The New York Islanders debacle is over. Finally. After being an outcast in the NHL for the better part of 30 years, Long Island’s fog of despair has lifted. The 2014 Islanders are currently one of the hottest teams in the NHL. The team ripped through the month of November posting a 11-3 record while outscoring opponents 38-29 in the process. The Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division with 34 points, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins – a team that the Islanders defeated in back to back games last weekend.The Islanders recent success, however, resides in direct contrast to the team’s tumultuous history. The trials and tribulations of the organization are well know to hockey fans. Names such as John Spano, Mike Milbury, Alexei Yashin and Rick Dipietro echo through the antiquated Nassau Coliseum, reminding patrons that the desolation at the bottom of the conference standings is never too far away.
But rest assured, Islander fans. It is not too soon to hope. The newborn Islanders are here to stay and are poised to be Stanley Cup contenders for the next half decade. Sure, fans are entitled to be skeptical - the growing pains have been fierce. After all, the Islanders have shown potential since John Tavares first suited up in 2009, yet they have nothing to show for it except a meager first round playoff exit in 2013. Tack that onto the fact that the Islanders have not won a playoff series since inaugural year of the Clinton Administration and it is enough to send shivers down the spines of Hall of Fame greats like Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier.
But the set-backs are over and the future looks bright. The Islanders recent on-ice performance is just a sample of great things to come. The organization is healthy from head to toe, and a Stanley Cup parade is just around the corner. Here are the top 10 reasons why the Islanders are for real:
10 Owner Charles Wang is leaving
To say that Islanders owner Charles Wang’s success as a businessman and philanthropist has not translated well to hockey management is an understatement. The co-founder of CA Technologies joined the Islanders in 2000 and became the sole proprietor shortly thereafter in 2004. His instinct to throw money at problems, along with his “management by committee” structure in the hockey operations department, led to organizational embarrassments such as the hiring and firing of GM Neil Smith after forty days on the job, as well as Rick Dipietro’s extravagant contract.
Wang then failed to secure land-zoning rights with the city of Hempstead, leaving the Lighthouse Project, a massive $3.5 billion development proposal designed to revitalize the dilapidated Nassau Coliseum and surrounding area , in disarray. More recently, he failed to convince Long Island residents to vote for a $400 million dollar public bond for a new arena. Last summer, Wang sold minority ownership to Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin with a promise to transition majority ownership in two years. Wang’s departure is addition by subtraction for the Islanders organization.
9 Move to Brooklyn in 2015
The current home of the Islanders, formally known as the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, is the NHL’s second oldest building. Despite the Islanders four-year Stanley Cup run in the early 1980s (three of which were won at home), the Coliseum is the furthest thing from being considered a hockey shrine. What was once the pride of Long Island, and an important part of the fabric of the community, has been allowed to wither away.It is now a relic and the laughing stock of the NHL. The building’s max capacity for attendance is 16,170 but it is rarely full. The Islanders have ranked last or second to last in attendance in four out of the last five seasons.
In 2012, the Islanders organization announced they were moving to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center starting in the 2015-16 season. Although this is the last season at the Nassau Coliseum, and despite that Long Islanders are losing their team, fans can be comforted by the fact that the new venue is a major and well-deserved upgrade. The new home will make the franchise a more attractive destination for free agents and a place current players can be proud to call home.
8 Garth Snow’s Patience is Paying Off
Since Islanders general manager Garth Snow took the reigns from Neil Smith in June 2006, he has been criticized and scrutinized at every turn. Charles Wang entrusted the rookie GM and former back-up goaltender with the mammoth task of cleaning up the mess left behind by Mike Milbury. This challenge was comparable to trying to get the Chernobyl nuclear power plant up and running after the meltdown.
Admittedly, mistakes were made along the way (see the Niederreider-Clutterbuck trade, the Vanek trades and a few missed draft picks, a la Jeff Skinner, Eric Karlsson and Jordan Eberle), but overall Snow has rebuilt the organization from scratch. The nine-year GM is now seeing the fruits of his labour and is improving every year. He seems to have finally learned from his mistakes and is a big part of the Islanders as they move forward.
7 Explosive Offence
It is abnormal to see an elite team with such a poor penalty kill percentage. At the 24 game mark of the season, the NY Islanders have posted a 74.6% penalty-kill and are second to last in that category. So how have the Islanders maintained their position at the top of the Metropolitan division? The answer is offence. With a 3.00 goals per game average, only Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Detroit and Vancouver have better numbers. The Islanders rank in the top 10 in power play goals and in 5-on-5 play. They are third in the league in shots per game (33.0 s/g). Clutch scoring is also a big part of the equation. This season the Islanders have won six of seven games that have gone into overtime or shootouts. With those types of results its easy to understand why Islanders are a fun team to watch.
6 Home Grown Talent
The Islanders are rife with young talent on their current roster. With an average age of 26.955, they are the sixth youngest team in the NHL. Three of the Islanders top four scorers are under the age of 25, including John Taveras (24), Brock Nelson (23) and Ryan Strome (21). On defence, the Islanders boast Nick Leddy (23), Travis Hamonic (24) and Calvin De Haan (23). What is even more encouraging for Islanders fans is that 11 players on the current roster are home-grown talent.
Garth Snow has essentially drafted and developed the nucleus of this roster. The process was excruciatingly slow, but he maintained his patience and optimism as he recognized what was coming through the prospect pipeline. Now, the youth movement is in full-swing for the Islanders and Lord Stanley will be within reach for years to come.
5 Exciting Future Prospects
Similar to the last entry in the countdown, the Islanders have a breadth of young talent that has yet to make an impact in the NHL. Fans had the opportunity to catch a brief glimpse of Griffin Reinhart, a steady 6-foot-4 defenceman who played three games early this season (0G, 0A, -1) before being sent down to the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Not rushing Reinhart into the NHL and allowing him to develop in the minors also speaks to the Islanders depth on defence.
Another stud in the system is Michael Dal Colle, a gifted left-winger with tremendous hockey sense and strong offensive ability. Drafted in 2014, Dal Colle has already posted 38 points in 18 games for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Last but not least is Josh Ho Sang, the controversial late 1st round draft pick (28th overall) of the 2014 draft. Despite speaking out against Hockey Canada for being snubbed by the World Junior team, along with being suspended for eleven games last year (among other controversies), Ho Sang is one of the OHL’s gifted young players. If he matures and keeps his focus on the ice, his transition from the Windsor Spitfires to the Islanders will be sooner than later.
4 Goaltending Woes Are Over
The goaltending woes of the Islanders have been well-documented. The instability they have seen between the pipes is rivalled only by the Philadelphia Flyers. Between the 2005-06 and 2013-14 seasons, the Islanders dressed 14 different goalies. From Rick Dipietro to Dwayne Roloson to Marty Biron to Evgeni Nabokov, with many other lesser-knowns in between, the Islanders have been pitiful in the crease for way too long.
Garth Snow finally address the issue last off-season by cleaning house and signing Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson to a four-year and a two-year deal, respectively. Halak has been one of the biggest reasons for the Islanders turn around, going 11-4 with a 2.13 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Johnson has done a stellar job as back-up, going 5-3. Numbers aside, the Halak and Johnson duo provide a sense of calm and long-term stability to a franchise that was accustomed to nothing but chaos and drama on the back-end.
3 Ample Cap Space
The Islanders are in great shape from a financial point-of-view. The team currently has almost $7.5 million in cap space. Additionally, Alexei Yashin (yes, his salary is still on the books) is in the final year of his disastrous nine-year contract. The Islanders can finally rid themselves of his $2.2 million cap hit. Defenceman Lubimir Visnovsky’s (38 years old) is also a pending UFA, as he is in the final year of two year deal ($4.7 million hit).
All of this cap space can be usefully spent by resigning RFA’s such as Nick Leddy, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Cory Conacher. Given the weak free agent pool this summer, locking up impending UFA Johnny Boychuk to a multi-year deal would be a smart move. His presence on the blue line has made a world of difference for the Islanders this season. In any case, with ample cap room, GM Garth Snow has a wide range of exciting possibilities.
2 Head Coach Jack Capuano
Jack Capuano is one of the NHL’s most underrated coaches and he continues to fly under the radar despite the Islanders recent success. But getting to this point didn’t happen overnight. Like all strong coaches, Jack Capuano has spent many years in the minor leagues refining his skills. Besides a brief stint in the NHL as the Islanders' assistant coach during the 2005-06 season, Capuano coached for nearly 15 years in the ECHL and AHL before being brought in by the Islanders management as interim head coach in 2010.
He was quickly offered the full time job in 2011, where he has been a mainstay behind the bench for the past three-plus seasons. In fact, Capuano recently coached in his 300th NHL game. With nine-years of experience in the Islanders system (including Bridgeport), Capuano has suffered through as many ups and downs as Garth Snow. Known for his consistent approach to coaching, Capuano has won the respect of his players and has recently started to demand more and more. The Islanders are clearly responding. And the better the Islanders do, the more Capuano will receive long overdue recognition.
1 John Tavares
To no one’s surprise, JT is the single biggest reason why the Islanders are the real deal. Tavares is more than simply a point-a-game player. The first overall pick from the 2009 draft is one of the most gifted hockey players in the league and is the backbone of the Islanders’ franchise. At 24 years old, JT is already in his sixth NHL campaign. His first four years in the league were stellar, but it was only last season that he fully developed into a dominant centerman.
In 2013, he put up 66 points in 59 games (3rd in the NHL) before heading to Sochi for the Olympics, where he unfortunately sustained a season-ending knee injury. His absence crushed any remaining playoffs hopes the Islanders may have had. This year, however, Tavares has come back stronger than ever. The captain is leading his team in points and goals, and is tied for second in assists. Even better is that he comes cheap. Tavares’s $5.5 million cap hit is one of the best bargains in the league. The Islanders have him tied up for the next four years, during which time they will be perennial Stanley Cup contenders.