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Capellini: Light At The End Of Islanders’ Dark Tunnel Fast Becoming Just A Wish

Decent Product Is Being Destroyed, Mostly By Unfortunate Circumstances
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Evgeni Nabokov

The winning goal, shot by Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, enters the net past Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov at the Verizon Center on Feb. 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com

NEW YORK (WFAN) — It just feels like the Islanders are simply passing time until they die.

Ask the fan base if you don’t believe me. Morale among the faithful is at an all-time low, and considering all the absurdities that have gone on over the last 15 or so years, that’s saying something.

While it’s true no one knows what the future holds, the vast majority of the fans feel like if this franchise doesn’t get an intervention from God, himself, it will almost certainly leave our area. And if that happens, incredibly gifted players like John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Travis Hamonic, presumably P.A. Parenteau and a pipeline of extremely talented kids down in the minors will move into their formative hockey years with new loyalists and a new lease on life. You see, they’ll always have fans. They’ll always be admired. They’ll always be paid.

Left holding the bag will be the good people of Long Island and its surrounding areas. That’s because current ownership is racing Father Time and, right now, would almost certainly lose to a snail. And the people to blame for this are many, from Mike Milbury for destroying the team way back when to the dudes on Wall Street who sent our nation into a seemingly bottomless pit of despair.

Simply put, aside from slight improvements here and there on the ice, zero progress in the way of keeping this team located in the place it has called home for more than four decades has the Islanders as an organization doing nothing more than jogging in place on thawing ice. Sooner or later, it seems, reality will be felt by all in the form of a sale to someone who could care less about the plight of the franchise’s current municipality and fan base.

I say this because I’ve been around and have seen far too many times how the machine works, be it financial or political. Nothing is ever accomplished unless an entity is unquestionably financially solvent and, barring the machine being untouchable in the court of public opinion, usually as close to the 11th hour as humanly possible. If the Yankees want a new stadium and there are thousands of people who have a serious problem with where they want to build it, too bad. Money talks, B.S. walks and those against the idea have no choice but to shut up and know their place.

Is this the right way to do business? Hell, this is America. There are no rules.

Barring the seemingly more and more unlikely destination of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Islanders would likely need a minimum of 18 months to build a new place to play. Where and how they acquire that piece of property is another issue, one that, as we’ve seen, doesn’t seem all that important to the powers that be right now, even though it should be for all involved the first priority.

A year and a half from this very moment puts us in training camp for the 2013-14 season, exactly one year from the beginning of the Islanders’ final season on the lease at Nassau Coliseum. By doing the construction timetable math it’s fairly easy to see that the franchise has no choice but to get something done in the next year, including, if the Coliseum is to be refurbished, finding a place to play temporarily for a minimum of one season.

Again, knowing what we know and have seen, this all just feels like semantics, like a pipe dream just to hold on to some hope that the once-proud tradition of Islanders hockey will continue in the only area it has ever called home.

To many people, Brooklyn seems like the savior. Fans I know just ask repeatedly “Why don’t they just do that?” It’s not that simple. While the Barclays Center is an attractive notion, regardless of the fact that its NHL capacity would likely fall short of the 16,250 that’s a full house at the Coliseum, Charles Wang has lost approximately $250 million as the owner of this franchise and it has been widely reported, in addition to being extremely logical, that this man has no intention of simply writing that loss off. No matter what he ultimately decides to do, be it a sale or if he holds onto the club, he’s going to get much of that money back. And currently the idea of Brooklyn doesn’t afford him that avenue of revenue. Maybe the development of Atlantic Yards could be part of the deal, but, again, it would be another negotiation in the mechanism, one that would have a million moving parts and one that almost certainly would further slow the political and financial process.

The Islanders just don’t have the kind of time and Wang appears to no longer have that type of patience and conviction.

As for the hockey team, itself, the best thing the Islanders could have done to improve their chances of either being bought or sought was to make the playoffs this season and take steps from there next season. But as we’ve all seen they’ve been constructed to have no margin for error. Besides a wonderful first line, two kid defensemen who will be household names one day and a 36-year-old goaltender who has almost singlehandedly provided the rest of the defense, the Islanders, the NHL product, are very thin.

What you’re left with is 28-31-10 record, a 10-point deficit in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and just 13 games to play. Yes, in the final analysis the Islanders will likely end up slightly better than last season in the points department, but, really, they needed to make the playoffs, and for more reasons than simply getting a shot to win a round.

What the reality of the franchise’s overall dire situation did was put maybe too much emphasis on the fourth year of the rebuilding process. No matter who you talked to coming into the season there was just something finite about the fourth year, as if all the retooling and revamping, be it of the NHL product or the farm system, or both, would just lose its viability if this season didn’t end sometime in May instead of in early April.

The truth is you can’t put a timetable on a rebuild. All indications are the young stars the Islanders planned to count on are very much on a collision course with greatness. Look no further than players like Tavares, Moulson, Parenteau, Hamonic, Andy MacDonald in that regard. There’s no reason to be anything but excited about young goaltenders Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin or to continue to keep an eye on the progress of phenom-in-the-making Ryan Strome down on the major junior circuit or former first-round pick Nino Niederreiter, who appears to have game but just needs a truly regular shift. Maybe Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey are finally turning corners. Maybe Frans Nielsen will one day win a Selke Award.

The true talent really isn’t an issue.

The Islanders’ “problem” hasn’t been a result of young players failing to live up to hype and projections. Not at all. Their issue has been a disgruntled owner basically freezing the club’s assets, further hamstringing his general manager, Garth Snow, preventing him from doing anything in the form of finding true veteran leaders and role players to help nurture the young players’ development. The other problem, albeit to a lesser extent, has been about perception. Even if they had the money to burn, would anyone worth their NHL stripes actually choose to come here? It’s hard to say and we really don’t know.

As a result, the Islanders really don’t know how to win. If you still need proof, look no further than Saturday’s excruciating 2-1 loss to the Devils, a game they led going into the final minute, and Sunday’s 4-3 overtime defeat to the Rangers, a matchup that featured another blown third-period lead. As has been the case since the beginning of the season, when it was made clear in very certain terms that not a meaningful dollar would be spent, this front office is banking on the kids learning on their own. If so, no predetermined number of years in a rebuild apply. They’ll learn when they learn and not a moment before.

Many fans point to coaching, saying if the team had a “real” NHL coach it would be better. And while Jack Capuano is certainly not Al Arbour, has he really done that bad a job considering all the fingerless hands he’s been dealt. The Islanders are basically a competitive club without the requisite number of wins. But ask opposing teams if this club isn’t a handful most every night. Ask them if in fact this club is actually underrated. The answer would be yes to both.

But at the end of the day the franchise’s fate all rests with the arena situation and the accompanying economic turmoil that has hit Long Island and the Tri-State Area as hard as it has any part of big- or small-town America. The Islanders are victims of circumstance, not of decision making within the organization. Money dictates everything.

I just don’t see a hint of a solution. Do you? Honestly?

Out of fear of being ostracized for using too many cliches, I’ll just leave you with this: the Islanders have no choice at this point but to try to use all three of their lifelines at once. I say this because there’s already less than a 50-50 chance for a new arena. I don’t think they have any one friend they can phone. And their audience has no answers anymore.

But if they pool them all together in one spirited push, maybe they won’t be forced to take someone else’s money and split.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

Do you see any way the Islanders get a new arena on or near Long Island before their lease with Nassau County runs out at the end of the 2014-15 season? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …

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