It may be an overstatement, but HockeySureShot believes that this offseason is the most important this franchise has ever seen. As we know, one of us is a season ticket holder for Islanders home games. That same person is writing this blog with the hopes that Garth Snow and Charles Wang realize the same thing.
The Islanders were the last Professional sports team of the four major sports to win four championships in a row, including 19 straight playoff series. Since then, almost nothing has gone right for this once proud organization. The Islanders are basically irrelevant on the sports map as drafting John Tavares last season was probably the most positive news they made in years, and that decision was a slam dunk. As the draft is less than 24 hours away and with free agent signing period beginning on July 1st, let's take a look at where the Isles have been and where they must go to keep the promise to their fans and help solidify their existence which currently is in question to some degree.
Hockey fans everywhere know about the history the Islanders have. Islanders fans know the history since. Frankly, we're tired of it. For those of you that don't know, the Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993 and since have made the playoffs just 5 times going 6-20 in those 5 series. In the mid 90's Mike Milbury was hired to take over as GM. During his time as GM, the Islanders saw ownership changes, including one that faked his way into the owner's box and eventually went to jail. See John Spano. The Islanders payroll was consistently around 15 million dollars and from the shortened 95 season through 2001 season, the Islanders missed the playoffs 7 straight times. The Islanders didn't come close to making the playoffs in those 7 seasons, reaching 70 points only twice.
A renewed hope was given to the franchise before the 2000-2001 season when Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar purchased the Islanders. During that offseason, Charles Wang gave Mike Milbury the financial backing that every GM needs to be successful. Mike Milbury made a slew of trades and made many free agent signings. The Islanders had a 44 point improvement and made the playoffs in 2002 and forced a 7th game before losing to Toronto. Looking back, the Islanders probably made some poor decisions that affected the team negatively in the long term that offseason, like trading away Zdeno Chara and not drafting Jason Spezza, and that 10 year Yashin contract but it did bring hope to the fanbase and an exciting season.
Since then the Islanders have made the playoffs 3 times. All 3 times losing in 5 games. The Islanders have now missed the playoffs 4 out of the last 5 seasons and on top of that, the fans are in danger of losing their team. When push comes to shove, I believe the Islanders will stay however the franchise and owner Charles Wang have been blocked by the Town of Hempstead to develop land around the existing Nassau Coliseum and have the hockey arena upgraded. Wang's Lighthouse Project seems to have hit a dead end and fans worry that after the 2015 lease is up, the Islanders will pack their bags. If no other site locally is found, the buses could head anywhere.
Why is this offseason so important? After a surprising and heroic playoff birth led by then coach Ted Nolan in the 2006-2007 season, the Islanders stayed committed to building through free agency mainly, and built a team led by veterans. The 2008 Islanders stayed competitive through the trade deadline but quickly fell out of the race. At the end of that season, Islanders management questioned and polled fans asking if they would sit through a rebuild which would be a slow process designed to give the organization staying power. The answer was yes, and the Islanders acquired draft picks by moving down twice in the 2008 draft and selecting Josh Bailey. At the time it wasn't a popular move, but the Islanders came away with 13 picks in the seven rounds which replenished a farm system that was dry. The Islanders then finished last overall in the 2008-2009 season, a result that many expected. The good news was, the Islanders selected first overall in the 2009 entry draft and were given the privilege of selecting John Tavares #1 overall. Garth Snow got creative and moved up 14 spots after acquiring a second first round pick from Ottawa via trade to the #12 spot and drafted defensemen Calvin De Haan. Also acquired in the 2nd round was goaltending prospect Mikko Koskinen. A towering man at 6 foot 7 inches tall, many consider him the steal of the draft. A few weeks later the Islanders signed Matt Moulson via free agency who finished the season with 30 goals, a huge surprise as Moulson was hoping to just crack the lineup with the big club. Rob Schremp was then claimed on waivers. The former first round pick with Edmonton fell out of favor and the Islanders gave him a chance. Schremp showed his playmaking skills and quickly became a fan favorite. The Islanders improved during the past season, finishing with 79 points and at times played some of the best hockey their fans have seen in years. A step in the right direction yes, but still much work to be done.
So here we are. The wee hours of the morning on draft day 2010. The Islanders hold the 5th spot in the draft and hold 10 picks over the 7 rounds. Another important day for GM Garth Snow and Assistant GM Ryan Jankowski. I will not speculate on the draft. Besides last season, the Islanders just about never do what you expect them to do historically so lets wait until the chips fold. However there is much work to be done after draft day. Currently the Islanders have just 8 forwards signed for next season. They also have decisions to make on their current Restricted Free Agents. Matt Moulson and Rob Schremp will almost definitely be signed. However the Islanders have decisions to make regarding Sean Bergenheim and Jeff Tambellini. Bergenheim had a career high in goals in 2008-2009 with 15 but has never seemed to fully realize his potential with the Islanders. The man plays with heart and another year is not out of the question. As for Tambellini, he seemed to fall out of favor with coach Scott Gordon. Tambellini has shown the ability to score at every level except the NHL. He did show some flashes this season but lack of physical play and some poor decisions on the ice kept him a healthy scratch most of the season. The Islanders biggest problem lies with their defense. They have several defensive prospects and may draft another one tonight. Calvin De Haan, Travis Hamonic, Mark Katic seem on their way to making the big club in the next few seasons, if not this one. Andy MacDonald and Jack Hillen proved they can play at the NHL level and will only get better. The Islanders will need to sign at least one defensemen and probably two with NHL experience to help Mark Streit lead the blueline. The Islanders will also need to acquire a veteran goal scorer. Alex Frolov could be that man, he has proven to be a 2nd tier goal scorer the Islanders could use and add to their depth of solid young forwards. The Isles are currently about 12 million under the cap floor according to NHL numbers which gives them plenty of room to make these small moves. Rick DiPietro and goaltending is another issue that will be written about shortly.
Why is this so important? On the last day of the season, the Isles play a spirited game at home against Pittsburgh. A game that saw John Tavares lead a 3 goal comeback in the 3rd period in front of a sell out crowd. After the game, both owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow told fans in a Newsday Article that next year the goal is to make the playoffs. Whether the Islanders make the playoffs or not, their management must prove to the fans they are trying. Islander fans won't sit through another losing season in the stands at Nassau Coliseum and rumors are that they have already lost season ticket holders. If the Islanders fail to be competitive this season and lose more fans at the gate, the chances of the team moving become more and more realistic. The Islanders don't have to abandon their plan of building through the draft to accomplish this. A few shrewd signings during free agency and the Islanders can be in it come playoff time.
My fellow Islanders fans want to be waving towels next April for a few home playoff games, and if we don't, it has to be because the Isles just weren't ready, not because Charles Wang refused to open his checkbook and Garth Snow fed us lines that their current group is playoff ready. It's now time for the Islanders to keep their promise to the fans they made after the end of the season, and try.