By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Remember this guy? In truth, Islanders fans barely know him.
It’s hard to believe Rick DiPietro is about to begin his ninth season in the NHL. It feels like just yesterday the team made him the No. 1 overall selection in the amateur draft. The organization felt like it had won the lottery that day back in 2000, literally. The man who was going to backstop the Islanders back to the glorious heights they had reached in the 1980s was in the fold.
But oh how professional sports can be cruel.
Now 10 years later DiPietro is famous — or infamous depending on your perspective — for just one thing, his contract, which at last check has something like 11 years remaining. On Sept. 12, 2006, team owner Charles Wang made shockwaves around the sports world by giving a highly talented but largely unproven player a 15-year, $67.5 million deal. At the time many just shook their heads in disbelief, while others, myself included, were somewhat optimistic about the move. The contract is structured to never pay him more than $4 million anually, which in today’s day and age, even for a penny-pinching franchise like the Islanders, is quite manageable. The Isles are barely at the salary cap floor this season, and that’s with buyouts to Alexei Yashin and Brendan Witt.
No, the money has never really been the issue. It’s the length of the term that’s driven people to drink.
The purists and the league are really against that type of contract because of all the potential pitfalls. The people who try to look on the bright side of things figured the team, at the time in complete disarray, needed something.
Well, DiPietro has played in just 281 games over the last eight seasons. Injuries have pretty much destroyed what could have potentially been a stellar career, filled with playoff runs and a movement toward the shedding of the Isles’ third team in New York label. DiPietro, now 29, played in just 13 games the last two seasons due to a variety of surgeries, most notably multiple knee and hip injuries.
Due to the perhaps unfair “Tin Man” label that has been bestowed upon him, DiPietro has in a sense become a cautionary tale for other front offices and fodder for every fan out there who could care less about the Islanders and what they are trying to do to climb back to respectability and beyond.
So here we are, it’s opening night against the Dallas Stars, and DiPietro will get the start in net. The team is expected to challenge for a playoff spot, which if secured would be the franchise’s first since 2006-07 and just its fifth since getting swept in the opening round of the 1993-94 postseason by the rival Rangers.
To say the last three seasons have been lean on Long Island is a bit harsh. Yes, two seasons ago the Islanders finished with an NHL-low 61 points, but they rebounded to finish 18 points higher in 2009-10 and were in the Eastern Conference playoff discussion until the last month of the season.
If nothing else, GM Garth Snow has, through the draft, clever trades and exhaustion of the waiver wire, managed to put together a very talented — albeit very young and inexpensive — hockey team. This season marks the third year of what is expected to be a four-year rebuild — a revamping of all things Islanders hockey done almost exclusively with youthful faces within an aggressive forechecking system designed by coach Scott Gordon.
Now, where DiPietro fits in the grand scheme of things remains to be seen. The Islanders can get by with Dwayne Roloson starting the majority of their games, but to think a now-40-year-old netminder, a physical freak of nature or not, can make 65-70 starts is asking way too much.
In a perfect world DiPietro will play half of the games and will force Gordon to go with the hot glove. The great unknown here is whether “DP” can stay healthy long enough to make an impact. The Isles’ defense, even with the loss of All-Star Mark Streit for up to six months due to a severe shoulder injury, appears to be a lot more talented and deep than many believe. Players like James Wisniewski, Andy MacDonald and Jack Hillen are not household names, yet, but they very well could be in relatively short order.
The offense, as is usually the case with this team, shall remain a work in progress, but there is no denying the fact that the talent is there. It’s just a matter of all these players, guys like John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau and, eventually, Kyle Okposo, deciding when they want to make their grand entrances into the world of truly competitive hockey.
Though many still want to give the Islanders a pass this season and chalk it up to the idea that the rebuild is not yet complete and that next season should be the ultimate litmus test, there’s really no reason this team can’t be competitive — and I’m talking about making a serious run at the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference — from the second the first puck is dropped on Saturday.
For his part, DiPietro could be the guy who swings this thing one way or the other. If he plays, stays healthy and shows the type of brilliance he displayed in college, internationally and in flashes in the NHL, the Islanders could be the true surprise story in the league this season. However, if DiPietro plays just five games like he did last season, expecting Roloson to be anything more than he’s been throughout his career — a reliable yet unspectacular goaltender — would be asking entirely too much.
I’ve seen predictions that the Islanders will finish anywhere from 14th to 10th in the East. That sounds about right, but they do have this great unknown in DiPietro. He certainly has the ability and desire to be a true No. 1 netminder, a guy who can steal games and mask defensive liabilities — his penchant for overplaying the puck aside. But questions about his health will persist until, well, they don’t anymore.
That could take forever, but, then again, it seems like it’s taken forever to get to this point.
Sooner or later the real DiPietro is going to have to make a stand. If you’re an Islanders fan, you’d prefer it be on his head.