Monday, March 10, 2008

Chasing Career Years

[Note: Most of this was written following the loss to the Rangers last week. I decided to hold it back to see what would happen in Philadelphia.]

By most accounts, the Islanders played about twenty minutes of hockey last night. They have reached that critical point—one loss away from having to run the table in order to qualify for postseason play. That is to say that time has run out. Taking into account the effort put forth by the team during those other pesky, unfortunate other forty minutes of play, it’s time to look at what kind of team we have here more critically.

Even at the trade deadline, I was willing to give this group a chance to go after a playoff berth and prove that the current roster deserved the opportunity to stay together. They haven’t done it. I’m a little torn about what I want to see happen next. One of the clich├ęs associated with this team is the need to fill the roster with Ted Nolan-type players. As far as I can see it, these players fit into two categories: hardworking players who always give 100-percent effort, and underachievers who just need to be properly motivated. Too many of the team’s key players fit into the latter category.

Yesterday on WFAN, Charles Wang stated that the organization expects its players to turn in career years every year, and it’s the coaching staff’s responsibility to get that kind of performance out the players. By definition, a player is only going to have a career year once. The rest of the time, you hope he plays to his level. The Islanders could have gone much further this year with career years from Vasicek, Fedotenko, Comrie, etc. The coaching staff was unable to coax such a year out of any of them, or out of any of the other young players who are still in a position to take a leap forward. Worse, in absence of a career year, the base level at which many of these players produce is not high enough to make the team more than simply competitive. On many recent nights, saying that the team was competitive is generous.

Garth Snow has his work cut out for him. He needs to raise the bar so that the core of the team does not consist of players who might score 30 goals under the best of circumstances, but fall back to 15 otherwise. He does not need to pursue only Nolan-type players. Sure, you want hard-workers and high-character guys. But Nolan himself said on the radio that he would welcome the opportunity to lead a talent-laden team. That's easier said than done when you haven't managed to draft a Malkin, Crosby, Ovechkin, or Phaneuf. But whatever team you put out there, I'm sure Ted will coach it. He may play some favorites along the way, but winning is welcoming host for cooperation and selflessness.

If it proves impossible to upgrade the talent on the roster in the offseason, then it's time to show some faith in the young talent that has been drafted or acquired. This means that Kyle Okposo and Jeff Tambellini are top-6 forwards and receive a regular shift on the power play. Maybe Sean Bergenheim fits there too (or a certain just-signed, 6-4, 207-pound right wing countryman of his). Chris Campoli gets a polished power-play quarterback with whom to share the point and learn from. Some combination or subset of Blake Comeau, Franz Nielsen, Jeremy Colliton, and Ryan Walter plays more than seven minutes per game. This team needs to be hungrier. Maybe this was just the wrong cast. But I'll have a hard time being a believer if this year's crop of outgoing players is replaced by a new crop of declining older veterans and stagnating younger veterans. I'm tired of pinning hopes on a team's potential rather than on its foundation.

I still think that you can improve a team simply by keeping it together. In that scenario, the new piece to the puzzle is another year of familiarity, camaraderie, comfort, and trust. I don't see this squad benefiting enough from that approach. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of approach the front office takes. Until then, we can only ask, "Where have you gone, Jon Sim? A fan base turns its lonely eyes to you..."


Dominik said...

Hear, hear. Good stuff. I like the point about the team improving through familiarity. Not because I want them to stand pat this summer -- far from it -- but because the crop of UFA's this summer is stunningly mediocre.

I'm starting to hold hope for "another year older, another year wiser" for the kids, and the resurrection of yes, Jon Sim. Then there's the lottery pick...

Islanders Outsider said...

Together we can unite to raise unrealistic expectations for Jon Sim! I referenced him because he's the only member of last year's free agent class that didn't get an opportunity to prove himself, and I still hold hope that he will live up to expectations.

Is it bad that I'm really starting to like the sound of "lottery pick?"