Contract Is An Albatross, But New CBA Could Hold The Key To Parting Company

By B.D. Gallof,

The rumor buzzards are circling around Rick DiPietro now that he’s once again injured and shut down for the season. Who can blame fans and writers for speculating? Once thought of as the Islanders’ savior, DiPietro has instead been perpetually injured since 2007.

Flash forward to the here and now. The Islanders’ PR machine spun his 2010-11 season as a success despite his horrendous .886 save percentage. However, there’s no spinning playing in just eight games this season and looking very bad while doing it.

According to at least one goalie scout, his play has eroded and is still eroding. Injuries affect playing style; playing style affects performance. DiPietro is shrinking and sadly hobbling before our eyes as chronic issues have basically made him barely a backup goalie if you judge him on stats and play alone, forgetting any contract.

The rumor hounds are suggesting that DiPietro is thinking retirement. Despite the dire situation that is his career, this assertion is incorrect, just as the Islanders and even Rick have said plainly. When a player is injured any thoughts on such a large, looming issue would not even be considered until after any surgery and during the offseason.

When we push away the hearsay of interns or just message board fodder, we are left with the bare facts that do speak volumes of a situation that is quickly coming to a head. Let me assure you, that head might be realized this very summer.

The Islanders have Al Montoya, who has played well this season despite playing in just 17 games due mostly to a concussion that has forced him to sit out the last month. The Isles also have a potential franchise goaltender in Kevin Poulin, who is in the midst of specifically paced development in the AHL this season. Add in well-regarded prospects like Anders Nilsson and Mikko Koskinen and you have a bevy of options that are telling a tale here that is far different than just DiPietro being afforded more opportunities in the coming years.

In other words, the table has been set for this eventuality for a while. General Manager Garth Snow’s mother didn’t raise no fool.

For those who keep telling the tale of DiPietro’s friendship with owner Charles Wang, they have a partial, yet antiquated, point. After all, Wang’s the one who somehow used hubris and backwards-thinking disguised as “innovation” to sign this particular goaltender to a 15-year deal, an especially astounding length of time considering DiPietro never asked for it.

There is a reason that the business of hockey and players usually enter into reasonably termed contracts. They protect both player and team. This, sadly, might be lost on Wang while he contemplates what his next great idea might be, but it clearly has been drilled into the goalie who now stares once again from the sidelines, with another swollen knee situation and the aftermath of sports hernia surgery.

You cannot do contracts based on friendship, love, or treating a player different than anyone else. You just can’t.

Irony is a cruel beast as DiPietro is finally finding out. The majority of fans have turned against him. Was he by extension lumped in with the owner? Or was it due to fans finally getting tired of a goalie only starting games to somehow live up even partially to a contract he should have never been given? Or is it a volatile mixture of contract, owner, and impending venue doom and gloom colliding with a player who has always had a swagger, self-absorbed focus, fiery personality, disdain for the press and straight ride to the goalie crease?

DiPietro came to the Islanders under some auspicious circumstances. A general manager had committed a draft’s cardinal sin and fallen in love with a personality. In this case “Mad” Mike Milbury, a Boston native whose trades and drafts resembled the habits of a degenerate gambler, was taken in by DiPietro, a young, brash puck-playing prospect also from Beantown.

Prior to DiPietro’s arrival, the Islanders were under the ownership of the cheap and thin pockets of Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern. Payroll was slashed and the budget was tightened, forcing them to trade away any and all of the big club’s talent. However, the next owners to be installed were Computer Associates kingpins Sanjay Kumar and the aforementioned Wang, who gave Milbury permission to open up the wallet.

However, when the Islanders’ previous goalie of the future, Roberto Luongo, was due to a pay raise, he was inexplicably dealt along with Long Island malcontent Olli Jokinen to Florida for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha.

There was no budgetary excuse for the move. Milbury’s thought was to trade a franchise goaltender and add two offensive pieces to make a difference on the ice immediately. In that swap, and by selecting DiPietro with the next draft’s No. 1 pick, Milbury ignored both Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik, players that would have also served as offensive upgrades. Each of them currently has more NHL points than Parrish and Kvasha combined. Actually, so does Jokinen as well.

So as Isles fans will often lament, the dumping of Luongo and subsequent drafting of DiPietro were completely unnecessary moves that yielded poor results. Parrish was the epitome of hot and cold, with a whole lot of cold, and is currently 34 years old and still bouncing between the NHL and the AHL. Kvasha never yielded much of anything, even after leaving the NHL for Russia for six seasons.

Milbury, meanwhile, is now a television analyst who criticizes other NHL teams. Go figure.

For DiPietro, he might have been doomed from the second he signed the deal. His notorious contract drove a wedge between Neil Smith, the short-termed GM predecessor to Snow, and Wang. Charles wanted to work out a “lifetime” deal with DiPietro by himself. Smith attempted to contact DiPietro’s agent to work out a more NHL-sized six-year deal.

The fallout of the contract impacted many people. It turned Snow into the GM and eventually led to DiPietro firing his agent, Paul Krepelka, while stiffing the agent’s agency out of their cut. That company, headed by Bobby Orr and partners Rich Curran and Krepelka, filed a grievance against DiPietro that was subsequently settled out of court.

DiPietro’s injury hit list is incredible and well documented. Everything from concussions, multiple knee surgeries, a broken orbital bone from a one-punch knockout, to swollen knees, a torn labrum in his hip, hip surgery, and on and on.

Nobody wants to be in those shoes or skates, as the case may be, but it should be very clear these days that fans’ patience has worn more than thin. They have gotten tired of the whole package and the baggage that has gone along with it. DiPietro will always be tied to that contract, and thus tied to fans’ necks like some albatross that follows the Isles’ ship through stormy waters toward the end of their Nassau Coliseum lease in 2015.

Meanwhile, another season is falling short of hopes and desires, with the team only now starting to play better. This is especially poignant considering the Aug. 1 failed arena referendum pushed Wang to implement a more stringent budget while waiting it out until the lease ends without revealing any even preliminary plans to go anywhere else in the area.

Cutting the cash loss, sticking at the salary cap floor, and clearing out some players not making the cut, like Blake Comeau for instance, will continue to be this owner’s M.O. This is why, despite friendship, Wang and the Islanders might choose to extract themselves out of DiPietro’s contract if things happen to fall the right way this summer.

With a new collective bargaining agreement to be hashed out, NHL GMs and owners are looking very closely at something the NBA just employed after their own negotiations — an amnesty period where each team can remove one contract off their books without suffering a cap penalty for years.

There is a reasonably good chance that this open window might present itself in a negotiation year where the league  seems to have all the momentum and can likely dictate a rollback on cap size for teams. For a team like the Islanders, who are operating like a small market team, there is no doubt, if this amnesty period comes to fruition, there will be lots of talk and thought on this course of action no matter who is friends with who.

The past is the past, and this is something that many Islanders fans would like to say in regard to “The Rick.” Fair or not, deserved or not, it is clearly indisputable where fan opinion lies, even if the situation was not of DiPietro’s choosing.

So might the solution also not be his choice.

The fact is if you are the Islanders, focused on turning the corner and still saving some cash, you simply cannot ignore a gift like a possible clearing of a player from the books without a penalty. DiPietro has a high probability to be that one contract discarded if amnesty is part of the new league equation.

Whatever they think of DiPietro personally, fans will never disagree with rectifying this mistake.

Read more columns by B.D. Gallof

What do you think of the DiPietro situation? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …