UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The New York Islanders’ disappointing season took root on July 1, a full three months before the first puck dropped.
After a fourth playoff appearance in five seasons, the team’s core was stripped by free agency. Just hours after the shopping season opened, leading scorers Jason Blake and Ryan Smyth were gone, Alexei Yashin followed suit after his contract was bought out, and New York was left scrambling to replace the offence.
It took a few days for the Islanders to fill holes with familiar names such as new captain Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko and Josef Vasicek, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
The Islanders were last in the Eastern Conference with 194 goals, one more than the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had the fewest in the NHL. Only three teams earned fewer points in the overall standings.
Last year, the Islanders made a big final-week push to qualify for the playoffs with a last-day shootout win at New Jersey.
“It’s very disappointing for all of us because they did something real special last year and we wanted to build off that,” Guerin said. “You just try to gain momentum, and it just didn’t work out.
“Guys played hard all year, but the timing of our slumps with our injuries and things like that, it never really came at a good time and we never could just get over that hump.”
Comrie led the team in scoring, but did it with a paltry 49 points. Guerin had a team-high 23 goals, two more than Comrie – the only other player to reach 20.
The Islanders endured a season in which the roster was riddled with injuries – none bigger than to franchise goalie Rick DiPietro, who underwent hip surgery for the second straight year.
Lost for large chunks of the season were Jon Sim (knee), defencemen Brendan Witt (knee), Chris Campoli (shoulder), Bruno Gervais (concussion/thigh), Andy Sutton (hamstring), and forwards Mike Sillinger (hip), Shawn Bates (hip), Andy Hilbert (ankle), and Fedotenko (knee).
Sim, another free-agent signee, was lost for the season after two games. Sillinger, a leading faceoff specialist, missed the final 29 games. Witt, the team’s top defenceman and emotional leader, sat out 23.
DiPietro gutted it out after injuring his right hip during the skills competition at all-star weekend, but struggled in the second half. He finally shut it down for the final nine games. DiPietro, an all-star for the first time in six NHL seasons had surgery on the left hip last year.
The Islanders didn’t have the depth at all those positions to offset the losses and make a legitimate run for a playoff spot.
“There were a lot of things – the most obvious was the number of guys who went down,” coach Ted Nolan said. “Our biggest injury was Rick DiPietro. He came back a little hurt from the all-star game and never regained his form. Now he has a chance to mend and heal and get fresh and healthy for next season.”
His return is about the only sure thing about next season. DiPietro has 13 seasons remaining on his landmark 15-year deal.
Guerin, who signed a two-year deal last July, is expected back, and Comrie is also signed for another season. Richard Park has two years left on his contract, and fellow forward Trent Hunter re-upped for five.
That leaves unrestricted players such as Fedotenko, Vasicek, and Miroslav Satan as question marks. Satan scored 62 total goals in his first two years with the Islanders, including 35 last season, but slumped to 16 goals and 25 assists this season.
At 33, with 12 NHL seasons behind him and coming off a down year in which he was slowed by a knee injury, Satan’s options for a new deal could be limited.
The idea that his Islanders career might be ending ran through his mind when he finished the season Friday night in a road win over the New York Rangers.
“I hope it’s not, but anything can happen,” he said. “(The numbers) are definitely not up to my standard and I just hope that it’s better next year.”
Youth will continue to be served. The final weeks of the season displayed upcoming talent Kyle Okposo and Blake Comeau, who could be fixtures for years to come.
“Obviously from an organization standpoint you want to see your youth develop and be able to play in this league,” Park said. “Come September we’ll just see what we have. We’re not really focused on next year right now. We’re disappointed, and there is really nothing you can do to take that disappointment away.”