Gallof: The Lay Of The Land In Islanders Country

By B.D. Gallof
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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.

  • PotvinRocks

    The fact that 1 player who had a flukey year (last year) was the only casuality of the “who we taking in the draft this year” losing streak tells me that this franchise is still rebuilding. Obviously Garth doesn’t believe that this core is good or deep enough. And I believe that they are looking at at least 2 more draft before Garth and company feel this team could challenge for the division. There no doubt that Milbury has left this teams in shambles. Hopefully Garth isn’t doing the same thing. I mean Garth hasn’t made a “hockey” trade since Ryan Smyth, and that was sheading the all Milbury’s disasterous draft picks.

  • Vlad Fomenko

    Snow’s plan to bring vets to show the kids on how it must be done clearly failed. Reasoner and Rolston turned out to be consistent passengers every single game, Pandolfo, Staios, Mottau are trying, but just simply can’t keep up due to lack of skills and speed. We here Capuano’s interview about need of “hard work” and “urgency”. Same day we see non of that from most of the team. Mark Streit’s production is declining every game. Not what you looking for from your captain. Kids are being ask to do too much. Too many games we see the kids with their heads down accepting another loss. Then we see journalists like Botta and Gallof doing GM’s job and trying to calm the fans down and explain in details of what is really going on with the team. This should be done by GM himself by addressing the media and the fans which he has not done for quite a while. Where are the news about New arena pursuit? The Comeau move was a right one, but is it enough? Why Wishart is still not with the team? Why Rolston still takes away valuable development ice time away from 4th line and PP from our kids who need this experience much more than he does? How much more Reasoner brings to the table than Michael Healey? And why in the hell DP (love the guy’s willingness, but…) is still getting starts?!
    The list of questions is long, but the problem is that fans are NOT getting any answers from the primary sources and left in the dark scratching their buckets.
    That is why the number of frustrated fans is growing.
    Islanders must change the organization mentality and I can guarantee the fans will follow.

  • b_olton

    You know I like reading your stuff…but please stop giving Snow a pass…I beg you. He stated anything but playoffs this year is unacceptable, but has neither said or done anything (beyond the usual mundane statement and the waiving of Comeau) to turn this teams fortunes around as they are once again sitting in the bottom 3 in the league. His offseason signings are perhaps the worst guys on this team (Reasoner & Rolston) and there is little doubt he is behind the 3 goalie rotation that hurt this team right out of the gate. Montoya sat for weeks with the best stats on of the 3…while Nabakov was being showcased for a pick…and DP continued to put up some the very worst stats in the entire NHL.
    Let’s not forget we have the cheapest roster in the league…and when you take out the buyouts and the bonuses that will never be reached…this team is well-below the actual salary cap. Why else would they take on Roston’s 5 million dollar contract? Which by the way…helped a division rival for god’s sake.
    The simple fact is…rebuild or not…this team should be beyond baby steps of improvement this year…and it’s the GM’s job to build a team that can win. When Garth stands at the draft podium this year to claim his 5th consecutive top 5 draft pick…can we then admit he is a failure?

    • B.D.

      Howdy pal. I hear you. But this season still is not even at a halfway point yet. IF we were to remove the 10 game losing streak, and measure the last 10 games, it would be a bit brighter.

      As for any UFA signings, he was in on quite a bit on the first day of the free agency period. The problem is they chose contending teams. Then after Aug 1st, when the referendum filed, that budget was hamstrung with what they now use thanks to owner Charles Wang.

      I think you are right to bring up those points, but I think the Isles face issues and problems that many teams do not have to deal with. I think due to that, it has slowed down their schedule of the rebuild monumentally. I’d expect next season to be the one that actually makes some distance.

      This said, Isles currently are 4th worst, but rising. If they remain bottom 5 and make no coaching or overpayment move this summer (concerned that Wang won’t let him now)… then it is severely concerning as it will assure next season to be very much like this one as the clock ticks even closer to the end of the lease deal with Nassau County.

      • b_olton

        well I didn’t want to take up the whole comment page by including Wang…but we all know he has an equal, if not larger hand in this mess. Without a land deal and no venue beyond 2015 it’s hard to imagine he will bust out the checkbook now. THIS YEAR seemed like a last chance to have a winning season to make the team more viable or deserving of a new venue or (even better) BUYER. I’m not sure they have enough time before the lease is up if things don’t come together until next year.
        In any event…as the team faltered in the identical fashion it did the year before…I’d have liked to see this GM stand by his words, show some accountability, and most importantly take some significant action. If his hands are tied…he always has the option of taking the Neil Smith way out. But we both know he’ll never get another GM job…so why not play puppet as long as he can collect the big league paycheck.

  • Andre Legault

    Hello BD, that is a very good analysis. Totally agree with you. Thing is, this slow rebuild cannot and should not last much longer. Not only is that difficult on the fans, it sure is difficult for the players.

    I like Jack Capuano. He’s doing his best. But in my opinion, it would be great if Garth could bring in an experienced and solid coaching staff. A Michel Therrien for example. How great would that be if he was to come in with a Guy Carbonneau as an assistant. That would be tremendous credibility. Instantly. That might be expensive a bit compared to what they probably are paying actually but in the end, it ain’t that much in % of all expenses incurred by the Islanders hockey operations.

    Players would be thrilled to have experienced and credible people to lead them. To help them in learning how to win. The little things that makes a whole lot of differences.

    Opinions, comments ???

    • B.D.

      I agree with your take. However, after Ted Nolan wasn’t onboard the rebuild, Garth has selected the kind of coaches who work with developing young kids. When Scott Gordon was fired last season, it was also because he wasn’t quite a good fit, and too cerebral with the kids. Caps had a far more laid back and natural style, and thats why they still persist with that. The priority is still to assure development, even if the season is another wash.

      All the coaches you bring up are great thoughts and candidate for when the Isles need to step past development and achieve… and I would think that might be coming next season or thereafter.

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