Monday, March 31, 2008

This Is Not Normal

It seems a little odd to cover these games as though they were normal. They are anything but normal. Of the twenty players who dressed for Saturday night's game against the Flyers, only eight of them were what I consider to be established NHLers. That includes Sean Bergenheim, who didn't play in the NHL last year, and Wade Dubielewicz, who is in his first season as a full-time NHLer.

Here are my criteria: If you spent time in the minor leagues this season, and you weren't there on a conditioning stint, then you are not an established NHLer. If you spent time as a healthy scratch this season, and have not played at least three full seasons in the league, then you are not an established NHLer. Take a look at this lineup:


Bergenheim-Vasicek-Guerin

Satan-Nielsen-Hunter
Comeau-Park-Okposo
Jackman-Colliton-Regier

Spiller-Martinek
Meyer-Davison
Berard-Johnson

Dubielewicz
Mole

Have you ever seen anything like that? Then throw in the fact that Spiller, Regier, and Jackman have been pulling double duty, and it's amazing this team isn't getting its doors blown off. It's a testament to the players, to Ted Nolan and his coaching staff, and to Jack Capuano and his staff. With nothing to play for but the play itself, most of these guys are putting their best forward. That doesn't mean it wasn't a weird night. And, unfortunately, their best foot probably won't be enough most of the time. Here are some notes (not all of them are weird):

Before the game started, two young teenagers stood next to the Blog Box glancing repeatedly toward us. Finally, they moved closer and announced that one of them was a Kyle Okposo lookalike and they were going to go around claiming that he was Kyle's little brother. I regret not taking a picture. He actually did look like him.

Mike Mole is wearing #60 with the Isles. It looked like there was a spring training castoff on the bench. Or Scott Schoeneweis. Mole wore #30 with the Grizzlies where, incidentally, Kevin Colley is an assistant coach.

The Islanders got a break in that Vinnie Prospal was scratched with an illness, and Marty Biron was rested after playing in the 5-4 shootout loss to the Devils the night before. That's Marty Biron, he of the 6-0 record, 1.50 GAA, and .952 save percentage against the Isles this year. So much for breaks.

Trent Hunter's 28 assists this season are a career high. So maybe we shouldn't put a cap on his offensive potential just yet. Of course, 25 goals and 30 assists would look a lot better.

Despite the fourth line being made up of weary commuters, Nolan rolled them right out there early in the first--within the first three minutes. Ice time was fairly evenly distributed in the first, as only one penalty was called. The fourth line would be used much more sparingly the remainder of the game.

Okposo ends up in places with shots on the power play where I'm not used to seeing this team end up with shots from. If that makes sense.

The Flyers' shots-on-goal total seemed to rise as if each shot were being counted as two. I had intended to ask Dubie whether he really felt under seige or if most of the shots were actually quite harmless. He confirmed the latter in response to a Greg Logan question while acknowledging that the Flyers did really take over the game after the Isles controlled the first period and mounted a 2-0 lead in the second.

Frans Nielsen's goal to regain the lead at 3-2 was a beauty of a wrister, placed perfectly over Antero Nittymaki's glove.

I really wanted to claim that Briere's shootout winner was illegal because he stopped his forward momentum, but I don't think the evidence holds up. I wonder if he purposely used that move to counteract Dubie's famed poke check.

The post-game scene included young players hustling to get dressed and packed for the trip back to Bridgeport, where they would play their fifth game in five nights on Sunday. One of them (name withheld to protect his identity) sat in his stall all ready to go in his overcoat and ski cap while wolfing down a piece of pizza. You gotta eat when you can. Another went over this week's schedule of Islanders games, because it's hard to know where you are and where you have to be when you're playing for two teams simultaneously. And for the first time all year, I had to work to figure out which faces went with which names. The names are all very familiar, of course. But it's a little jarring when you suddenly see several faces in the locker room that you've never seen up close before. I never imagined I'd be in that situation. I'm sure the situation is a little weird for them too.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Confusion Says

I'm confused.

The season fell apart. A multitude of injuries to key players left a team that was already a marginal contender for the playoffs with no chance to compete for a spot. Players brought in last summer to fortify the lineup either failed to make enough of an impact or simply did not live up to expectations. The Islanders will finish under .500 and be done in early April. I'm supposed to be depressed, disillusioned, and disheartened. Why, then, am I excited? Why am I still enjoying being a fan right now? Why am I still hopeful? Let me count the ways.

  1. The season's demise, though punctuated by two extended losing streaks, was somewhat gradual. That was easier to handle emotionally than staying in contention until the end and then falling short dramatically.
  2. Instead of being overwhelmed, the young enforcements from the AHL are playing as though they intend to impact not only next year's Islanders' roster, but next year's Islanders' opponents.
  3. Some of the veterans are playing as though they realize they need to keep up with the kids or risk being left in the spray. I'd prefer if everyone were motivated intrinsically every game, but that's not realistic. This will do because it's important to maintain a positive culture in the locker room when jobs are on the line instead of disintegrating into an Us vs. Them mentality. Of course, guys like Hunter, Guerin, and Comrie have the security of deals for next year. But they seem to realize that their own success is only part of the answer. As a result, the team doesn't look as though it's just playing out the string of a losing season.
  4. In just four games, Kyle Okposo looks to be a bona fide difference-maker--not just a guy who scores a huge/pretty goal every 10-15 games, but a guy who makes opposing defenses say, "Uh, oh" several times a night. Islander Frontier had some good descriptions of this kind of ability in the last two paragraphs here.
  5. As told to John Jeansonne of Newsday, Blake Comeau feels like an NHL player now. He certainly plays like one.
  6. The schedules have aligned in such a way that the top prospects are getting a chance to get their skates wet in the NHL while still having a chance to make a playoff run in the AHL. Bridgeport has done a fantastic job of holding the ship together while it's lineup was squeezed like a Valencia juicing orange. Or sucked dry like the cup holding an apple pie a la mode milkshake from Ronnybrook Dairy Farm. I don't know, you make the call. Both are refreshing and delicious. Either way, it would be great to see the call-ups return to Bridgeport after next Friday and lead the Sound Tigers on a run deep into the playoffs.
  7. I no longer view Bergenheim, Comeau, Okposo, Tambellini, Colliton, Regier, and others as individual prospects, one or two of whom might become regulars. A few of them will likely drop out of the picture for one reason or another, but I can't remember a time in recent history when I was so excited about a group of young players (Dalgarno-McInnis?). And it's not a case of them filling in admirably and doing the best they can with marginal ability under trying circumstances. They look like legitimate pieces of a group that wants to be the next generation of Islanders. Yes, I'm desperately trying to avoid using the word "core."
  8. It's so easy to root for Wade Dubielewicz.
  9. The draft lottery: It's time for the Islanders to get a super-stud. With this draft and this finish in the standings, it should be harder to make a mistake. They need to draft a guy who can come in as an 18- or 19-year-old and set the barn on fire with prowess, drive, and intensity. Other teams have done it. It's time to make them envious.
  10. Who says a list has to have ten items?
Now, one thing I'm already nervous about: The free agency period. A lot depends on which players are re-signed, but July 1 will once again be a measuring stick of how players and agents perceive the state of the Islanders.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Daily Double

It's rare that I get to watch my two favorite hockey teams play simultaneously. So tonight was a pretty good way to spend an evening. In the right sight line, I had Islanders-Devils on the TV. In the left sight line, Cornell-Harvard in the semifinals of the ECAC Hockey Championship live via B2TV.com ($8.00 for the single game pass). The results were a mixed bag.

Cornell was the visiting team in the ECAC tournament game contested at the Times Union Center in Albany. I clicked on the "visitors" link hoping to hear a Big Red broadcast. Instead, I got the Crimson announcers. Thinking the site had possibly reversed the links, I fired off a quick e-mail to customer service asking if it were possible to access the Cornell broadcast without having to purchase another pass. B2TV Networks impressed me with an almost immediate reply that consisted solely of a link. The fact that the link included "harvard" in its address wasn't promising, however. Indeed, I was once again fed the broadcast in a darker shade of red. At that point, it wasn't worth pursuing anymore as I had two hockey games to watch and only two eyes!

The webcast, while not superclear, was high enough quality to be enjoyable to watch. The audio was often a second or two ahead of the video. I'm only pointing all of this out because B2TV also webcasts minor league hockey games, including those of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. So, if the Sound Tigers find themselves involved in critical games over the next few weeks (a likely event), you may have the option of watching the game in the comfort of your own home.

As for the game, Cornell fell victim to a couple of lapses in discipline and was unable to contain the Harvard power play. The Crimson scored two quick goals with the man advantage on consecutive opportunities in the second period. Cornell responded quickly after the second goal to cut the lead in half with a power-play marker of its own.

In the third period, Cornell really took the play to its arch rival. The Big Red dominated possession and fired 16 shots on goal. Unfortunately, tonight's version of the Big Red looked a little like the Islanders in that it struggled mightily to finish its scoring chances. Still trailing 2-1 with just under three minutes left, Cornell took its sixth minor of the game. Harvard scored its third power-play goal in six chances to put the game away. Cornell was unable to cut into the margin with a 6-on-4 advantage in the waning minutes.

Harvard's Doug Rogers, a fourth-round draft choice of the Islanders in 2006, picked up an assist on the second Crimson goal and took five shots. Rogers stands second on the team in scoring with 13 goals and 20 assists in 34 games. He is a +15.

Cornell's season ends at 18-14-3 with no chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. [Note: Cornell defeated Colgate 4-2 in Saturday's consolation game.] The Big Red can be optimistic about the years to come. This year's top two scorers, Colin Greening (Ottawa) and Riley Nash (Edmonton), are a sophomore and a freshman, respectively. Assuming they don't leave early, they should be fun to watch for a few more years. Starting goaltender Ben Scrivens is also a sophomore. The team will lose only four seniors.

Fortunately, the Cornell game ended just in time for me to focus on a helmetless Kyle Okposo ripping an off-balance one-timer past Martin Brodeur to give the Isles a 2-1 lead over the Devils with 2:35 remaining. The power play
goal, off a Richard Park feed, was Okposo's first in the NHL and his second point, after an assist on a Blake Comeau tally earlier in the evening. Wade Dubielewicz stood, well, tall in the face of a strong Devils attack. Dubie continues to state his case for being a legitimate NHL netminder who can be relied upon in any situation.

Bryan Berard recorded two assists, including the secondary on Okposo's goal. Trent Hunter sealed the fight-filled game with a rare Islanders empty-net goal. Bill Guerin, Matt Spiller, and Josef Vasicek all took fighting majors, as Ted Nolan got his wish for a more spirited performance. Spiller was the unfortunate recipient of an Arron Asham knockout punch to the cheek that drew blood.

The win by the Islanders and the performance by Okposo were a nice salve to the wound that was the Cornell loss. A double-victory would have been nice. But, for a hockey fan, it was still a pretty good way to spend an evening.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hippy-Dippy Flaky-Shaky Fun-in-the-Sun...

...Rickless wonders

Ai-yi-yipee-yipee-yi-yi-ay
Going west of Mississippi got a faulty kind of hippy
And you don't risk the franchise and you don't want to panic
If the young kid wants to drop his pads on down

(Thanks, and apologies, to Dar Williams)

This one's for you, Ken D! My thoughts? At least Rick doesn't have any more hips to injure.

Seriously, though, I know there's a wide range of feelings about the latest catastrophe to befall the Isles. It's completely reasonable to be worried about whether DiPietro is going to get anywhere near playing 13 more years after breaking down two years in a row at the tender age of 26. His fun-in-the-sun months will once again be spent in intense physical rehabilitation. Rick knows no other way but intense, which he demonstrated by entering the 2007-08 season in stellar condition.

I can't get caught up in worrying about what's going to be eight years from now. Here's what I know: Over the first three and half months of this season, DiPietro played the best hockey of his career and inspired new levels of confidence in large portions of the fan base on a repaired hip. That hip, as far as we know, remains fine. The other hip, which dragged DiPietro down from All-Star to sub-par will now be similarly repaired. I am hopeful that this one will come back just as strong as the other one.

Is playing goalie in the NHL too much stress for two surgically repaired hips? It's certainly possible. For now, I am choosing to be optimistic. I am relieved to believe
once again that the DiPietro we saw in the first half is the real deal, and the one we saw in the second half was sorely compromised. There is precedent for elite athletes to come back from significant surgeries and go on to have uninterrupted, successful careers. Since we don't have much of a choice, let's hitch our wagon to that idea. Because, as I said, it's not as though he can freshly injure another hip (although a three-hipped goalie would really be something). The fixed one held up. If he re-injures one of them, yeah, then I'll be very concerned. Otherwise, Rick can simply look forward to when his hips can vote in 2025 and 2026.

By the way, I don't know why the writer(s) at Rotoworld sometimes refer to DiPietro as "Dippy," but I wish they would stop. It is not an acceptable alternative to DP or Dipi. I also acknowledge that there are more complex issues surrounding this injury, such as the potential disaster of the contract, how much Rick should really play during the season, and whether the team handled the injury properly. We have plenty of time to kick those around.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Okposo In, Outsider Out

I'll be sitting in my apartment as the Islanders take on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tonight is the NHL debut of Kyle Okposo, and I have elected not to witness it in person. This season has seen several must-be-there events at the Coliseum: the home opener, the first tilt with the Rangers, the return of Al Arbour to the bench, the celebration of the Core of the Four, to name a few. I have made it a point to be there for these special circumstances, but on this night, other circumstances win out.

Going to the game on a weeknight requires taking the car to work, and paying for parking in midtown, or else I'd never make it out to Long Island in time. Then there's driving back to NYC after the game and not walking through the door until after 11:30, at which time there's zero chance I would start writing about the game. First of all, I would be up way too late. Secondly, you don't come home to your wife just prior to midnight on a Tuesday and disappear to blog about hockey. That's not something you learn; it's just something you know. There are also responsibilities and family matters to which I want to attend. That being said, it was no one's choice but my own to watch this one from my living room. Years from now, will I regret not being able to say that I was there for Kyle Okposo's first NHL game? Perhaps. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The last thing Kyle needs is more hype, to which I am adding simply by talking about it.


Ah, yes. Hype. Here are the most recent headlines from my Google Reader feed of newyorkislanders.com:

Kyle Debuts Against Toronto
ITV: Okposo Raw
ITV: Okposo Practices
Kyle's First Skate
Get VIP Parking and 12.5% Off for '08-'09!
Expert Opinion: Okposo Debut
Okposo to Make NHL Debut on Tuesday
Kyle on the Isle
Coach Capuano on Kyle
Montreal 3, Islanders 0
Isles Skate into Montreal
MC and KO
KO Parallel Parks!

I had to have a little fun with it. So, nine out of the 12 real news stories from the Islanders have featured Okposo. That's a lot of attention for a guy whose career to this point has a pedigree equivalent to that of Scott Scissons. (Poor Scissons--we should really all leave him alone already.) Chris Botta made some valid points in his blog entry addressing this issue. The Islanders are to be applauded (and have been) for the unprecedented access to the team they have given to fans. It's kind of silly to expect them to stop now. I'm not sure where promotion crosses the line to hype, and it probably doesn't matter because they blur well before and well after the line.

What all of the attention does point to is how starved the organization and the fans are for a dynamic home-grown skater to become a cornerstone of the franchise. It reminds me of the mid- to late-90s, when a similar hunger drove me to find a Web site, before such types of sites were ubiquitous, where I could follow J.P. Dumont playing for the Val-d'Or Foreurs in real time because his exploits were the only thing to be really excited about. That site was simply a fan page run by a young woman up in Quebec who would post the scoring summaries in basic HTML. I found myself checking it every night the Foreurs had a game.


How much information do we need about Kyle? Did the Blackhawks market Kane and Toews like this, following nearly their every move? How about Peter Mueller in Phoenix? In today's Globe and Mail, Ted Nolan called this an important day for the franchise, and said that the organization should take care not to over-hype it or under-hype it. My preference would be for no hype. Let Kyle be the humble kid who needs to earn his spot, as well as the attention and adulation. If he merits those things, they will come. And so will the spoils of marketing him.

In the short term, I can't imagine that some extra tickets sold and a few additional headlines are going to make much of a difference. The revenue and the attention they generate will go away in a hurry if Kyle is not ready to demonstrate the kind of play that warrants the spotlight. At present, he is still just a first-round draft pick. So, yes, a spotlight introduction would be too much. It's wonderful to hear repeatedly that Kyle the person is everything we want him to be. Just let him play and allow the rest to come naturally.

Now, how soon before we can get one of those Ovech-kams or Mal-kams focused solely on Kyle?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Seriously?

"In attempting to free himself, Pronger carelessly and recklessly brought his foot down," said Colin Campbell, NHL Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations.

So, Chris Simon is a deviant who needs counseling, but we're more than happy to offer an excuse for Chris Pronger. Colin Campbell's statement, especially the first five words, says to me that Pronger was suspended for eight games because Campbell had no choice at this point, but he's not happy about it. If you're going to suspend him, just levy the punishment. Don't start offering explanations now that they serve you. Or just admit that you made a mistake the first time. Enjoy the playoffs, Mr. Pronger.

Here's a post from Battle of California, another blog that is crediting the Internet for forcing the NHL to reverse its course on disciplining Pronger.

And I still can't get over the notion that the original video was too grainy for the the league to take action. It's not as though the Simon video was crystal clear. The mess of bodies and legs in that one made it confusing at best. But you could basically figure out what happened, just as you could in this case.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Power of the Blogosphere

I didn't have time to write about the Chris Pronger stomping incident last night, but my intention was to put up the video and the requisite "You've Got To Be Kidding Me" post today because I thought the issue deserved as much exposure as possible. Well, I have to commend the bloggers of the hockey world and a fair amount of mainstream media writers. In the past 24 hours, the hypocrisy, favoritism, and lack of credibility and accountability in the NHL's department of discipline has received top-story attention all over the place. Islanders VP of Media Relations Chris Botta has weighed in on the matter twice on his blog.

I find it hard to believe that the NHL would revisit the incident because better footage became available. It's a convenient line for the league to put out. But the idea that the original evidence wasn't clear enough to justify a punishment is hard to stomach. The first video was certainly clear enough to launch an outcry from fans and bloggers. And that, my friends, is where we can rejoice in the power of the masses. There was a time when a fan's ability to protest an injustice was limited to call-in radio shows and letters that most likely would never be addressed. Now, of course, those same protests resonate on the Internet where hundreds of writers may call attention to them and thousands of readers will echo their voices. I have no way of knowing if pressure from the blogosphere and other online sources will ultimately be responsible for a do-over. It's shameful that the NHL would need such goading to get this right.

Okposo Net asks of Colin Campbell, "...if the above video isn't evidence enough to suspend Pronger, then it would be nice if you could go public and explain specifically why that is not the case (not that most people will buy it, but at least you're taking some responsibility)." It would be nice, but the NHL has built not explaining itself into its disciplinary process. I understand how not explaining every punishment or lack of punishment prevents the league from tripping over its own words. But building in a lack of accountability surely does not support the integrity of the process and it undermines the credibility of the league. Pronger's rap sheet and most recent offense align perfectly with the precedent that the league has already set for these matters. He is due for 20 games. If he gets anything, I doubt it will be more than five to seven.

As for the double standard being applied in relation to the Islanders, we will likely get nowhere by claiming an institutional bias. All we can do is continue to point out loudly the glaring incidents such as this. Did you notice how Garnet Exelby quietly got away without further punishment for forcefully raising his stick to Blake Comeau's nether regions? It was not an egregious, violent act, but we know that an injury is not required for disciplinary measures to be handed down. As a completely unnecessary and non game-related stick foul, the act deserved at least a symbolic suspension of one game--set the precedent that even thinking about that type of behavior will not be tolerated.

Botta postulates that maybe it is the name on the back of the sweater. What he can't say as a representative of an NHL team is that maybe it's also the logo on the front.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Last Gasp

Anyone else get to watch way more of the Olympic Soccer qualifier between the U.S. and Cuba than you thought you would be able to watch? No? Then what did you flip the channel to when the Islanders game became too unbearable to watch? I'm not sure which result was more disappointing, really. The U.S. Soccer Federation is far more developed than the Cuban program. A 1-1 tie against Cuba on home soil by our Under-23s falls well short of expectations. Not securing those 3 points in the group was a major letdown. But it was not nearly as disheartening as the performance by the Islanders in Tampa.

I do feel a little sorry for Ted Nolan. It's not fair to ignore the fact that his defensive corps last night included two players from the shallow end of the depth chart and one who has resorted to joking about the relationship between his presence on the ice and pain pills. The forward corps featured Tambellini, Comeau, Colliton, and Walter and played shorthanded with Hilbert exiting the lineup before the opening faceoff and Fedotenko eventually being forced to the locker room. Many of us want to see what the kids can do, but the coach was visibly frustrated with having to rely on them at this point. And there are more coming. I suppose the silver lining is that we can be excited about seeing these kids play at the NHL over the final eleven games rather than watching disappointed and unmotivated vets mope out the string. Just be prepared for a few clunkers like last night.

And speaking of clunkers. The first goal against last night almost resulted in the first-ever obscenity being posted on this blog. Watching DiPietro give away an early goal in a do-or-die game prompted an exclamation from me that I wanted to post. I restrained myself. But I'm sure somebody else said and posted the same thing, which was: "Rick, stay in the net!" with an extra word inserted before net. I was surprised that Nolan called him out so directly after the game, but the coach is obviously running out of ways to get through to him. It has not been the most harmonious of times for the Islanders' bench leader. That was as close to being unhinged as I can recall seeing him.

The ebb and flow of a season can do funny things to one's perception. It was just a few months ago that I was extolling the value of having DiPietro as a fixture in goal. Today, the doubts start creeping back in. What if we have a Yashin x 1.5-sized albatross on our hands? DiPietro has come a long way, but it appears now that there's more maturing left to be done than I thought. It doesn't matter how important a part of his game puckhandling is. That particular skill has been the direct cause of pucks going in the net too many times. I've watched many Islander teams have great difficulty clearing the puck, so I understand his desire to care of business himself. But the direct-to-the-back-of-the-net conversions are deflating, even more so than the defensive giveaways by actual defensemen that lead to goals. I can imagine that Nolan is giving serious consideration to playing Dubie tonight against the Panthers. But just to be fair, this was far from being all Rick's fault. The season had been drifting steadily toward that dangerous falls that means the end of the line. Last night, the boat went over.

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..."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mike and the Mad Dog at the Coliseum

I wanted to do this as a live blog, but that just wasn't possible. So, in the spirit of NBC's Olympics coverage, we'll call this a plausibly live blog. As such, the timestamps are only approximations. Yes, you can listen to these interviews yourself on wfan.com. But this way, maybe you can skim here while watching the game instead of trying to listen to two things at once.

1:25: Mad Dog's first utterance of "DiPieto" comes as he announces that DiPietro will sit again tonight. You'd think that with two Rs in his own name, Chris could take the time to slow down and learn to throw one in there for Rick. But let the debate begin...Is Ted Nolan simply going with the hot hand, giving Rick more time to get himself back together, or just looking to motivate the franchise goalie with a little competition?

1:46: Mad Dog just referred to Washington's star player first as "that kid," and then as "Ovchenkin." It was not my intention to make this all about mispronunciations, but that's all we've got so far.

1:58: Talking about the NBA. I guess it was a little far-fetched to think this was going to be five hours and twenty minutes of Islanders programming on WFAN.

2:01: Garth Snow coming up next.

2:06: Mad Dog goes right to "Dubie" rather than attempt Dubielewicz.

2:08: Mike presses Garth for the real message behind playing Dubie. Garth says DiPietro is ready to go and actually expresses a little surprise that Ted decided to go back to Dubie. One can infer that Garth would not have made the same decision.

2:12: Mad Dog unleashes his first "Lavalette." We're getting all of his greatest hits. Come on, Chris. Say it with me: Lav-i-o-lette.

2:13: Garth is really talking up the youth, including those currently on the roster and those still in junior. Names the five draft picks who competed in the WJC.

2:15: Garth has full authority to pull the trigger on trades (e.g., Ryan Smyth) but relies on feedback from Nolan and Morrow, particularly so he doesn't acquire players that Nolan doesn't like.

2:16: Garth still believes that the Islanders control their own destiny. If they go 14-0 the rest of the way, that will be true.

2:19: Garth endorses trimming down the size of goalie pads. Bloggers everywhere mock him mercilessly.

2:21: Garth says that the Islanders are not at a $44 million payroll by design and would pay to the cap for the right players.

A decent spot with Snow, with the most revealing answer being about tonight's starting goalie. If the decision doesn't harm the relationship between coach and goalie, it could go a long way toward making DiPietro understand that Ted runs the room. Playing 78+ games may be fashionable for the top goalies of the day, but it wasn't always that way and doesn't have to be now. It was nice to hear Mike and Chris break down the interview and related issues in the next segment rather than going back to Brett Favre or something. Interviews with Wang, Nolan, and DiPietro were promised for later. Unfortunately, the hosts just don't have the depth of knowledge to ask the kinds of questions they might ask to Willie Randolph or Tom Coughlin.

2:51: Pierre McGuire in the house. Or on the phone, anyway. Wasn't expecting that. Says that Madison Square Garden is hopping right now (i.e., these days, not right this minute). Pierre is bringing a little league-wide perspective to the show. I'm okay with that.

2:58: Pierre has no problem tweaking Mike and Chris about their lack of hockey knowledge: "Tom who? you're probably saying," when bringing up Tom Preissing.

3:01: Chris gives Pierre 10 seconds to comment on the Islanders. Pierre is very complimentary to Ted, Garth, and Billy Guerin for keeping the ship afloat and still being in the playoff hunt. Says that Nolan should be coach of the year if the Isles make it.

3:07: Charles Wang steps to the mic. "Until we win the Stanley Cup, we always can be better." Mr. Wang does not appear to believe in the concept of rebuilding. Paraphrasing: If you don't go into every season expecting to win the Cup, you are a loser. The team's goal is to get a career year out all of its players every year.

3:13: Renovations to the lower bowl of the Coliseum would commence in July 2009 and extend briefly into the season with the team starting the schedule on the road. Upper bowl would be renovated similarly the following the year. July '09 is the earliest they could put a shovel in the ground.

3:16: Transportation, water issues, environmental issues, and other unknowns are the biggest obstacles to the Lighthouse project.

3:17: What happens with the SMG lease, which runs to 2015, has yet to be settled. Buying it out is an option.

3:22: Mr. Wang believes that the Lighthouse has to be iconic, akin to the Arch in St. Louis and other great landmarks.

3:26: If the Lighthouse project does not get approved, there probably won't be a Coliseum renovation. Charles was reluctant to address what happens in that scenario.

3:29: "We built a great team. We have good guys." Charles bristled slightly at the notion that he should just spend the extra $6 million left under the cap, but said that Garth has the financial flexibility to continue building the team. I do sometimes chuckle when radio hosts talk about $6 million as though it's nothing just because the owner is rich.

It's nearly impossible to think of this as a great team. I suppose if everyone actually did have a career year, it would have been great. But that's an awfully lofty expectation to have going into a season.

3:36: In the next segment, Russo speculates that the Lighthouse project is too ambitious and will need to be scaled back. Mike states that figuring out a way to bring in mass transit is the key to everything and a railroad hub could have prevented the Nets from leaving. Then there was some sort of fight about engineering and voices leaking over the airwaves. Mike got angry. Chris sounded embarrassed.

4:08: Wade Dubielewicz on the air! Apparently, he's a big fan of the show. Chris is impressed that he's appearing on a night that he's playing.

4:09: Doesn't feel a lot of pressure. Sees this as an opportunity and is a little surprised to be in the net tonight.

4:11: Dubie is satisfied with his role right now, but not content. He's satisfied in the sense that last year he was a career minor leaguer and he's now moved up to career NHL backup.

4:13: Mike: This is a great show of respect for Dubie by Nolan. Dubie: I have a big smile on my face today. Wade also indicates that Rick isn't the type to come in and raise a ruckus because he's not playing. That would have a negative impact on the team, but it's not going to happen.

4:14: Dubie: Ted is the greatest player's coach he's ever played for. He allows everyone to prepare in their own way, so it's always on the player.

You gotta love Dubie. Maybe if he's a starter in this league one day no one will be able to go near him on gameday, but I doubt it. You could tell that he was a little jazzed about being on the show, even if it was a short spot.

4:21: "Botta does a great job. He's a good PR guy." Mike and Chris just compared Jason Blake to Jeff Weaver--both guys who found a home somewhere and should have stayed where they were successful. Now that Mike learns the terms Blake got in Toronto, he can't blame him for leaving. Chris says the Isles did a good job not signing him to those terms.

4:25: Rick DiPietro on the air. He was listening to the show earlier. He's disappointed at not playing in a game of this magnitude that's a must-win, but "You've gotta be a team guy," and Dubie played really well.

4:27: "The coach makes a decision and I'm going to support that."

4:28: Russo: "We all know how great a goaltender you're going to be." Rick says he'll continue to get better and he'll reach his maximum potential when they win a Cup.

4:30: Watching Mike Richter play his entire career with one team influenced his decision to sign a 15-year contract. He also just likes living on Long Island.

4:32: Sitting at home with a concussion watching the team play last year was even harder than sitting on the bench watching.

4:35: Having the long term deal gives him the ability to focus solely on becoming a better hockey player.

4:38: Baseball was a passion of Rick's growing up. Francesa is now on the Dustin Pedroia bandwagon after killing him last year.

Nothing too exciting from that segment. DiPietro sounded every bit the good soldier.

4:49: Bill Guerin's turn. Starts off with questions about his days with the Devils.

4:51: Being the little brother to the Rangers is about the same as an Islander as it was with the Devils.

4:53: Bill was impressed by how much the Core of the Four members seemed like a family.

4:54: Perspective on having played with so many teams is that he's fortunate to have had a long career in the league.

4:55: Guerin not really surprised that Dubie is playing tonight. Coaches tend to go with the hot hand and Ricky will be fine with it.

4:56: Decision to sign with the Isles was influenced by the team's immediate effort to commit to him. Other teams expressed interest but didn't give him anything concrete.

4:57: Doesn't really have an answer for all the shorthanded goals.

4:58: Really likes the direction the team is going. Good young players mixed with a core of veterans. "Teddy is a great coach...has his finger on what guys need."

4:59: Botta has seen Springsteen 40 times. That easily beats my record for most times seeing a band. Guerin has seen him 7 or 8 times.

5:05: And, finally, Ted Nolan. Chris says that the Islanders do a wonderful job every time the show is out there. Coaching staff began discussing goaltending situation right after last game. "What's best for the team? What's best for the player?" Combination of Ricky maybe being rusty and Dubie playing well led to their decision.

5:07: Ted: How players handle situations like this separates the good athletes from the great athletes.

5:08: DiPietro is very likely to play Saturday against Philly. Going with Dubie is not trying to stretch his luck--it's not a case of luck. Dubie is a "pure, old-time hockey player."

5:10: "We're not blessed with a whole bunch of dipsy-doodlers playmaking types of guys...We have to play basic hockey." They're a good team when they keep it close, have a good chance of winning close hockey games.

5:11: "The offense is almost like the weather. Some days it's there, some days it's not."

5:11: It takes a great mindset to succeed when the team doesn't have a player that can steal two points with a timely goal.

5:12: Ted thinks that the mindset of his team (having to grind out wins over the long haul) should be successful in the grind of the playoffs, but you have to get there first. Mentioned Park and Hilbert as being important players that we don't talk about all the time. He sometimes tries to fly the wings or rush the defense to create more offense. Half-jokes that he'd love to try it the other way with a bunch of stars on the roster.

5:13: Doesn't think Simon was a distraction. Prevented certain teams from pushing the Isles around and taking advantage of them. Thinks they need a player like Simon.

5:15: "The game's in great hands right now because we got some tremendous athletes and tremendous people in this game."

5:16: Growing pains are tough to go through while the young players are developing. Nolan is enthusiastic about all the young players.

5:17: "We're blessed to play this sport." Says he's more of a motivating type of coach, but you have to know what you're doing.

5:18: Charles and Garth leave him alone and let him coach.

That's about it. Mad Dog's overall take on the Islanders is that they are standing still. Every March we find them struggling to make the playoffs, and then they bow out in the first round. Not groundbreaking analysis, but not inaccurate either. The show did a really nice job for Islanders fans, giving the organization plenty of airtime, if not keen perspective or expert questioning. Now, if they would just focus on the Islanders regularly for a little bit of time instead of for four hours once a year, we'd really have something to get excited about.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Catching Up with the Core

(New content below including note about comments.) Let's go right to the good stuff, shall we? In between today's Walk of Champions and on-ice Core of the Four ceremony, members of the Core were available to the media in the locker room area of the Coliseum. I was able to get a few minutes with Bryan Trottier (after Mike Francesa and Mark Herrman were done with him) and Ken Morrow (right, during the Walk). Here's some of what they had to say:

Bryan Trottier
On the depth of leadership of the Cup teams...

"Oh, it was a great group of guys. They were really special like that. Everybody was a leader in their own right, and we all loved it. Everybody had leadership qualities. Somebody would say something and everybody would listen. It was great respect. Yeah, different guys had different roles, different ice times, and that kind of thing, but everybody had a role on the leadership. It didn't seem to matter who got called upon, what the situation was, we knew that depth was our biggest asset--in intensity and in coming up with big plays and in leadership, character. And we used to say to ourselves, 'Man, I wouldn't want to play against this team.'"

On whether he and Mike Bossy have a more active role in bringing the alumni back together for these types of events now that they are back with the organization...
"We would like to be more involved but really the responsibility is still Garth and Ted to that degree. Mike is really concentrating on sales and marketing, and I'm really working with the player development at the AHL level. So, whenever we can have input at this level we enjoy it and have had to date, and we'll continue and embrace it because we love to see this place sort of rockin' and rollin'--whatever we can do to help. I mean, that's why we're here."

On whether he's concerned about celebrations of his era having run their course and being phased out...
"No, we just enjoy today. We don't think about tomorrow. Not yet. Today we'll...talk to me next week, I don't know, today I'm on a high--I don't know!"
You can watch video of this interview with additional questions from my Blog Box colleagues Tom Liodice of The Tiger Track and Ken Dick of Okposo Net right here, courtesy of Tom (yes, that's the actual Stanley Cup in the background, just beyond Deb Kaufman):



Ken Morrow

On being part of two of the greatest championship teams in hockey history...
"Well, yeah, two great hockey moments anyway. Wow, and you know, two of them happened in the same year. I had to pinch myself, you know, it was a career year by any standard. You know, I go through the Olympics and I thought nothing would ever top that, and then three months later I'm skating around with the Stanley Cup. So, I just consider myself real fortunate."

On having two groups of celebrated teammates to look forward to getting back together with...
"I'm like the king of reunions here, you know, because the Olympic team, if anything, it seems to be growing in stature. We've had more of these reunions and celebrations, and then the Islanders the last few years--just a lot of fun for us. I just hope the people don't get tired of seeing us!"

Video of the Morrow interview, also courtesy of Tom (look for Bob Bourne, Duane Sutter, Bill Torrey, John Tonelli, and Al Arbour in the background):



To me, the most noteworthy aspect of the Core of the Four celebration was the manner in which the on-ice introductions were performed. Normally in these situations, the players are introduced in ascending order of stature. On this occasion, the ceremony began with Jiggs McDonald introducing the five players in attendance whose numbers have been retired. Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Trottier, Mike Bossy, and Bobby Nystrom then introduced the rest of their Core teammates. It was a nice touch to see the star players recognize the role players.

In the interest of getting this content up as quickly as possible, I'm going to post it now. However, we are not done yet! Please keep checking back for more tonight and/or tomorrow, including photos, more details about the Core of the Four celebration, and, unfortunately, notes from the game itself.

Mike Francesa interviews Bryan Trottier
At this point, I don't know why the Comments option isn't always showing up on the blog's home page in Internet Explorer. However, if you click the title of the post, you will be able to access the comments from the individual post page. Alternatively, it seems to be working fine in Firefox.

As you could tell from the Ken Morrow video, the players assembled in and around the tunnel area before the ceremony began. There was a bit of a scramble as the 1980 replica home white jerseys were pulled out of duffel bags one or two at a time and staff members tried to track down the necessary players. I enjoyed a humorous moment with Brad Kurtzberg of Inside Hockey as a very young staffer, perhaps an intern or volunteer, was asked if he knew what Denis Potvin looked like and the young man had no choice but to admit that he didn't. However, despite the generation gap and the fact that some players were still lingering in the hallway outside the locker room, all members of the Core were accounted for and properly sweatered.

About those sweaters. As I saw one being pulled out of a black duffel bag, I immediately recognized the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics patch that adorned the sleeves of the Islanders 28 years ago. Nice job by whomever was responsible for taking care of such details. And didn't the sweaters look terrific? Simple and classic, they were a sight for eyes sore from looking at too many patches of alternating color and unnecessary piping. Seeing the current Islanders on the ice in the same jerseys convinced me even more (as though I needed more convincing) that that's how the Islanders are supposed to look.


It was both bizarre and great to see the names Morrow, Nystrom, Potvin, Bossy, etc., buzzing around the ice during pre-game warmups. Bill Guerin looked solid wearing Denny Potvin's name, number and captain's C. Trent Hunter was scheduled to be one of two players emulating Mike Bossy along with Miro Satan, but with Aaron Johnson scratched, Hunter snatched up his own number and played the part of Stefan Persson. For the game itself, the Islanders took the ice wearing their current white jerseys as a tribute, which led me to wonder why they didn't just have a set of 1980 replicas made up for the game.

It's almost a shame to mix in notes from the game with this event, but I have a few more pictures to post so maybe that will keep the mood lighter. I'll limit the coverage of the 1-0 loss to Florida to a few observations. Wade Dubielewicz looked calm and steady from the opening faceoff and never really faltered. He may have blamed himself for allowing that rebound to get to Booth in the first place, but Booth fired a wicked shot by Dubie. Even though it was only 1-0 with five minutes left in the first period, it was easy to note that the Isles' sense of
urgency was not as high as I expected it to be. In fact, the sense I got from the crowd was that many fans felt like they were watching the season die before their eyes. A play with just under 3:00 left in the first typified the effort. A faceoff was pulled back to Hunter, who drew his stick back and waited for the puck to arrive so he could shoot. While he was waiting, a Panther got to it before it got to him.

With about 16:30 left in the second period, Mike Comrie had an opportunity very similar to the one on which Florida scored. Comrie hit the post with his wrister. The Isles continued to generate scoring chances consistently, and certainly looked like they could break the game open. The passing of the 6:00 mark saw a great shift by Sean Bergenheim at both ends of the ice. You know all about how the Isles were peppering Craig Anderson with shots without getting one by him. In the meantime, Jeremy Colliton and Blake Comeau were effectively throwing their weight around. With just under five minutes remaining in the second, the Kid Line generated a flurry of scoring opportunities, but Anderson flopped, spread, and stifled every one of them. With 2:17 remaining, I noted that I had never seen anything quite like this. As the shot total hit a team-record 29 for the period, I asked myself, "What's the record for most shots in a game without a goal?" We now know that Islanders set that record in this game going back to 1955 when the stat became official.

It was more of the same in the third. You can easily summarize the period, and the game, by saying
that the intensity was there, but the lack of playmaking and finishing was fatal. After the game, Ted Nolan mentioned that the team had "25-30 good opportunities," "played well enough to win," and "battled and created a lot of opportunities." But the statement "We gave what we had to give" does not bode well, for what they had to give was not nearly enough.

Talking to the media, Mike Comrie looked more upset, shellshocked really, than I have seen a player look this year. His demeanor and facial expressions would have been appropriate for a player who just lost the Stanley Cup Finals after leading three games to none. Dubielewicz observed that the team played safe in the first period and desperate in the second. He, Comrie, and Guerin suggested that the lack of desperation in the first was inexcusable.

The Islanders have one more opportunity to get on a roll before they find themselves having to win twelve straight or something like that in order to stay alive. This post was so much more fun when it was only about the Core of the Four.

Ah, one more thing. I had intended to take pictures of the brand new Islanders Hall of Fame plaques. However, having experienced the difficulty of doing that well at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and knowing that Mike Schuerlein has already done it well, please visit his gallery for a great look at the hardware.