By B.D. Gallof
» More Columns
Back a few weeks ago there was sheer panic in the streets of Long Island. With fans and some of the press starting to heat up on the malaise that was clearly digging a hole into the ice, there were all sorts of blame going around. Calls for the coach’s head. Calls for trades. There were even calls for GM Garth Snow to start to take blame on the inexact science of a rebuild failing to take shape within fans patience.
After all, how much patience could be left after so many long years for fans who stuck through a virtual hockey circus?
Some elements of the criticism were well founded. Somewhere between the press release for the Isles new season and the reality, a building schism needed to be addressed. What was happening on ice was a breakdown no different than early 2010… And that one cost the previous coach, Scott Gordon, his job.
This year, however, a different message came from the Isles. There would be no change for changes sake. No coach to fall under the axe. No sudden EA NHL 2012 crazy trade that turned fortunes.
It is likely to Garth Snow’s benefit that he did not blink at the very first harsh take over his rebuild as many outside the team began to judge the entire enterprise as another season seemed to be sailing down the crapper. It was fair game and heightened due to the fact that the Lighthouse Project was a few years dead, and many were still breathing the Nassau Coliseum Referendum ashes of August 1st.
In the back of many a mind is the fate of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise who left a core fanbase down south bereft of local hockey as they were sold to Winnipeg just this past summer. The fact that Quebec and perhaps Seattle might become hockey hotbeds vying for a team is very dangerous for Long Islanders who watch their calendar for 2015 with bated breath when the Coliseum lease ends.
We all still wait for the Isles to turn that corner, create some playoff pressure on Nassau County and New York to retain a professional sports team. So does the NHL, who have avoided a cup winning team, much less dynasty, moving out of what was once a lucrative market turned into pitch thanks to bad ownership and a hapless GM who now acts like he did Long Island a favor from his color commentary spot on TV. Mike Milbury’s years with the Isles destroyed not only the NHL-level team, but torched the prospect pool and development system.
This fact is the very reason the Islanders and Garth Snow have been in rebuild mode. Since Milbury stepped aside, finally done paying his kids college on the backs of Long Island hockey fans perhaps, hockey operations since 2006 had to start from zero. Then in 2008, they scrapped trying to avoid a full rebuild and bought in entirely. There was no escape to the awful truth… Milbury left barely a crumb in the cupboard of future.
Now in 2011, the young players who comprise the plan are only starting to develop. So vulnerable is this process that an outage of a few of those players sent the team to an early brink in late October. Add in the fact the Isles have tremendous difficulty in landing a free agent to quicken the process, left to only being able to add in depth. This slows the process, something that Snow has been irked by during in free agency, despite trying to be active buyers in the last two summers.
This brings us back to the Isles internal brass who were just as concerned and finding the results unacceptable as the team tumbled in late October. But instead of panic or knee jerk responses, they only strengthened their resolve. They would stick to the plan. Fact is, many of the Isles brass ignore or simply reject the cacophony of shrill opinions that is abound on the Internet. Their primary vision is the longterm rebuild, even if the results delay to even their own expectation.
Instead, the only expendable element the Isles were willing to make a change with was a player making 2.5 million, predated the Isles 2006 system commitment, and who was actually bad enough on the 4th line for the Isles to choose to bring up David Ullstrom instead.
The results of the loss of Blake Comeau to waivers to the Flames speak for themselves. A message was sent to the youth and the vets of the Isles that spoke volumes: anyone not contributing was a prime target to make way for new kids who needed development. For Jay Pandolfo, Brian Rolston, and Marty Reasoner… It is a clear short lease. For the younger players, all who had played better as a unit since, it was a bull’s eye.
Since this move, the Isles haven responded with better efforts, even in losses. Aided by the excellent play of an emerging Al Montoya, they have turned in some wins. If you remove the earlier losing streak, the Isles would be thrilled with these last 10 games. In fact, minus the losing streak this team is performing about where any reasonable person could have hoped. It is how effort, hockey IQ, innate skill, and hockey sense of the younger players can turn tides, or at least be competitive.
No, not all the Isles woes have been solved in one fell swoop. The team still screams for scoring outside the Tavares line. Even Tavares himself has not been able to score enough. Very few teams can win without their #1 guy scoring. There is also a serious need for a #2 puck-moving defensemen and power play guy to go along with Mark Streit. Isles prospect Calvin de Haan can eventually fill that role when he develops, but that is few seasons off.
The Rick Dipietro gigantic 15 year contract, the ongoing injury issues, and the eroding ability is still a looming issue for this team… Including the unavoidable fact that most fans have turned against him as a starter. Montoya is clearly THE GUY, however he has never had to carry the load for 80% of games, and will have to learn… as he discovered with not his best effort just last night versus the Canadians.
No hockey fans, no corner has been turned just yet. However, the Islanders being able to put on the brakes to this year’s losing streak is far different to last year’s spin out into oblivion. That is a clear step forward. That is something to hold onto, and one can only hope that it plays out with further steps forward this season as the Isles start to make the tough decisions and assessments that are to ensure the brighter future they envisioned.
The fans are starting to demand it.
Have the Islanders made progress this season? Leave a comment below.