By Jeff Capellini
Jon Ledecky throws around this idea of the Islanders winning a “fifth ring” as if he knows what it will take to get it done.
All indications are he has no clue.
The Islanders have been trying to add to their Stanley Cup championship haul for 35 years, but haven’t come close all that often since their original “drive for five” ended in the 1984 Final. There was, of course, the stellar run to the Eastern Conference finals back in 1993, but really that was an outlier, a freak occurrence, given the reality of what this franchise has been for as long as many care to remember.
At best, a below-average operation, and that’s actually me being really kind.
The Isles have gone from being an utter disaster from 1995 to 2005 to a team simply running in place throughout current general manager Garth Snow’s 12-year tenure. In that time they’ve had one shining moment. It happened two years ago when a team that was thought to be on the cusp of something sustainable shocked its fans by actually winning a round in the playoffs, the first time it had done so since that memorable 1992-93 season.
The Islanders have been by and large the most frustrating team in the NHL since.
Enter Ledecky, the over-the-top enthusiastic new majority owner who, along with partner Scott Malkin, took control of the team from Charles Wang in 2016. Ledecky is a very pleasant man, clearly has the best of intentions and has never met a microphone he hasn’t liked.
His claim to fame so far as owner is a massive one. He managed to do what many thought was impossible by working out a deal to get the team a new arena, in Nassau County no less. He secured the future of a franchise that had toyed with the emotions of its fan base for basically 20 years.
Talk of the Islanders relocating, though never reported as an overly serious thing, took on a life of its own because the club basically kept striking out with every move it tried to make. But Ledecky, along with the state, changed all that with the Belmont Park arena deal, and in the days that followed he walked like a conquering hero among the masses.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on this franchise’s road to a more secure tomorrow. The on-ice product of today got worse.
I remember the day the first real solid reports started coming in about the Isles and Belmont. It was Dec. 19. It was a joyous time. Twitter was alive with Ledecky worship. Terms like “best owner in franchise history” were being bandied about without a care in the world. It was all really quite something to see.
Then the Isles went out that night and got their butts kicked by the Detroit Red Wings, at home no less. The visitors scored the final four goals of a 6-3 victory that pretty much remains a microcosm of this team’s season.
The Islanders are a wonderful offensive team. Captain John Tavares, veteran winger Josh Bailey and rookie sensation Mathew Barzal are each on a better than point-per-game pace. The Isles haven’t been this exciting in their opponents’ end since the days of the immortal Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.
But as we all know, the Isles are an equally brutal defensive team. I’m talking the worst in the NHL by a considerable margin. They have allowed 210 goals in 57 games, 17 more than the next-worst team, the Arizona Coyotes, who have a league-low 36 points.
Watching the Islanders (27-24-6) on a nightly basis has been nothing short of lesson in humility. While it’s true they went into Monday just one point out of the final playoff spot in the East, is there anyone alive that honestly thinks they’ll go very far even if they do get back into the postseason? Including that Dec. 19 loss to Detroit, the Isles have won just nine of their last 24 games (9-12-3). And with all their defense and goaltending problems, there’s little reason to believe they’ll go on any type of inspiring run as currently constituted.
Now, it would be easy to turn this into a hit piece on Snow, because his job performance over the last dozen years, save for a few shining moments, has been abysmal. But he pretty much lost whatever remaining support he had with the fans when he gave that ridiculous interview to Newsday last week. You know, the one where he blamed injuries as “facts” why the Islanders have been a disgraceful defensive team all season, and how he acted above the idea of a trade or two, as if the team he put together should have had no problem standing the test of time.
Tavares’ impending free agency, you ask? Nah, don’t worry about it. Snow’s on it. If the franchise player walks for nothing, he walks for nothing, much like Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen before him. While it’s debatable if the latter two had real futures with the Islanders, not trading them at the deadline was as distinct a sign as there has ever been that this club is run in just about the most unorthodox way imaginable.
Letting Tavares potentially skate off to another team for nothing would be a criminal offense of staggering proportions. But that’s how Snow operates. Let’s keep our own regardless of the situation, and as a kicker, let’s have it act like a true trade deadline deal. That’s what we’ve grown to expect from an executive who has not gone for it at the deadline since the Ryan Smyth deal in 2006, when Snow was still trying to shrug off the backup goalie-turned-GM label.
What we’ve gotten instead have been Tyler Kennedy- and Shane Prince-type trades and a whole lot of “I’m the smartest guy in the room”-type rhetoric from a GM who is anything but.
Yeah, I could give you thousands of words on all that nonsense in my sleep, but there’s really no point. You know as well as I do that the “fact” that Snow is still calling the shots all these years later has been due to collective ownership malpractice.
When Ledecky inherited the team from Wang, he also took on Snow’s mysterious contract, which legend has it could be a lifetime deal for all we know. Since Wang took over in 2000, the Isles have been exceptional at keeping internal the important things their fans need to know.
But regardless of how many years and dollars are left on Snow’s deal, Ledecky cannot sit there and wax poetic about wanting to win a fifth championship and then turn around and allow the current front office to remain in power. This is such an obvious thing I cannot believe I have to state it, but I’m compelled to do so because the new owner said something very frightening a few weeks back.
As a guest on the “Boomer & Gio” show, while taking another victory lap for Belmont, Ledecky was eventually asked about his at-the-time struggling team, which was as infuriating then as it is now. He then uttered what I believe were some infamous words that should give every last Isles fan a moment of pause.
“Owners own, GMs GM.”
Loosely translated, that means Ledecky, at the time anyway, was content to let his hockey people handle the day-to-day operations, while he worked on the bigger-picture things. What he did was show in a few telling seconds how tone deaf he is to what the paying public really wants. He is supposed to be a better “hockey man” than Wang, but so far has given no indication that is indeed the case.
Now, to be fair, perhaps Ledecky simply prioritized the arena as the first thing he had to get done on his to-do list. But let’s be honest, the bloom is off that rose. The arena, though obviously incredibly important, has always been secondary in the eyes of the fans.
They want a winner first and foremost and always.
Honestly, who cares if the Islanders will play dozens of games at the refurbished Nassau Coliseum in the years leading up to the completion of the Belmont arena? If you know anything about this fan base, it’s an understandably damaged lot. The supporters will pack the “old barn” for the nostalgic first regular season game back there, but if the team stinks, they won’t return with regularity.
And though Belmont is years off, the same rule applies. I promise you: If the Isles are their typical eighth- or ninth-place-in-the-East selves, the novelty of Belmont will wear off very quickly. And many of those 18,000 sparkling seats will look like the ones currently rotting away inside Barclays Center.
Ledecky and Malkin spent around $500 million to buy this team from Wang. You mean to tell me they are now afraid to eat Snow’s contract? If so, the Islanders are in worse shape than I thought.
Ownership needs to put its stamp on this team, for better or worse. It must bring in its own front office, and if the new GM or director of hockey operations or whoever decides young head coach Doug Weight has to go, too, so be it.
Until that point, Ledecky should be viewed as nothing more than a great enabler. To get rid of that stigma, he needs to roll up his sleeves and get into making the Islanders great again, much like he attacked the notion that the club would never get a new arena anywhere near the New York City market.
Imagine being the guy who got the sparkling new home and then a few months later lost arguably one of the greatest pure talents to ever play for the franchise?
It could very well happen, and if so there would be nothing “world class” about it.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN