a good day," I said.

The smiles on our faces got into our parking spot before we did.  The two hour tailgate started with a few furious texts and phone calls to tell friends and family about our Martin encounter.  We devoured our egg sandwiches and cracked open some rare beers as we watched the other fans arrive.  We relived some memories, tried to calm our nerves and people-watched.  It was during this time I realized how sad I actually am about the team leaving this arena.  Once this playoff run ends, there will be no more tailgating.  In my experience it was never just "going to an Islander game."  It was always "tailgating and going to an Islander game."  As I sat in my chair noshing on the first half of that Manhattan hero, it finally sank in.

The game itself was brilliant.  An amazing atmosphere and a dramatic setting that was not far off from the playoff game 13 years ago.  The difference was how tense it all was.  In the game against the Maple Leafs, the Isles took the lead in the second period and then extended it in the third.  There wasn't nearly as much worrying involved.  The fights near the end sent the crowd into bananapants-crazytown mode, but it had a different, more sideshow feel.

This game was close through all 60 minutes and 15 seconds.  My out-of-shape knees got a needed workout with all the standing and sitting.  When the first period ended scoreless, that feeling of dread that goes along with knowing the first goal may win the game weighed heavily on the crowd.  When Kyle Okposo scored that opening tally for the Islanders, the floor shook.  As the game continued, there were very few times when the crowd noise lightened.  Even after the Capitals tied it late in the game, the crowd took a moment to be disappointed but quickly returned to trying to cheer up the home team.  As the intermission between regulation time and overtime ticked away, I thought about the correlation between this series and the one against the Pittsburgh Penguins two years ago.  The Isles had also split the opening two games against a good team, earning home-ice advantage.  That Game 3 also went to overtime, but the Isles didn't win.  The old Isles fan in me popped back into my head to remind me that this is how this story should end.

Then came those 15 seconds.

After all the jumping and hugging and screaming, we were just standing there catching our breath and shocked at how "that thing" (you know...the one that always seems to happen to the Isles) didn't just happen.  It was a cathartic moment.  We also tried to describe the volume level we'd just sat in.  We couldn't.

Which brought my brain around to the Barclays Center again.  I'm not worried about the fans from LI not following the team to Brooklyn, even though some won't.  I'm not worried about the types of new fans the team will earn from the city, who are not better or worse than us suburbanites.  I realized that even if everything is exactly same and the fans in Barclays scream just as loud as we did at the Coliseum, it just won't be better.  The physics don't work.  The Coliseum is a big oval pit with a low roof, exposed rafters and small doorways.  The sound of thousands of people cheering simply has nowhere to go.  It can't be duplicated by other buildings, especially those designed with a more "open" layout.

As we walked outside and back to the car, we just shook our heads in continued disbelief over the outcome.  We popped our chairs back out and cracked open one last beer and unwrapped the last half of our juicy heroes.  We sat in satisfied silence as the other fans poured out and got into their cars, beeping their horns widly to the beat of "Let's Go Is-Lan-Ders!"  It was such a fitting end to it all.

Of course, it's not yet over for the team.  This final playoff run is something I hope goes on for a long time.  The thought of one more game in Nassau has given me another level of investment in this post-season.  I don't want it to be over in this building.  When a game ends, all I want is to see that shitty scoreboard one more time above another opening faceoff.

Sadly, it will end and endings are sad.  This isn't the last Islander game I'll ever attend, but it will be the last of my Islander games.  I'm not trying to be fatalistic about it.  I'm happy they are still playing in an arena I can travel to in a car.  The truth is, I will always be a fan of this franchise.  Had they moved to some other state (or province), I'd still be a fan.  That was not an option.  Growing up, I knew more than a few older Giants and Dodgers fans who still cheered for their teams from another coast.  That would've been me with these Islanders.  To me, it really doesn't matter where they play after the Coliseum.  I will always cheer.  I will always live and die with ever shot.  I will take my kids to games and hope they love hockey (and the team) as much as I do.  I'm looking forward to every bit of that.

For me this isn't one chapter ending and a new one starting.  This is my own personal book running out of pages.


Farewell



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It Follows


The final week of the New York Islanders' regular season was all things.  There were run-around-your-living-room-high-fiving-the-walls moments of excitement along with slumped-in-your-chair-staring-into-space-wondering-what-happened moments of despair.  Sometimes these things happened within minutes of each other.  The end result for the team was a playoff berth but not with home-ice advantage.  For me the latter was disappointing since it was a goal I'd cheered for since the midway point of the season.

That disappointment was diminished from earlier in the year.  I had recently convinced myself that the extra home game in the opening round wasn't a deciding factor.  I still believe that, but the way in which the Isles lost that advantage speaks to the larger narrative of how I've handled this breakout season as a fan.

As biased as I am, this final week has given me quite the example to cite when I try to explain why being an Islander fan is so exhausting.  I'm sure there are members of every NHL team's fanbase ready to denounce my opinion on this but even in my best objective attempts, I can't find a more stark example of passionate schizophrenia than this season.  The hockey world is well aware of the shoe-drop mentality of Islander fans.  Sure, followers of every team regularly feel like something bad is about to happen.  It's part of the joy/pain of sports.  However, for Isles fans it's not just feeling like something bad is about to happen, it's getting that feeling and then watching the bad thing actually happen.

All good teams go through slumps during the year.  It's usually injuries that cause the disruption, but even with a mostly healthy roster a team will have to endure extended stretches of under-performing.  But it's the timing that gets to Isles fans.  Ask any fan and nearly all of them would agree that such a streak couldn't have happened any other way or at any other time.  It's the Islanders and this is what happens.

Which brings us to that final week.

The Isles had a chance to clinch that elusive playoff spot by earning a point against the already-eliminated Philadelphia Flyers.  Even after all the mediocrity of the last few weeks, all those wins in the first three-quarters of the season had given the Islanders the cushion they deserved to weather the storm.  A road game against the Flyers never breeds confidence in any Islander fan even after a year such as this.  When the Flyers took a 4-1 lead into the third period, most of us had given in to fate.  While a loss wouldn't have dropped the Isles out of the playoff picture, it was another domino in the sequence.  The sky was falling and it was filled with shoes.

Then the Islanders - as they'd done a few times this year - brought us all off the ledge by breaking through with three late goals that tied the game with 30 seconds to go.  Isles fans didn't know what to do with themselves.  I didn't know what to do with myself.  When John Tavares won that faceoff and made a brilliant play to an open Anders Lee in the slot, who then buried the puck behind Flyer goalie Steve Mason, I jumped out of my chair and ran around like squirrel on cocaine.  They only needed one point in the standings to clinch.  They didn't even need to win the game.  They just needed to get to overtime.  That tying goal was yet another "this-isn't-your-same-old-Islanders" moment and it had seemingly come at the perfect time.

Except that there was still enough time left in the game for one more "same-old-Islanders" moment.  The Flyers scored on a last-second prayer of a shot from the blueline that goalie Jaroslav halak flubbed badly.  It's a play that goalies make thousands of times a season and maybe screw up once or twice.  But when it happens to the Islanders, it costs them the clinching of a playoff spot.

This is why we Islanders fans can't let go.  These moments follow the team like a bad hangover.  In the days following the loss, fans watched as the Boston Bruins lost to the Florida Panthers, giving the Isles the playoff spot that eluded them two nights before.  Except fans could only enjoy it so much as the cries of "they backed into the playoffs" echoed along with the cheers.  Even after a great road win against the floundering Pittsburgh Penguins couldn't temper the uneasiness.

Tried as we might, even the final regular season game at Nassau Coliseum couldn't give us the good vibes needed going into the playoffs.  A blown two-goal, third period lead and a loss in a shootout took home-ice advantage away and left the fanbase in a confused state.  Lighthouse Hockey posted a perfect exchange between two of their contributors that summed all of it up perfectly.  The questions linger.  Are they good enough?  Can they play like they did at the start of the year?  Can the goalie be better when needed?

If all these questions sound familiar it's because we Isles fans have been asking them for years.  However, instead of worrying about these things at the start of the year, we now must worry about them as the best team the Isles have had in 20 years starts the playoffs.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Suck it, Tom Petty


Fans of the New York Islanders are fragile.  We have yet to fully shed our cocoon of worry even though this year's team has remained one of the most consistent in the league.  Well, at least they were up until the loss to the Rangers.  That game marked the start of their worst stretch of the year.  A stretch that resulted in a record of 1-6-1 over the next eight games.  Luckily, the team was able to win a wild back-and-forth game against the Detroit Red Wings and avoid finishing the month of March on a serious downer.


Let's reset for a second.  The Islanders are still one of the more consistent teams in the league.  As I wrote previously, this was the frustrating part to the losing streak.  Even though the wins weren't there, the team played some very good hockey.  The Isles had their share of issues - you don't lose that often without some things going wrong - but the biggest factor in the outcomes of the games was usually the opposing goalie.  After running into Andrew Hammond and Carey Price (and playing terribly in Chicago) they were Dubnyk'd (Minnesota), Quick'd (Los Angeles) and (surprisingly) Andersen'd (Anaheim) over three straight games.  The Islanders had plenty of opportunities and carried play for long stretches in each of those games.  Prior to the game against the Anaheim Ducks, Michael Willhoft wrote a nice post over at Lighthouse Hockey that hopefully gave some much needed perspective to all the cracking Isles fans.  I know it helped me.

When they were finally able to break their scoring slump and win a game, the sigh of relief from the fanbase was palpable.  Obviously, getting back in the win column was paramount, but the Red Wings game also marked a break in the schedule.  The Islanders had played a high number of games until this current three day respite.  Whenever I looked at the standings I would enjoy the Isles' place amonst the top teams and the optimism would swell accordingly.  Then I'd notice the games played column and all those warm and fuzzies would be taken away from me.


I had long ago surrendered the division title to those annoying New York Rangers because they had played roughly 328 less games than the Isles at any given point in the season.  Accepting this allowed me to build the required apathy to counter any Ranger fan preening as the season wound down.  It also eliminated some of the excitement for the final five games.  Sure, there's still home ice advantage - which I've been pining for all year.  But as Brian Erni wrote on Islanders Point Blank, having the extra home game is really nice, but not a huge factor.  The penultimate game against the Pittsburgh Penguins should be real fun, but other than that we've been reduced to hoping no one important gets injured before the playoffs.

Choosing not to worry too much over being the higher seed and the team a virtual lock to make the postseason, it really leaves us fans with nothing to do but wait.


The irony of the situation is that we Isles fans are used to sitting around at the end of the season, twiddling our thumbs and watching the team play out the string.  Difference is we've usually been waiting for the draft lottery.  Interestingly, I've gravitated towards the many annual draft lottery articles (and tanking debates).  Reading about percentages and draft order scenarios feels like home.

But we've moved to some new digs.  So now what?  Instead of worrying about which ping pong ball comes out first, I'm worrying about John Tavares going too hard to the net or Jaroslav Halak stretching too far to make that extra save against the lowly Buffalo Sabres this coming Saturday.  I need to wear loose pants while watching Nick Leddy carry the puck through the neutral zone, but that thrill will be gone right quick if I see him being lined up for a hip-check by an opposing defender.  I will instead assume the hope-and-pray position on my floor.

Maybe I need a personal scratch.  Not unlike the veterans on the team being giving a game (or two...or three) off by head coach Jack Capuano.  My sanity might need to go a couple of games without turning on the TV.  I'm not sure spending all game wincing at each bodycheck thrown on an Islander player is healthy for me.


After all that's happened this year, through all the ups and downs (mostly ups) and cheering and jeering, it seems the waiting really is the hardest part.  Damn you, Tom Petty.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Headlights


The tune-up game against the rival New York Rangers didn't go well for the Islanders.  The game itself was an exciting, playoff-style affair that cost me some bragging rights and fingernails.  What no one realized at the time was it was a harbinger for things to come in the two games that followed.

The main obstacle to victory for the Isles against the Rangers was goaltender Cam Talbot, who is in the midst of one of those amazing backup goalie winning streaks that make the hockey media swoon.  He deserves all that praise as he's carried the Rangers to a ridiculous 13-2-3 record in the 18 games since the start of February.  While there was plenty for Isles fans to hold on to - the team out-shot and out-played the Rangers for decent stretches of time - the result was absolute.  So was the reaction of giddy Ranger fans.  Even though the Isles were still in first place following the game, the Rangers had closed the gap to a single point and had more than enough games in hand.  The inevitability of the Rangers overtaking the Isles was palpable within both fanbases.  The Isles have cruised the fast lane all year but the Rangers had suddenly come screaming up behind them, tailgating and flashing their lights like a Hamptons EDM club.


Unfortunately, that inevitability came to fruition later that week as the Rangers continued to win games with their goaltending and defense.  The Islanders in turn continued to lose tough games in which the team played really well but were victims of a stellar opposing goalie.  It was a sad version of Ranger Game Groundhog Day.


In the next game against the Ottawa Senators, the Isles ran into Andrew Hammond.  Andrew Hammond is rewriting NHL record books right now.  The next day, they played the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, who is not only a lock for the Vezina Trophy as this year's best goalie but may also win the Hart Trophy as league MVP - something only 6 goalies have ever done.


It was the most frustrating way to watch the team lose.  They played pretty well and just didn't get the bounces required to win.  That's never the best side of a fan debate to take as you basically have to argue the existence of voodoo, wizardry and bullshit (copyright @Steve_Dangle - My condolences to Leafs fans as I know your pain).  A number of team blogs and beat writers did their best to ease the panicking fanbase.  Unsurprisingly, it didn't help to change the attitude.  I myself have been fighting the urge to freak out.  My dueling optimistic and pessimistic sides have basically rendered me catatonic like a deer in headlights.  I hoped by remaining silent it would all go away and go back to the way things were.  Then the team went to Chicago to play the Blackhawks.

Turns out those headlights were attached to a Mack truck.  The Isles looked worse than any of the previous three losses, getting run all over the ice by a great team playing a great game.  The fact that starting goalie Jaroslav Halak didn't travel with the team due to a minor injury added a metric ton of TNT to an already super-heated volcano of pessimism.

The Islanders left the Windy City with their first four-game losing streak of the season.  Granted it's mid-March, so that's a vast improvement over previous years.  Also, while the Rangers are steamrolling the conference, the other teams in the East have floated alongside the Isles in mediocrity.  Personally, I use this fact as my main focus when the worry-monster rears it's familiar head.

"It could really be much, much worse."

It's also been a bit of a revolving door to the trainer's room for the team.  Every team in the NHL deals with nagging injuries this late in the season and the Isles are no different.  Luckily most of the injuries seem to be minor (with the exception of Mikael Grabovski), but the effects are noticable.  Top winger Kyle Okposo returned from his eye injury but has looked to be a step slow.  Top defenseman Nick Leddy has missed every game of the losing streak, which is not a coincidence.  Head coach Jack Capuano is also sitting players for "maintenance days".  I understand the logic since even with the recent struggles, the Isles are going to make the playoffs.  Making sure guys don't make any of the usual nagging injuries worse is admirable.  But it also fuels the rage of fans who just want the losing streak to end as they watch an inferior lineup start every game.


Who knows, though.  Maybe it's best to follow the lead of the coaches and look at the big picture.  The Isles have lost first place in the division and with the new playoff format flip-flopping between second and third in the division is strictly about home-ice advantage.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling just as much and only have one game in hand so the Isles are still in the driver's seat for that.  Over all, it would take quite a collapse for the Islanders to miss the playoffs so there's lots to be positive about.

But man, it's a tough perspective to have.  Especially when the headlights are so bright in your eyes.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Boss Fight


It feels silly to need any more validation of this New York Islanders season.  The Isles have been one of the best and most consistent teams since the opening puck drop of the first game.  Even as we fans have bitten our nails and furrowed our brows through the team's post-All Star break injury issues, they have stayed atop the division.  However, even though they kept that lead in the Metropolitan, the Islanders have watched as the rival New York Rangers have crept up behind them in the standings.  The Rangers supplanted the Pittsburgh Penguins as the second place team trying to knock the Isles from their perch by winning 12 of their last 19 games.  A number of NHL power rankings have moved the Rangers ahead of the Islanders.  Some put the Rangers at the top of the league.


Thing is, I can't really argue.  Other than to light up the douche train, of course.  The Isles have scratched and clawed their way to their consistency in recent weeks, winning tough games and losing a couple of bad ones.  The Rangers just keep winning.  Even more amazing is that they've done it without their all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  It's been remarkable, exciting and really, really, really annoying.  Annoying not only because they're the friggin' Rangers, but because they have one of the highest team SPSv% (PDO) in the NHL.  For the uninitiated, head over here for an explanation (skip down to the SPSv% [PDO] section).  When a team like the Rangers is showing an SPSv% of 101.6 it assumes they are riding a hot shooting streak or hot goaltender (or both).  As they are the enemy, I like any stat that indicates they may be due for some bad luck.  Problem is those values guarantee nothing.  While plenty of teams with a high SPSv% did actually regress down and hit the predicted bad luck streak, some didn't.  Most notable are the 2010-11 Boston Bruins and the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.  Both ended the year with a SPSv% above 102 and went on to win the Stanley Cup.  (Note: I understand that the 2012-13 season was only 48 games, but I think the point still applies.)  While the numbers show they are due to slow down, it's no sure thing the Rangers do.

Which really, really sucks.

Why? Of course there's the obvious reason, but objectively it's because the Islanders finally have a favorable schedule as they conclude the season.  Starting this Friday, they have 13 games remaining.  Eight of those are at home.  There are only two remaining back-to-back sets of games.  There's a few tough opponents, but half of those are Western teams.  From the East, the Isles will play Montreal, Detroit and Pittsburgh with the Penguins being the only road game of those three.  As chaotic as the Isles' February schedule was, their March/April one gives them the respite they were working so hard to reach.

The only thing in the way of a hopefully calm and collected final 13 games are those annoying New York Rangers.


A mid-March regular season game between two teams already close to locks for playoff berths isn't the usual recipe for a "game-of-the-year".  They're usually a "don't injure our guys and we won't injure yours" love-fest.  But it's Islanders versus Rangers.  Both teams are elite squads.  The latter has been chasing the former all year.  The former has beaten the latter in three of four previous games.  The one game the Rangers did win was a classic comeback that was shaping up to be another victory for the Islanders.  All these things have fed the hype machine and it's primed to spit out a nauseating amount of hot takes from the hockey media..

The Isles have navigated this gauntlet of a season as well as any team in the league.  They've stayed poised through the highs and lows, even as the fanbase was screaming about the sky falling. Injuries to key guys have not had the devastating consequences some may have feared they would.  They've come this far and the end is in sight.

Even though the Isles have lead the Rangers in the standings all year and have already won the season series, in my head the Rangers are still the heavyweight.  They've got arguably the best goalie in the world.  They've been to the playoffs and had deep runs regularly over the last decade.  It makes me shiver to bring it up again, but they did wind up in the Stanley Cup Final last year.  So while this next game may not be a Game 7, it's the Super Macho Man bout that leads up to four rounds of Mike Tyson-level battles in the post-season.



Keeping the Rangers a few points back would do wonders for my sanity.  Not unlike having a few power-ups in hand before walking through those big scary castle doors.  The best games are the ones that force you to keep your skills sharp.  Playing a playoff-level game in mid-March isn't a bad thing unless there's an injury to a key player.  The more high-intensity situations the team can experience, the better in my opinion.  If the Islanders do eventually lose their top spot in the division, they have time to respawn and make their way back.

Or they could do what they've done a few times this season and just beat the Rangers and extend their cushion like my sanity is begging them to do.  They've surprised me a number of times already.

What's one more?

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Blueprint


Another two weeks, another step closer to the playoffs as the Islanders won five out of eight games since my last post.  Sadly one of the losses was an epic game against the hated Rangers, but the game was supremely entertaining even as the Isles collapsed in the final period.  It made the entire hockey world beg for a playoff series between the two rivals.  Personally, I'd be happy to experience that series in the second round or later.  The Isles need to win at least one round this spring for the season to be deemed a success, so I'll already be plenty un-sober while dealing with any opponent they face.  If that opponent were the Rangers, well...


For now I'm cheering for the team to secure home-ice advantage for that anticipated first round series and for the injury bug to remain far away from the clubhouse.  So far so good on the first wish, but it's getting iffy on the second.  Kyle Okposo is still out (albeit on schedule to return in a couple of weeks). Casey Cizikas has missed the last four games.  Mikhail Grabovski likely suffered another concussion and Frans Nielsen (Danish god among men) hurt his ankle in the loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  Luckily Nielsen didn't miss any games, but it's moments like those that will eat away at my sanity as the season winds down.


The Islanders have enough depth to handle a single injury here or there.  Hell, they have too many decent players and have played an effective IR shell game all year in order to keep from sending extra bodies down to the minors (and through waivers).  General Manager Garth Snow seems to need at least one guy on IR to keep the roster intact.  It took injuries to three starting forwards for things to finally start getting thin up front.  Such depth is a hallmark of contending teams and one of the reasons why the hockey world is starting to come around on the Isles as a Stanley Cup contender this year.

Not too far back I answered the question of whether I'd want to have a Cinderella run to a single Stanley Cup this year followed by another decade of failure, or take a playoff loss after this season in hopes of enjoying multiple championships in the coming years.  I choose to take the Cup since in the end, nothing is guaranteed.  An important factor in the question was that the Islanders and their depth are poised for a good long run of competitive hockey.  The post took this assumption as fact.  However, I have since wondered if the details really support that assessment.

The foundations of contending teams don't always follow similar blueprints.  If you look at some of the recent top teams, there are obvious components that make up a competitive roster.  A Vezina-caliber goalie or Norris-caliber defenseman sure helps.  An elite top center with a deep top 12 group of forwards is nearly a requirement.  However, just because a team doesn't have all these things, doesn't mean it can't be a perennial Cup challenger.  The question is, how many of these pieces are needed?  If we focus on these four elements, maybe we can see how deep things need to go.  Maybe it's as simple as adding up the different pieces to see where a team sits.

For those with an allergy to numbers and spreadsheets, make sure you take your meds before continuing.  I was going to write this analysis out, but realized it's better to ask forgiveness for a table or two than ask for them to use the bathroom before reading.  Conversely, if you are a person of science and numbers and well thought out critical thinking, then my "analysis" will also make you cringe.


Here's what I feel have been the NHL's regular contenders and how many of the crucial pieces they've had on their roster:

Team MVP Forward Norris Defenseman Vezina Goalie Forward Depth
 Los Angeles 0 1 1 1
 Chicago 2 1 0 1
 Pittsburgh 2 0 0 0
 Boston 0 1 1 0
 NY Rangers 0 0 1 1
 San Jose 1 0 0 1
The first three columns are pretty obvious.  The fourth - Forward Depth - is more subjective.  A pattern emerged where the two teams that have won multiple titles (LA, Chicago) had a higher "score" than the others.  They had more of the ingredients.

The Penguins and Bruins, while not tallying as high a total in this admittedly unscientific experiment, did actually manage to each win a Stanley Cup.  How?  Well, Pittsburgh rode Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin all the way to the promised land.  Boston got an ungodly postseason from goalie Tim Thomas.  These two teams overcame their deficiencies in other areas by getting significant performances from their best players.

Teams like the Sharks and Rangers stay on all those Cup prediction lists at the start of every season because they have as many pieces as Boston or Pittsburgh.  While they may lack an elite forward or defenseman, both are deep in their top 12 forwards and top 4 defenseman.  I understand how subjective this is but I'm well into "TL;DR" territory, so I'm going to keep it simple.  For now, just trust me.  Most knowledgeable hockey folks will cite depth for both teams as a key factor in their recent success.  The Rangers are deep and have an all-world goalie.  The Sharks are deep and have usually had an MVP-caliber forward in Joe Thornton.  The fact that Thornton has declined in performance is contributing to the Sharks struggles this year.

So what do the Islanders have?  They're currently the new San Jose Sharks.  An elite top center with a deep group of forwards, but not quite all the way there on defense and in net.  This is great because the Sharks have contended every year for a while but also scary because well, this is what the Sharks have to show for all those playoff appearances:


The reality is the less of these pieces a team has, the more it relies on luck or - for lack of a better term - "career performances".  If the Isles want to become a superpower like LA or Chicago, Jaroslav Halak will have to step up more consistently than he already has or one of the top defenseman must take the next step.  Sorry, Jaro, but to me the best chance is that a defenseman develops into a Norris-level guy.  Luckily, Snow just locked up Nick Leddy, who is a decent candidate for such an evolution.  Johnny Boychuk is older and has little developing left to do, but has become a top-pair blueliner when finally given the minutes so it's not a stretch to think he could progress even farther, at least in the mid-term.

There's also young guys like Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock knocking on the roster door.  It's quite premature of me to proclaim either of those two will be award-winning defensemen, but as far as defense prospects go, at least they're near the top of the list of future candidates.

I'll be cheering for some luck and a career performance from one or two (or three) guys this postseason because the Isles will need that.  But I'll also be keeping a close eye on Leddy and Halak for signs of taking that next step into the elite-level territory that their captain currently occupies.  Only one more piece needs to get there to really have something long term in Brooklyn and beyond.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Grace Period


The New York Islanders are chugging along on their resurrection season, which is giving diehard fans a growing soapbox from which to cheer from.  Truth be told, the team has had pretty mediocre results since the All-Star break, winning only half (4 of 8) their games.

One of the reasons I enjoy hockey and the Islanders so much is because I have a healthy rivalry with my Rangers-fan younger brother and cousin, whom we are very close with.  My older brother is also an Isles fan like me, so the four of us are constantly ribbing one another whenever possible.  Throw in a group of longtime friends who have also chosen sides, and it's a shock we all end up alive at the end of each season.

During this recent stretch of ordinary hockey, an email floated into my inbox which questioned the validity of goaltender Jaroslav Halak's play and surmised that he won't be able to get the team deep into the playoffs.  I thought, "He's questioning an all-star?!?"

Of course, I replied with a request for evidence to somehow back up this dubious claim.  When he did, he made me realize something.  Halak actually has been rather average.


In order to save face, I made sure to mention how often the Islander goalie has made the necessary save during a close game.  The truth is, the team simply doesn't give up all that many shots per game (they're second in the NHL).  If Halak stops 90% of them, all the Isles have to do is score 3 goals.  Which they also happen to do quite often (they're fourth in the NHL).  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this formula.

So even though I had to acquiesce to the Ranger fan, I didn't sulk about it.  Sulking is something Islanders fans have mastered over the last 20 years.  Most "debates" with rival fans weren't really debates insomuch as they were excuses to fire up the pity train.


That sort of stuff was in the past.  This year, there was no need for a sheepish retreat.  In fact, I felt it necessary to mention - repeatedly - how the Islanders are doing just fine with their average goaltending.  Fine enough to be four points ahead of the Rangers and (still) leading the division.  I didn't hesitate to pull the "and it's not like the Rangers can beat their average goalie anyway" card.


Of course, this felt great.  For many years, I'd listen as fans of good teams would quickly distill every argument down to a simple, "They just win" proclamation.  And during all those years, I grew to really, really hate that sentiment.  It was a main ingredient to the fuel of that pity train.  Instead of trying to debate the merits of the team and hear the inevitable reply, we'd become accustomed to just slumping back and giving in before even starting.

"I know, I know.  They do some 'good things', but yes...they still lose all the time."

A long-running joke of mine is that I'm a fan of the Isles and New York Mets because I want to teach my kids that winning isn't everything.  There's a small truth to it.  I've had to answer the age-old question, "Why are you a fan of a losing team?" more times than I care to remember, but I have a twisted sense of pride when I do.  Being this loyal is hard and not many fans would last this long.  It's a pointless battle of attrition, but it's a battle I haven't lost yet nonetheless.

Because of this I tend to hold a bit more contempt for those fans at the other end of the spectrum.  Bandwagoners are a part of any successful team's fanbase and not all are obnoxious.  Of course, the more sustained the success, the more prevalent those unpleasant fans become.  The older I've become, the more weary I've grown of these people.

Except with that email back to my brother and cousin, I turned into one.


Surely I can have some time to bask in the (admittedly very recent) success of the Islanders without becoming "that guy".  I remember watching the 1996 Yankees win the World Series and while I hated every second of it personally, it was hard not to be happy for my friends and family who'd sat through as many bad seasons over the previous 15 years as I had.  They were as surprised as they were elated.  But surprise success quickly lead to consistent success and, well...we all know where some of the fanbase has gone from there.


I can say for sure I'll never really turn into "that guy" no matter how much success the Islanders achieve.  I'm not wired that way and luckily neither are most fans.  But all fans are proud of their team.  Even losing ones.  It's one of the components of being a fan that invests their time and emotion into following the team.  Unlike optimism and confidence - which have been completely missing from my selection of feelings - pride has always been there.  Except now the source of pride is the complete opposite.  Such a quick shift takes some getting used to, but it also warrants taking advantage of.  We've got a grace period to work with.  It may not last very long.  A first-round playoff exit would put an end to all of it pretty quickly.  But right now, as the team sits atop the division, I think most other fans would afford us a few obnoxious retorts.  A few dismissive waves of the hand while countering with a simple statement:

"They just win."

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Road Not Travelled


The New York Islanders came back from the All-Star break and picked up right where they left off, beating the rival New York Rangers at home.  It was an important game not only because it was the Rangers, who are right behind the Isles in the division and their biggest rival, but because it was the first game back after a week off and would help set the tone for the last part of the season.  The team winning these "big test" games has become an increasingly common occurrence.  So much so that my reaction to the win was more like:



...than what I used to do when the Isles beat a good team:



As the season has progressed - and more so after the victory over the Rangers - praise for all things Islanders has come from all corners of the continent.  Two weeks ago, even the Fresno Bee was posting stories to get in on the action.  Without fail, the adulation includes references to all the moves GM Garth Snow was able to pull off in the offseason.  Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Mikael Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, and Jarosalv Halak have all been major contributors to the success of the team so far.

The offseason was such a whirlwind around so many new players arriving that everyone has forgotten about what might have been.  It's probably better that way, of course, since what might have been is a terrifying thought.  Like every GM, Snow made numerous decisions in the last two offseasons.  While everything he did this past summer turned up rosy, the moves he was unable to consummate in the years before had just as much to do with the shape of the team.

No Soup For You

A few veteran Islanders were traded away as is became obvious Snow wasn't going to offer them new contracts at the price the players were asking.  Going back to the 2013 offseason, captain (at the time) Mark Streit was a capable yet aging blueliner who was likely seeking a longer contract instead of an outright lucrative one.  The Islanders seemed OK with giving him fair market value as far as salary (around $5 million a year), but were staying away from anything longer than three years (due in no small part Streit being over 35 in age).  Turns out, Philadelphia was all too happy to cave on both factors and traded New York a draft pick in order to sign him before he became a free agent.  He signed with the Flyers for four years and $21 million.  Streit has been decent for Philly in the years since, helping them to the playoffs last year and leading their defenseman in scoring this year (even though the team itself is pretty terrible).  Having Streit on the roster for the Islanders during last year's flameout might have helped mitigate some of the glaring defensive deficiencies, but I don't think anyone would say he'd have been a big key to a turn around.  Plus, were he still on the team this year it may have kept Snow from acquiring Boyhuck or Leddy (or both).  That result in and of itself is reason enough to feel good about his departure.

A new contract for defenseman Andrew MacDonald never really came close to happening and Snow was somehow able to trade him to Philadelphia for two draft picks and a C-level prospect.  After the Flyers quickly signed MacDonald to an exorbitant extension ($5 million annually!), the hockey world reacted similarly to how the Islanders fanbase did...


In the real world, keeping MacDonald was unlikely given his contract demands.  But for arguments sake, let's say he gave Snow a hometown discount and took a little off the top to stay.  He still would've cost the team upwards of $4-$4.5 million per year.  This is a frightening thought for anyone who has seen MacDonald attempt to defend an opposing forward coming across the blue line.

Matt Moulson was a fan favorite who earned his reputation with the fans through humility, hard work and perseverance during the rough times of the franchise.  He was close friends with star center John Tavares and they had undeniable chemistry on the ice.  There was a decent argument that he had earned a big contract after accepting a lower-valued one in 2011.  Making just over $3 million per year doesn't seem low, but for a 3-time 30 goal scorer, it was a bargain.  Not much news came out about where negotiations stood with Moulson and Snow, but considering he signed with Buffalo for $25 million over five years, my assumption is the Isles weren't thrilled with the idea of paying him that.  In my last post I touched on the fact that Tavares has consistently made any player lucky enough to be put on his line better.  Out of all the wingers no longer on the roster, Moulson is probably the best of the bunch.  However since leaving the team and Tavares, he has scored just 24 goals in 111 games.  Granted, the Sabres have been historically terrible since he joined them, but there's not too many folks singing his praises as a top line winger.  Had Garth Snow acquiesced and given Moulson $5 million per year to still be an Islanders, there's no way Grabovski or Kulemin join the club.  Even with Moulson's 30-goal potential with Tavares, the loss of that crucial depth would've made it a net loss choice.

Dodging Bullets

The trade that sent Moulson away brought in Thomas Vanek, who fits into another type of transaction - the failed blessing in disguise.  I'm not talking about the trade itself, which I feel was a good one to make at the time even though it turned out to be a failure.  Vanek worked very well with Tavares and Kyle Okposo.  I would also argue that the success of that line lead to the discovery that Okposo and Tavares are pretty good together (they only played together intermittently before), a benefit this year's team is enjoying.  The reason for the abysmal season was defense and goaltending, not offense.  Vanek worked well enough to earn a contract offer, something that wasn't afforded the players I previously mentioned.  And it was a big one, reportedly over $7 million per year for 7 years.  His rejection of the offer wasn't surprising, but had he taken it it may have been the single most disruptive thing to the current incarnation of the Islanders.  That much cap space spent on a player creates big ripples down the ledger and would probably affect every future negotiation including the free agents Snow was able to sign this summer.  From Grabovki & Kulemin all the way through Halak and depth guys like Calvin de Haan and Casey Cizikas (both of whom signed extensions this past offseason), the weight of that Vanek deal would've affected all of them.  Not to mention that Vanek hasn't been all that good this year (admittedly he'd probably be much better with Tavares) and has had some off ice issues.  All of this makes his decision to leave Long Island a good one for the Islanders.

Another veteran who turned down an offer from the Islanders was defenseman Dan Boyle.  In a situation reminiscent of the Christian Ehrhoff deal in 2011, Snow traded a late draft pick for the negotiating rights to the defenceman.  Like Ehrhoff, turns out Boyle never wanted to play for the Isles (or really anyone anyone other than the New York Rangers).  It cost the Islanders a fifth round draft pick, but it gained them much more as the hole left by Boyle's rejection was there to be filled by Boychuk and Leddy.

There was one other transaction that once everything is said and done could be still wind up a bad one for Snow.  Right now it seems like it was good idea to send Nino Niederreiter away in a trade for fourth line superpest Cal Clutterbuck.  I fully admit that Nino's potential as a 30-goal scorer in the NHL is way more valuable over the long term than what Clutterbuck provides.  Niederreiter is only 22 and will probably score close to 30 goals for Minnesota in only his third NHL season.  But considering the value of the Islanders fourth line this year, it's tough to gauge what the absence of Clutterbuck would do to the roster.  Not to mention the fact that Nino wasn't thrilled to be playing for the Isles, which could've affected his performance and usage by head coach Jack Capuano.  It's an open debate, but I at least want to mention there's a chance that keeping Nino over Cal would have been a negative.

So what does that leave the potential 2014-2015 New York Islanders looking like had all these players been kept or had they chose to stay?  Take a look:

Okposo - Tavares - Moulson/Vanek
Bailey - Nielsen - Niederreiter
Nelson - Strome - Lee
Cizikas - Martin - Grabner

Boyle - Streit
Hamonic - MacDonald
Visnovsky - de Haan/Hickey

???
Poulin

From an offensive standpoint, it's not terrible.  The Isles have had a decent offense for a few years now (led by Tavares) and while I feel the real roster's four lines are better than this hypothetical group, it's not falling off a cliff in performance either.  It doesn't hurt that the kid line of Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee would still be on the team.  If we allow the Moulson-Vanek trade to happen, the forward group gets even better, but the financial impact of signing Vanek to that monster contract makes the signing of Halak a near impossibility.  Even keeping Moulson, who commanded $5 million per year, would've impacted the Halak contract.

Speaking of the goalies and defenseman...


I honestly have no clue who would be in goal for the Islanders had Halak not been signed.  With large contracts given to Moulson or Vanek, Boyle, Streit and MacDonald (add in some more for Niederreiter), it's unlikely Snow is spending $4.5 million on his goalie.  I admit to not having run all the numbers of this hypothetical, but I'm confident given owner Charles Wang's history that they would not be spending all the way to the $70 million-plus limit.  They haven't even done that with the real roster, which only adds to the appeal of Snow's brilliant roster maneuvers.  My educated guess is they resign Evgeni Nabokov for under $2 million.  But seeing how epic the mess was in the 2013-2014 season, having that defense with Nabokov behind it again would be another major disaster.

Which to me is the amazing part of all this.  We're not even talking about that much time.  All of this has been within the last 22 months, since the Islanders were eliminated from the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  It's been a remarkable stretch of trading, signing, rejecting, drafting and player performance changes.  All of which had to happen for the team to be where it is right now, looking down on the Metropolitan division from the top.






Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Sound Of Silence


Following their statement win against the rival New York Rangers, the Islanders returned home to face a Pittsburgh team that was right behind them in the division standings.  I read a tweet a month or so back (sorry to the author, but I couldn't find it) that stated, "It's exhausting keeping up with the Penguins."  This has stuck with me because, goddammit, it's so true.  Even after winning three in a row, the Islanders were looking at the possibility of being only a point ahead of the Penguins in the division standings (and with one more game played).  Considering the Isles were going into a back-to-back set of games - with a road game in Montreal to follow the contest against Pittsburgh - I personally had a bit of that "Geez, the Pens are still right behind them?" feeling amidst all my happiness.

In the latest example of their never-say-die attitude this season, the Islanders defeated the Penguins by coming back from down a goal in the third period.  Four (!) goals from Kyle Okposo powered the late game charge and gave another sellout Nassau Coliseum crowd an exciting evening.  The very next night, the road game against the Canadiens proved to be as difficult as most people thought it would be.  It was nice to see the "can't win them all" attitude that the team has helped bestow on the fans continue to prevail when such games happen.

The Islanders only had one game in the week leading up to the All-Star break.  It was an opportunity for the Penguins and New York Rangers to make up a game or two on the division leading Isles.  The Rangers continued their good play, winning both their games - one of which was against Pittsburgh.  The Pens lost their other 2 games as well, although they were able to get two points out of those games by losing in OT and a shootout.  The Isles took care of the struggling Philadelphia Flyers to earn their only possible 2 points.  When the players were finally headed out to relax for a few days (those that weren't going to the All-Star game, of course), the Isles had a 3-point lead over the Penguins and a 5-point lead over the Rangers.  Quite a lovely spot to be in with 36 games remaining.

Not only is the All-Star break the unofficial halfway point of the season, but it also kicks off every hockey journalist/sportscaster's dream season.  The NHL trade deadline is a little over a month away and it's time for those rumors and suggestive articles to start flowing.  The Islanders are in a position to try and upgrade their team for the playoffs.  However, as more than a few of those hockey writers have pointed out in the last week, why would general manager Garth Snow want to?  As Arthur Staple of Newsday wrote, "Snow is not remotely focused on adding any pieces to what he and his players feel is a fairly complete roster."

Nothing To See Here

Trade rumors and speculation are fun.  But even before the reports surfaced that very little is expected out of Islanders management on deadline day, I wondered if the cost of doing business at the trade deadline would be too high.  The Islanders (according to the entire Internet) could use a new backup goalie and a left wing for superstar center John Tavares.  I don't disagree with the possible need to replace goalie Chad Johnson, but I've changed my opinion on the need for a top-line wing to play with Tavares and Okposo.  And I don't mean the need for an all-star left wing like the Oilers' Taylor Hall, I'm talking about any available forward.

It's obvious any of the bigger name players will be pricey.  Isles fans have enjoyed watching young players Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Calvin de Haan all year and trading away even one of those guys seems crazy at this point.  And rest assured, every other GM in the NHL would be looking at those young players in order to make any sort of trade.  Plus, Snow has a severe lack of upcoming draft picks, making the inclusion of young prospects even more of a lock.  He could look to use veteran players like Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner to land a forward, but really...why?

The Answer Is 91

I've personally come to believe that trying to give John Tavares a top left wing to play along side is ignoring everything he's proved to be capable of when it comes to linemates.  For some reason, people are forgetting what Tavares has done for many previous partners.  PA Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Blake Comeau and Matt Moulson (among others) all increased their personal scoring production while with Tavares.  One could argue that even Thomas Vanek's stint on Tavares' wing resulted in one of the best stretches of Vanek's all-star career.

Why would the Islanders want to trade away any good assets in order to provide Tavares with the type of player that he's already proved he can create on his own?

"Because the team will be even stronger if they did!"

With every passing victory, it's getting harder and harder to say the New York Islanders need to be stronger at their forward positions.  What are we looking for as fans?  To win games by five goals instead of two or three?  Bailey has performed quite well in his recent time with Tavares and Okposo, with 9 points over his last 9 games.  Is that not good enough?

Additionally, even if the coaches feel Josh Bailey isn't the best fit for Tavares and Okposo, switching wingers in and out has seen all of them perform (at least) adequately.  Head coach Jack Capuano has used this option a number of times.  The depth of this Islanders team is its main strength.  The biggest question right now isn't who should be traded, it's who will have to sit when Mikael Grabovski returns from injury.

We Need To Talk About Matt

If there's any move that would be feasible for Snow, it would be to replace current backup goalie Johnson with a more experienced netminder.  Johnson's signing was very good because he was inexpensive and was coming off a very good season.  More than halfway into the season, he hasn't shown the ability to return to those numbers.  His year with Boston is looking like the outlier and not the norm.  With all-star starting goalie Jaroslav Halak being closely monitored for the number of games he is to play, having a capable backup to keep Halak fresh for the playoffs is likely the team's highest priority.

Matt Donovan is going to be a decent (possibly very good) NHL defenseman.  In the handful of games he's played, he's played relatively well.  He must clear waivers in order to be sent to the AHL, so he's been stuck with the big team and scratched regularly.  He is the only tradable player on the roster that won't disturb the depth if he's gone.  Plus, he has value (hence the fear of putting him on waivers).  Johnson doesn't have nearly as much, but his cheap contract doesn't hurt.

If I'm hoping for anything on trade deadline day, it's this:
  1. Trade Donovan and Johnson for a more experienced backup goalie.
  2. Don't make any other trades.
Honestly, I'd probably come to terms with Johnson still being on the team after the deadline.  It's possible he improves in the weeks to come.  As long as Halak can rest enough to be as healthy as possible for the playoffs, the team can survive with Johnson back there for another 8-10 games.  After all, they've won 6 of the 11 he's started.

So enjoy the glorious silence of the upcoming trade season, Islanders fans.  For the first time in a long time, your team's management staff can sit back in their chairs and relax while every other team tries to catch up to where they've already been.