The New York Islanders: Right Where They Belong

By: Michael Abitabilo

The New York Islanders have been the buzz of the hockey world recently as they push towards their first postseason berth since the 2006-2007 season. While some analysts are surprised at their run to the playoffs, their combination of high-end talent and hard work has yielded positive but somewhat predictable results.

On February 27, 2013, I got an e-mail from my good friend and future Read Zone contributor Adam Moss, the subject of which was: “One of My 3 Hockey Emails Per Year.”  By way of background, Moss is a huge sports fan, but is primarily interested in the Yankees, the NBA, and the NFL.  For him, hockey is a distant fourth in the major sports landscape, and in the grand scheme of his life’s interests, probably ranks somewhere between political blogs and watching reruns of The O.C.  To his credit as a sports fan, though, he tries to stay abreast of the goings on in the NHL, and in particular the Islanders, who (for now) play their home games just 15 minutes from where he grew up.

Anyway, Moss asked the following questions in his e-mail:

I saw that the islanders are 2-8 at home. No professional sports team should ever be that bad at home, especially given the fact that they obviously have some talent because they win on the road. Why is this? Are there no fans? Is there some reasonable explanation like they are playing really good teams at home and bad teams on the road? Will this EVER be a team I can get behind when they move to Brooklyn? Is it ownership? GM? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

In my reply, I provided a bullet-point list of responses to these questions:

    • I think the sample size is too small right now to compare home/road splits – I haven’t looked at their schedule to see if it’s just a matter of playing good and bad teams (doubtful that is the reason though, Eastern conference is so deep there aren’t many easy games).
    • They DO have a problem in terms of lack of fans showing up but there are other benefits to being home team that should make you better at home even if the arena were empty (most notable, last line change – making match ups much easier)
    • I think their management is a disaster and will be as long as Wang/Snow are in charge (Snow is just an extension of Wang, [unlike] Sather/Dolan at NYR).
    • Having said that, Tavares is an absolute stud – a legit top 15 player in the league if not higher. I would be very excited to watch him play every night. They also have some really nice complimentary pieces like Moulson and Streit.
    • They need to make a few moves but there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to compete for a playoff spot

The last two points are worthy of further discussion in assessing how the Islanders have positioned themselves as a postseason team.

While the Islanders didn’t make many roster moves, they did make one major change this season.  On February 22, just days before the Moss E-mail, they sent Rick DiPietro to their minor league affiliate in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he would finish the season as a member of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.  After being selected with the first overall pick in the 2000 NHL draft, DiPietro was considered the cornerstone of the franchise when he signed an unprecedented 15 year, 67.5 million contract in 2006.  Since that time, DiPietro’s career has been derailed by injuries and inconsistency, all of which were greatly exacerbated by the contractual obligation hanging over him and the franchise (think A-Rod’s current status with the Yankees, only without the rampant cheating and constant organizational embarrassment).  By sending DiPietro and the remaining eight years of his contract to the Sound Tigers, the Islanders not only rid themselves of a black cloud hanging over the team, they also replaced a backup goaltender whose goals against average (GAA) was 4.09 (worst in the league among goalies who have played more than one game) and whose save percentage was .855 (compared to a league average of .912).

While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, it is entirely possible that DiPietro’s exile provided a spark for the players who remained on the team.  At the time DiPietro was waived, the Islanders’ record was 7-9-1, which put them in 12th place in the Eastern Conference.  At the half-way point of this lockout shortened, 48 game season, they were 10-11-3 and in 10th place in the Conference.  After 35 games, they were at 16-16-3 and in a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot.  Since then, they have posted an 8-0-2 record – capturing 18 of a possible 20 points, and vaulting themselves to sixth place in the conference.

That brings us to John Tavares. Tavares has developed into one of the game’s best players, and has become a candidate for the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s Most Valuable Player.  He is currently third in the league in goals scored and is 14th in total scoring.  At just 22 years old, he has emerged as the unquestioned leader of this franchise (even though Mark Streit still wears the Captain’s “C” – but more on that later).  He leads the Islanders’ 6th ranked power play in power play goals with nine and points with 16.  As for intangibles, and from a Rangers fan’s perspective, I can also say he is one of the few players in the Eastern Conference who causes immediate concern when he gets the puck in the offensive zone.

Right alongside Tavares has been Matt Moulson – also referred to above – who has continued his emergence as a bona fide scoring threat by scoring 15 goals to go along with 27 assists for a total of 42 points – good enough to tie him for 20th in the league in scoring.  Moulson and Tavares have been joined on the Islanders’ top line for much of the season by Brad Boyes, a former 30-goal scorer who has re-found his game this season after several disappointing seasons with the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres.  Last but certainly not least is Marc Streit.  The Islanders’ Captain since the beginning of the 2011-2012 season, Streit has been steady if not spectacular all year, scoring 26 points in 45 games, tying him for the seventh most among defensemen in the NHL.  (By the way, Streit is in the final year of his contract with the Islanders. His consistent offensive play and power play capabilities almost ensure he will sign a lucrative deal next year with a team other than the frugal Islanders, paving the way for Tavares to assume the role as Captain).

Finally, credit must be given to Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano.  Even though looks more like an unscrupulous sales person than an NHL head coach, he has this team working hard for him and each other, and grinding out victories along the way.

When combining these and other factors, maybe the Islanders’ playoff push isn’t that surprising after all.

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Mike Abitabilo is the Co-Founder of the Read Zone, and a diehard Rangers fan who feels compelled to give credit where credit is due.