Capellini: Nearly 20 Years Later, Islanders Still In Search Of An Offense
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By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — On Saturday night the Islanders did something that speaks volumes about where this franchise has been for the last two decades. They honored a team from their past that not only didn’t win the Stanley Cup, it didn’t even win a conference title.
But that’s what things have come to on the Island. They are so far removed from the dynasty years of the early 1980s and have nothing to hang their hats on since 1984, the last year they played for a right to hoist the fabled chalice, they are now treating the franchise’s once-glorious past as a regional “where are they now?” gathering.
And the reason a team like the 1992-93 squad got a special night in the old barn off Hempstead Turnpike is the same reason why the current Islanders have just three wins in their first nine games.
It was an unintentional reminder to every last fan of this franchise that somewhere along the way the Islanders stopped scoring goals. And it has continued unabated for literally decades.
Over the last 20 years the Isles have had some scorers. Ziggy Palffy was arguably the last real star, having put up more than 40 goals each season from the beginning of 1995 until the end of 1997-98.
But after Palffy, you pretty much have a bare cupboard. Jason Blake netted 40 in 2006-07, the last time the Islanders made the playoffs, but was jettisoned after that season ended with a first-round loss. Miroslav Satan hit for 35 in his first season with the Isles back in 2005-06, but then got progressively worse over his next two seasons and was soon out of the NHL.
There were also the fleeting examples of Mariusz Czerkawski and Mark Parrish, good players who netted at least 30 goals on three different occasions, but would barely be second-line players on upper echelon teams. All five of these aforementioned players had the same things in common — they were asked to be elite when they didn’t have the true skill-set or supporting cast to be elite.
That being said, if you want to throw Alexei Yashin out there, you need to know this: Yashin hit just 30 goals once — his first season on the Island, in 2001-02, and he actually had some talent around him, but Yashin went by the boards in a way only Yashin, himself, can explain, because Lord knows many of us scribes have run out of reasons.
So it’s obvious the true number of Islanders offensive “stars” that have actually concerned the opposition have been few and far between. Back in 1992-93, the Islanders had the largely under-appreciated Pierre Turgeon, a player who finished his stellar career with more than 500 goals and 1,300 points over 19 seasons playing for six different teams. Nearly two decades ago, Turgeon racked up 132 points for the Isles in a single season, including scoring 58 goals, numbers that would have no business in the NHL of the last decade, an era that has featured more of an emphasis on gadget defenses and superlative goaltending than lighting the lamp and simply bludgeoning opponents into submission.
So much emphasis during the current four-year rebuild has been put on young kids with potential, but I have to wonder if the decisions to bring in certain talents on the offensive end were more like throwing darts at a board than seriously examining if some of these so-called stars-in-waiting truly have or will ever possess that scorer’s touch needed to not force an equally young blueline to have to be near-perfect every night.
You need only watch a few seconds of Andrew McDonald and Travis Hamonic on defense to know the Isles have bookend pieces that will one day be among the best at their position. And while so many people like to laugh at the Islanders’ seemingly never-ending carousel of goaltenders, know this: through nine games the trio of Al Montoya, Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro has a 2.22 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
In that same span the Islanders, themselves, have scored all of 18 goals. They are winless in their last five games (0-3-2), scoring just seven goals.
Defense and goaltending is not the problem. Even in the really lean years earlier this decade, when the names and faces were lacking in stature, the Isles were still mostly in every game every night. What they didn’t have was an offense that could once in a while give the team some margin for error.
Flash back to 1992-93 again, the Islanders had hardly a potential Hall of Famer among them, besides Turgeon. Names like Ray Ferraro, David Volek, Steve Thomas, Derek King, Benoit Hogue and Patrick Flatley didn’t scare anyone, that is until they got out on the ice and consistently scored big goals when big goals were required of them. That team had four 30-goal scorers and seven players with at least 50 points.
The Islanders took out 93-point Washington in the Patrick Division semifinals and then, despite losing Turgeon for the first six games of the series due to a cheap shot from the Capitals’ Dale Hunter in the previous round, knocked off two-time defending Cup champion Pittsburgh in the division finals. Game 7 in Pittsburgh went down in history as arguably the greatest game in Islanders history as Volek’s OT winner ended the 119-point Penguins’ season in shocking fashion.
The Isles went on to lose in five games to Montreal in the conference finals, a series many believe would have been epic had Turgeon been 100 percent.
Since then, as I mentioned earlier, the Islanders have had some decent to good offensive players. Palffy was legit 40-goal scorer, but after him you’d be hard-pressed to find any other names on a roster of 25 that would strike the fear of God into anyone. Not even a guy with a name like Satan.
And the Islanders have trotted teams like this out on the ice for the last half of my life — and I was born in 1971.
When will it end? The answer is supposed to be this season, but so far the product on the ice has looked pretty much like that of the past.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and say I’m not excited by the idea of John Tavares at some point down the road taking the ice with eventual phenom Ryan Strome, the Islanders’ first-round pick in the most recent draft. Nor do I think for even two seconds that Matt Moulson isn’t a legit goal scorer, nor is Michael Grabner not as exciting a talent as the NHL has seen in years. I just can’t for the life of me understand why Moulson and Grabner have just a combined five goals in nine games. Tavares is the only true star this offense has and that’s saying something considering the sheer number of first-round picks the Islanders have accrued over the last five years.
Yes, I am pointing the finger at Kyle Okposo, a player everyone likes to say has Jarome Iginla qualities. Okposo works harder out there on the ice than anyone, no question about it, but he’s yet to find anything resembling a scorer’s touch. I’m also pointing the finger at Josh Bailey. While it’s true he was rushed to the NHL, that was four years ago. He’s undersized as far as true centers go at this level, but does have all of the requisite skills to be a player in this league. Then there’s the curious case of Blake Comeau, a guy coming off a 24-goal season with so much apparent upside a natural progression to 30 goals should come in his sleep, especially with this apparent wave upon wave of playmaking-type forwards the Islanders currently possess.
But yet, the three have combined for just three assists in nine games, all by Okposo.
Now is it too early to wave the white flag on these three? Yes, of course it is, but it has to change and change immediately. A case can be made that these three players — and these three players alone — will be the difference between the Islanders getting into the playoffs or playing golf in April.
And let’s not forget Brian Rolston, a player as respected in this league as any. He, along with his $5 million 2011-12 salary, was acquired to get the Isles to the cap floor and because, even at 38, he can still shoot the puck with the best of them and lead this team by example. Yet, Rolston through nine games has just two assists.
After all of these players I have mentioned from the current squad you have Marty Reasoner, Jay Pandolfo and Matt Martin, checking line players if there ever were any. Martin’s one goal is more than Okposo, Bailey, Comeau and Rolston combined.
So where does it all end?
Sadly, likely not with any type of splash. The Islanders have repeatedly operated under the assumption that money will never cure their problems. What you see is pretty much what you are going to get. And as much as I like Jack Capuano’s moxie and game plans, sooner or later it has to come down to the players in question switching the lights on for more than a period at a time or for the front office to say, well, maybe we got this all wrong.
Don’t count on the latter happening any time soon, though. These Islanders are going to have to fight and scratch and claw for anything they get this season. And though this offense should be explosive, it has yet to really show anyone it’s no different than the countless that have come before it since Turgeon and Co., played beyond their apparent capabilities during that season in which they were recently honored.
Are you as tired of inventing reasons to be proud of the Islanders as I am?
Let’s get this thing in gear, gentlemen. Because if not, I’m sure ownership can find an Islanders roster from the expansion era that did something right worthy of a night at the dilapidated Coliseum.
Please read more columns by Jeff Capellini
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