“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Those words are all Islander fans can hang onto sometimes. But maybe, just maybe, there is good reason for hope of better days ahead for the New York Islanders and Islander fans.
Yesterday Islanders general manager Garth Snow made perhaps his finest move to date when he inked goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a reasonable four-year, $18 million contract. It’s not often when an Islander fan can say “we had a good day today.” But with any rule, there are exceptions, and yesterday was just that. Should Islander fans expect more of this though? Can more good vibes be on the horizon?
There’s no point in rehashing all the bad with this team. When the team’s best owner over the last 25 years is a guy who has spent time in jail on two separate occasions for fraud, chances are you haven’t had a lot of on-ice success. The next time the Islanders advance to the second round of the playoffs, it’ll be a first since 1993 when they won the Patrick Division by upsetting Pittsburgh…nineteen ninety three. Suffice to say that during this little 21 year gap, things haven’t gone swimmingly for the club from Nassau.
However, things are a-changing. It all started in the wee hours of a late March night when news broke that longtime owner and villain amongst Islander fans Charles Wang was looking to sell his majority stake in the franchise.
You could write a book on Wang and his reign as Islander owner, but here’s the short and sweet version: he bought the Islanders for the land the Nassau Coliseum sits on in hopes of developing it into Wangville (the official title was “The Lighthouse Project”). It was slated to have offices, condos, restaurants, and any other activity that could fit under one roof. In the middle of this metropolis, the Islanders would get a much-needed new arena. Unfortunately Nassau County and Town of Hempstead politics did what they are known to do best- meddle without actually accomplishing anything- and the project never took off.
After getting denied, Wang slashed Islander payroll to bottom barrel levels and if not for the cap floor, would have probably went even lower. He ran the team on a shoe-string budget and employed the ever-popular “I’m taking my ball and going home” approach. He has routinely insulted the fan base of the Islanders with his attitude and “leadership” and reports of him selling the team could not have been met more favorably amongst the locals. While the sale isn’t complete yet, multiple reports indicate it is inching towards the finish line. We can only hope it’s completed soon and a new owner is ready to infuse cash into the team and increase payroll worthy of a team getting set to play its home games in Brooklyn in 2015.
(Okay it wasn’t exactly a short and sweet version, but it’s damn near impossible to summarize it any other way).
So good times are coming? Well, maybe. The signing of Halak yesterday provides the team with a significant upgrade between the pipes. Anyone who watched the team this year can tell you how bleak things were at the position. Veteran Evgeni Nabakov and youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson finished amongst the worst goalies in the league statistically but near the top of the unoffical “most heart attacks induced” category. With Halak on board, the Islanders finally have a solid goalie in his prime they can rely on to carry the number one burden. Will he ever win a Vezina? No, but he should give the Islanders top-15 goaltending for the foreseeable future. The last time they could say that? Probably 2007 with Rick DiPietro.
But the good vibes don’t stop there. See, the one benefit of being terrible year after year is the ability to draft high-quality players. Part of the team’s core of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Travis Hamonic have been with the club for several years now and are all under 27-years old. Thanks to high drafting, the team was able to sprinkle in forwards Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson this past season and the pair should continue to see their responsibility grow as they mature. Couple those two with Tavares (not to mention Frans Nielsen or Casey Cizikas), and the Islanders have the potential to possess a formidable center group for years to come.
It doesn’t matter how much you score if you can’t keep the puck out of the net, right? Well, on the blue line the Islanders have loaded up the past few drafts with top-end prospects. The bunch is led by first-round picks Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock. Each brings a different element to the blue line, and when you continually finish in the bottom-five of goals against, any talent on the blue line is welcome. Many reports indicate that Reinhart will have every opportunity to win a job with the big club out of camp while Pulock is probably at least another season away. The addition of those two to go along with Hamonic and Calvin de Haan (yes, another first round pick) may finally give the club the defensive prowess and depth to compete with the contenders of the league.
Of course hoarding draft picks can only take a team so far and the Islanders have been unable to attract marquee talent to Nassau. The team has shied away from spending big money on free agents (or been rejected) but with a new ownership on the horizon, things should change. No one is suggesting they are going to sign the top guys in free agency this year or next, but with new ownership it shouldn’t be unexpected to see them bring in quality vets to compliment what they have here already. So hopefully gone are the days of Jon Sim and Peter Regin being our big-ticket additions.
And with the team on the move to Brooklyn next season, it’s not outlandish to think the team will look to make a big splash in hopes of grabbing the attention of Brooklynites. They have the assets to make a big move while not dismantling what they’ve tried piecing together the last eight years.
Yes, there is still plenty to give fans pause for concern: Snow is still calling the shots on personnel. Jack Capuano is still the head coach. Josh Bailey has four years left on his contract. As a fan of this team, I get it. Nothing ever comes easy for them and if it can go wrong, it probably will. I could have written a negative piece about the team but there’s only so much bandwidth to go around these parts. And for once I want to try and be optimistic with the team. They don’t make it easy on you, I know.
But it’s possible that the team has crawled through its river of s— and came out clean on the other side, and as Islander fans, it’s the only thing we can hope for.