Monday, June 23, 2008

Mother of All Draft Parties: Buccigross at the Mic

One choice the New York Islanders made in preparation for this draft seems to have escaped debate (so far). John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor and hockey columnist, was tapped by the Islanders to serve as host of this year's Draft Party.

Buccigross is one of those media figures who attracts a fervent fan base. If you subscribe to his style in front of the camera and behind the keyboard, the publishing of his weekly column during hockey season becomes appointment reading.

Fans of Buccigross who attended the Draft Party last Friday could not have walked away disappointed. Buccigross spent nearly every minute when he wasn't on stage talking to fans, taking pictures with them, and signing autographs.

When the mood of the evening turned disgruntled, Buccigross handled the shift deftly with understanding and humor. His cue to the crowd to greet Josh Bailey warmly, while perhaps unnecessary, demonstrated a great read on the room and compassion for a youngster who was unknowingly in an awkward situation.

After Buccigross had fulfilled his hosting duties, he took the time to field questions from the Blog Box and talk a little hockey (and a little music, too). He revealed himself to be just as sharp, funny, and engaging off the air and the page as he is on. If you have not seen this session elsewhere, here's the video, courtesy of B.D. Gallof:

In her personal reflection on the evening, my colleague Dee Karl
brought you a little scoop from Buccigross about the future of hockey on ESPN thanks to some curious fans outside the Coliseum. What Dee left for me to tell was the humorous exchange that followed between Buccigross and the same group of fans. At this point, Buccigross was only in shouting distance as he made his way across the plaza:

Fan (shouting): Why did Garth Snow drop the ball?
JB: (shouting back): Maybe he didn't!
Fan: I've never heard of this guy!
JB: He's only 18! A lot can change! Look at Britney Spears!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Snow and Staff Come Through on Day Two

By virtually all accounts, the second day of the 2008 NHL Draft was a smashing success for Garth Snow, Ryan Jankowski, and the scouting staff of the New York Islanders. Souls have been soothed indeed. Yes, Okposo Net, there is a silver lining. Hope can now take a summer vacation.

That being said, let's not assume that Snow and company just drafted an entire All-Star team. Saturday's events deserve the same kind of disclaimer that was attached to Friday's activities. And Saturday's successes do not erase what happened the day prior, even though they are inextricably linked.

On the one hand, Saturday's haul could not have been complete without the moves made Friday night. On the other hand, the team valued Josh Bailey significantly higher than anyone else and didn't buy into the consensus evaluation of Nikita Filatov.

Players who can do what Filatov may be able to do are rare commodities. One can only hope that Bailey is just as rare of a gem.

New York Islander Fan Central points out that the youth movement is already well underway with the likes of Campoli, Gervais, Bergenheim, Tambellini, Joensuu, et al., already in the organization (and there are a good dozen more worthy of mention). Can't you argue, then, that the Islanders were already fairly well stocked with prospects? At least well enough that they could have had a wonderful draft, and a deep talent pool, without sacrificing a chance on Filatov?

Of course, the organization's answer is that Filatov was not the answer; Bailey is. And that will be quite interesting to watch over the next several years.

Islanders fans can hope that the drafting of Kirill Petrov makes any such comparisons moot. However, it is difficult to ignore that based on limited information, Petrov is more of a gamble than Filatov would have been.

In the end, the draft strategy the Islanders employed resembles throwing as many picks at the board as possible and seeing which ones stick. That's not bad when, on paper, so many of them look sticky.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

And Then There Was Nine

The Islanders had an opportunity to give their fans a reason to be proud and excited tonight. Instead, they traded it away.

You try to put your faith in the idea that the hockey people know what they're doing. But no one attending the Draft Party at the Coliseum would have done what the Isles did this evening.

Let's get this out of the way: We don't know what will happen on Saturday. We don't know what will happen July 1st, 2nd, 8th, or 12th. We don't know what will happen three years from now when Josh Bailey, Nikita Filatov, and several dozens of other supremely talented hockey players are in their twenties.

Maybe some of those second and third round picks will grow into quality NHLers. Maybe Bailey will be Brent Sutter and Filatov will be Oleg Kvasha.

Tonight, the Islanders first-round strategy looks like a failure on two fronts.

First, there is the talent evaluation aspect of the strategy. Garth Snow said he would take the best player available at no. 5. Instead, he traded the pick to put himself in position to draft a player at no. 9 who clearly was not regarded as being better than the fifth through eighth selections.

Snow defended the strategy by saying that the team had targeted Bailey as its top priority. You have to ask, why?

If the Islanders had been slated to draft ninth or tenth from the beginning, it would be easy to agree with him. But a team that is starving for goal scorers and had a potential star goal scorer sitting on a tee threw him back.

Yes, you can argue that Snow is sticking to his other plan of building with youth by stockpiling draft picks. How many picks is enough? The Islanders already had a high first, two seconds, and two thirds, not mention one in the fourth, two in the fifth, and two in the sixth.

Was adding a few more worth passing up on Filatov? And Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker, Luke Schenn, and Cody Hodgson if they wanted him? There's no prize for having the most draft picks. And there's only so much room in the organization.

The thing is, players who can do what Filatov projects to do are hard to find. You can get a shutdown defenseman. You can get a Brendan Witt or Andy Sutton.

The Islanders do need a talented, playmaking centerman who can play both ends of the ice. Bailey does fit that bill.

The Islander brass decided that Filatov wouldn't live up to being the no. 5. So, they traded down and made an attempt to maximize the value of the draft.

But who is it that's going to put the puck in the net? Goal scorers are hard to come by, especially for this franchise. Will they find one so talented in the second round? The third? Perhaps the next edition of the Top Ten Draft Steals will have a new addition?

The other immediate failure of this draft strategy was one of public relations. The Islanders draft record is so spotty that it's remarkable they passed on a sure thing. Not that Filatov as a player is a sure thing, but selecting him was. Can you remember a time when fan consensus was so strong for a possible draftee? Sure, the selection could have evolved into a disappointment a few years down the road. But it would have been recalled as the right thing to do at the time.

Now, the fan base feels that it has been tricked again. Just another name to add to the "Yeah, we let that guy get away, too" list. In a decade and a half of angry fans, rarely have they been quite this angry. And bewildered. Some wondered what other organization would have done this.

After the announcement of the trade with Nashville, fans poured down the aisles and out the exits. A second exodus commenced when the Islanders announced their pick. The atmosphere, which was truly festive and enthusiastic at the beginning of the Draft Party, soured quickly and severely. Most parties don't take that kind of turn unless the cops show up.

As for Josh Bailey, don't fear for him. Expectations for him may be inflated by the way the draft unfolded, but Islanders fans are capable of absolving him of responsibility for what transpired. As the center-ice scoreboard showed Bailey pulling on his Islanders sweater, a smattering of applause grew into a genuine show of support.

Fans would do well to embrace Bailey for who he is rather than to look at him for who he is not. The self-described playmaker's numbers do jump out at you. And you have to give him credit for being aware that the Islanders already have someone wearing no. 89.

When Bailey's interview with Draft Party host John Buccigross concluded, the remaining fans staged a third departure en masse.

Perhaps Saturday will bring more answers and soothed souls.

Hope summers eternal.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Islanders Put Themselves in Prime Time

A few weeks ago in a post titled The Islanders in Prime Time, I wrote the following about Islanders jerseys appearing in two prime time network sitcoms:

While I don't know who is responsible for these occurrences, I tend to doubt that the organization itself was behind such product placement. More likely, it was a well-placed fan on the writing staff who deftly incorporated the blue and orange into the script.
I'm happy to report that I can now set the record straight.

Josh Bernstein, Vice President of Communications for the Islanders, has checked in to tell us that seeing the team's crest front and center in the entertainment industry is in fact due to the efforts of the Communications staff to increase the team's public profile.

You can read Josh's full comment here, but I will highlight some of what he had to say.

The Islanders have been working very hard to get the team's image out there any way they can. In addition to the recent TV appearances, Islanders jerseys will be seen in an upcoming movie called She's Out of My League, which stars Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Fanboys, Undeclared) and Lindsay Sloane (Bring It On, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, The Accidental Husband).

This fall, the NBC show Life will feature a retro Islanders jersey in numerous scenes. Josh told me later that the placement will be a framed Mike Bossy jersey on a police officer's wall. It just so happens that I watched this show during its limited run this past season and I was already looking forward to its return before this news.

The product placement campaign will even find its way to the Dr. Phil show in the fall.

Brendan Witt was scheduled to film a role on MTV's Jackass this past spring, but that project has been pushed back to next season.

Thanks to Josh Bernstein for taking the time to clarify this story and turning my speculation blades up. The best franchises in sports have strong national (and often international) brand recognition. It's good to see the Islanders working to get their share of this market. Raising the team's profile through pop culture and entertainment venues is a great start.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Best in Blog Box

Actually, reverse that.

I can't pass up the opportunity to point out that Neil Best used the Blog Box logo in his WatchDog blog yesterday. I think that means he owes me money now. (Or, you know, the Islanders. Or the person who designed the logo.)

But we here at Islanders Outsider will let Mr. Best off the hook for any fees owed due to our undying appreciation of WatchDog. It truly is one of the grooviest sports blogs (or whatever the preferred equivalent of groovy was in the Cornell vernacular at the turn of the '80s--hep, maybe?). We'll also gladly take the free, unsolicited publicity. Thanks, Neil!

(By the way, I know what you're thinking: "What's all this we stuff? We know there's only one of you." Well, being an outsider can be lonely. So from time to time, we like to pretend that we have a cadre of writers in the Islanders Outsider writing stable [all Winstrol free]. But, yeah, it's just me.)

Anyway, the Blog Box logo accompanied a post about Chris Botta's post about Erin Andrews. So I have now used a post about a post about a post to participate in the Erin Andrews page view grab. I will not however, resort to posting any pictures or videos of Ms. Andrews or links to same. Because that's just the kind of blog this isn't (pictures of Parker Posey wearing little more than a Brendan Witt jersey notwithstanding).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Penguins Change the Story on the Fly

I spent most of the last ten minutes of the third period last night going over storylines in my head. They seemed to come one after another:

...The way the Wings kept going at the Pens instead of sitting on their one-goal lead was impressive. Detroit's ability to gain the blue line and get the puck deep without giving up possession killed off precious seconds over and over. At times they fired the puck back out to defensemen in the neutral zone and then started the process all over again. It was a clinic in hustle and desire. They dumped the puck in rarely. They certainly didn't sit back and let Crosby and Co. come after them shift after shift. They were playing as if they needed another goal. But I never thought they did.

...Conditioning seemed to be a key factor. There was that shot of Malkin on the bench looking like the long playoff season was too much for him. It didn't look like he had any compete left in him, and surely that was a sign that the Pens were done.

...I was feeling happy for Chris Osgood. Here was a vet who had stood on top of the hockey world previously, earning only begrudging respect. Now he had re-emerged from the edge of oblivion to be a Stanley Cup-winning goalie again. I retain good feelings toward him simply for being part of the team that brought the Islanders back from oblivion, even if it was never his choice to be there.

...Then the superstitious part of me frowned at NBC for daring to show the Cup being unpacked in the third period of a one-goal game. The joyous cries of "We want the Cup!" from the denizens of Detroit were only slightly more excusable. But a celebration still seemed inevitable.

....I looked forward to my wife watching the Cup being awarded. Last week she had argued that it can't be called the Stanley Cup Final until it's guaranteed that someone wins the Cup that night. Otherwise, it's not final.

And then the whole story changed. All of the things I had thought worthy of writing about were now just the setup.

But the play itself didn't change much. Detroit remained the picture of tenacity. Pittsburgh held on the best they could. Marc-Andre Fleury did his best Kelly Hrudey impersonation. And while Pittsburgh eventually got back to some back and forth, not capitalizing on the first two power plays awarded in overtime was a heavy weight to carry. Detroit would get their chance. Some opportunistic Red Wing would attach his name to a dramatic power-play Cup-winning goal.

Somewhere between Maxime Talbot and Petr Sykora, all of these details stopped mattering. They stopped mattering because this was one of those games that locks us in. We're afraid to look away from the screen for even a moment for fear of missing the moment. It was one of those games that we use to explain to non hockey fans what they're missing.

And I realized it's probably even more enjoyable when you have no strong rooting interest. Who needs all that tension? The drama of the intense competition and the consequences stands on its own.

Admittedly, for me, it was a little bit of a letdown not to see a team celebrate a championship on its home ice after all that. I don't feel any relief over the Pens staying alive.

But the fact that we might get to see that type of show two more times? I'm all for that.

My wife? She fell asleep a few minutes into the second overtime.

But that's okay—we haven't really reached the Final yet.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Youth Movement Arrives and Dubie is Done

Today in Newsday, Islanders beat reporter Greg Logan revealed that the team does not plan to bring back unrestricted free agent forwards Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Josef Vasicek for the 2008-09 season. In addition, backup goaltender and fan favorite Wade Dubielewicz rejected what GM Garth Snow described as a "signficant offer" to remain an Islander.

The writing was clearly on the wall for Dubielewicz as far back as April 10th when Logan first reported Snow's dissatisfaction with the goalie's early season conditioning (discussed in this Islanders Outsider post). It's not a stretch to speculate that Snow's mind was made up even earlier, given the presence of Joey MacDonald and the one-way, two-year deal he signed last July.

It is unfortunate that Snow found it necessary to comment publicly on the team's early-season lack of confidence in Dublielewicz. Such talk is better kept to internal conversations. Having the organization sell them out to the press isn't a good selling point to players the Islanders are courting. Just make the decision and leave it alone, even if you do believe that the player put the team in a weakened position.

As for the contract offer to Dubielewicz, Logan states that it was likely a multi-year deal but the first year had a two-way clause that would have destined Dubielewicz to spend most of the upcoming season in Bridgeport rather than in Uniondale. After finally earning his first one-year deal and a full-time job in the NHL last season, you can't blame Dubie if he interpreted the offer as an instruction to get lost. In fact, it's somewhat akin to Joe Torre's exit from the Yankees last fall (with .001% of the media interest).

Dubielewicz was a very capable backup. With him on the roster, his position was one you didn't have to worry about. MacDonald certainly hasn't established himself to that degree. His 17 NHL appearances with the Bruins, Red Wings, and Islanders are not enough to gauge how well he will fill the role, but his play at least suggests that the Islanders aren't being reckless here. And, of course, there's no guarantee that another goalie doesn't enter the picture.

On a personal note, I'll miss Dubie in the locker room. He came across as appreciative of the attention but never the least bit intimidated by being the focus of it. He wasn't afraid to give non cookie-cutter answers and had a good sense of humor about himself and the game.

Snow's comments regarding Satan, Fedotenko, and Vasicek do not preclude the team from making any of them an offer before the July 1 free agency period, but his words strongly suggest that no offers will be forthcoming. The Islanders appear ready to hand over the roles filled by those veterans to young players like Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, and Sean Bergenheim.

According to Snow, Jeff Tambellini, Frans Nielsen, Ben Walter, and Jeremy Colliton will also be in the mix. His quotes to Logan are a strong indication that finding ice time for young players will be a priority.

This development should be welcome news to Islanders fans. Satan brought with him the hopes of being a consistent scoring threat, but his production has decreased each year he has been on Long Island. He will turn 34 in October and there is little chance that the downward trend will reverse itself.

Fedotenko and Vasicek were brought in to play at a level that they can only achieve in fits and starts. While they each demonstrated the ability to play an important role, they only surfaced as impact players for short stretches. The truth is that Snow could make free agent signings of this caliber just about every summer if needed.

So rather than trying to patch together a quality product, Snow is following through on his plan to build a quality team. I don't see how watching the likes of Okposo, Comeau, Bergenheim, and Tambellini fight to make their mark on the NHL could be any less enjoyable than watching last year's team lurch and hesitate.

In fact, it should be far more exciting. I know there's the little matter of awarding this season's Stanley Cup, but can't we start next season now?