Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — If you are not yet convinced the hockey gods hate the Islanders, the last few days should’ve given you a refresher course.
If a straw poll was taken among the fans asking which current players on the roster are indispensible, as in guys this already thin-on-veteran-talent team could absolutely not afford to lose for any prolonged period of time, the people who live and die with this beleaguered franchise 12 months out of the year would overwhelmingly put defenseman Mark Streit and forward Kyle Okposo at the top of that list.
Well, in the often cruel world that is Islanders hockey the players and fans are now faced with that very dilemma.
And the team hasn’t even played a preseason game.
On Tuesday afternoon it was learned the Islanders had lost Okposo, their best two-way player, indefinitely with a shoulder injury that will require surgery. The team then inked veteran defenseman Mike Mottau to a two-year, one-way contract to counter the loss of Streit.
Even before that signing, the true pessimist in all of us was ready to jump off a bridge, but know this about the 2010-11 Islanders: They have much more blueline depth and potential than you are accustomed to seeing.
To review, Streit suffered a freakish injury on Saturday that will reportedly keep him out until late March at the earliest. During an intrasquad scrimmage at Nassau Coliseum, teammate Matt Moulson lightly pushed the All-Star defenseman from behind near the boards. In order to break his fall, Streit extended his left arm but landed awkwardly. The result was a torn rotator cuff and labrum, major surgery and a lot of depressed folks throughout the entire organization.
Almost without fail the panic-stricken masses started suggesting names as potential replacements. How else will the Islanders replace a player in Streit who had 105 points over the previous two seasons? Well, the answer, for now anyway, is Mottau, who has played parts of six NHL seasons with the Rangers, Flames and, most recently, the Devils. GM Garth Snow called Mottau “a solid puck-moving defenseman.” Rest assured the fans will have something else to say, none of it good.
The move flies in the face of all the specualtion that the Islanders were thinking about $5 million-a-year players like Sheldon Souray and Wade Redden. But in my opinion the signing wasn’t necessary because the Islanders have plenty of able-bodied defensemen who can step in and alleviate the loss of Streit. I’m not suggesting anyone in the Islanders front office is panicking, but it sure does feel like it.
Thanks to a rather remarkable trade pulled off by Snow during the summer, the Isles still have a power play specialist. While it would have been something to see Streit at one point and James Wisniewski at the other this season, the fans will have to settle on “Wiz” taking on more of the minutes. It’s not addition by subtraction, but having this guy around sure lessens the blow of losing Streit, a player viewed by many as the franchise’s MVP ever since he arrived on the Island two years ago.
One would have thought Streit’s absence would open a spot for a player who probably doesn’t deserve to be in the NHL, but that’s not the case with the Islanders. Coach Scott Gordon has already stated the only way prized prospects Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan make the team out of camp is if they crack the top four, which is probably unlikely. Sending them both away is again a smart move because each could use one more year of seasoning before rising up to the big club together and redefining the new era along the Islanders’ blueline.
Assuming neither young gun makes this team, Gordon will be left with several guys who would likely be top six guys on many NHL squads. In addition to Mottau, there’s Jack Hillen, who may not be a prototypical defenseman size-wise but one who was playing some exceptional hockey last season before taking an Alex Ovechkin slapshot to the mouth. There’s Andrew MacDonald, a 24-year-old thought so highly of he was given a long-term deal by the club last season. There’s veteran Mark Eaton, a physical stay-at-home type who signed with the Islanders one year after winning a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh.
Then there’s mainstays Radek Martinek, who, if he can finally stay healthy, can be a physical force and more than reliable inside the opponent’s blueline, and Bruno Gervais, a guy who has probably reached his potential but is more than serviceable. Throw in free agent Milan Jurcina, a 6-foot-4, 240-pounder who has been criticized in the past for being far less physical than his size would suggest he be, and the Isles have eight guys competing for six spots, with two future studs waiting in the wings, not to mention the various call-ups from Bridgeport that will see some time at some point.
So, again, losing Streit is rough but it’s not the end of the world.
The Islanders are not winning the Stanley Cup this season anyway. Even with Streit the odds they’d make playoffs in the highly competitive Eastern Conference were a crap shoot at best. Without him they will still be very competitive, but probably another year away from serious playoff contender status.
While it’s true the team improved 18 points in the standings and remained on the periphery of the eighth spot last season after finishing the 2008-09 campaign with the worst record in the NHL, the Islanders are only in Year 3 of what many believe is a four-year rebuild. To expect them to make the playoffs this season would likely still be asking a bit much, considering the scoring talent is still in its relative infancy and the goaltending situation features an ageless wonder and a guy trying to rebuild his body, along with his reputation.
Though this defense corps is a group of relative no-names to the layman, those in the know are expecting more than the average fan. Make no mistake, Streit was the backbone, but he was not the whole skeleton. With a little luck — God forbid — and further development this group could end being a pleasant surprise.
That may sound like ridiculous optimism, but in the wacky world that is the Islanders, optimism is the one thing you have no choice but to embrace.
Now, what to do about the loss of Okposo … I’ll get back to you on that.