UNIONDALE, N.Y. – If the New York Islanders’ play on the ice is as strong as their talk off it, maybe—just maybe—they will escape the cellar and make a long-awaited run at a playoff spot.
They have removed the word rebuilding from their vocabulary as they enter their 40-year anniversary season and have boldly proclaimed there will be no more excuses if they finish below the post-season cutoff a fifth straight time.
“I don’t know if we should be in the playoffs or if we’re going to be in the playoffs, but I think the way these guys are thinking here, it’s, ‘We’ve got to make the playoffs,'” forward P.A. Parenteau said. “There is no other way.
“It’s a big failure for this team with the talent we have here. We’re all healthy. There is no excuse.”
The Islanders have reached the post-season only five times since their most recent playoff series win in 1993. They have finished last in the Atlantic Division each of the past four seasons, were 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference last season, and are just two years removed from having the worst record in the NHL.
So if the Islanders are going to turn things around and be one of the top eight teams in the East, they will have to jump over eight clubs that were ahead of them just last season.
A challenging task for sure, but one that they at least seem to think is doable. They have a long way to go to get close to their dynasty days of the early 1980s when they won the Stanley Cup four straight years, but they will get a reminder of those better days when they relive their past throughout this anniversary season.
“I don’t believe you can hope to be somewhere that’s not an easy place to get to,” said forward Matt Moulson, who is coming off a pair of 30-goal seasons. “The playoffs are not something up for grabs by just showing up out there. It’s a process.
“You have to be real consistent over 82 games. Our mindset is that’s what we want. We’re not hoping. That’s our goal, that’s what we’re working toward. We wouldn’t be going through all these hard practices and all this testing if we were hoping to make the playoffs.”
The Islanders have been rebuilding for several years, trying to put together a young core on a shoestring budget. While they haven’t seen tangible results yet in the standings, they do have a strong foundation that is anchored by young stars such as John Tavares.
The 22-year-old centre recently agreed to a six-year, US$33 million deal that will keep the 2009 No. 1 overall pick under contract through the 2017-18 season. The extension won’t kick in until Tavares’ three-year, entry-level contract expires after the upcoming season.
It was the Islanders’ league-low 61 points in the 2008-09 season that enabled them to grab the top pick in the draft and select Tavares.
He along with Moulson, speedy forward Michael Grabner—who scored a team-high 34 goals last season as a rookie—and Kyle Okposo are all signed long-term, giving the Islanders hope that this group will continue to grow into a formidable opponent consistently.
“I’m confident in the players that we have in that locker room,” general manager Garth Snow said. “Our players are fit. We’ve had fast-paced practices. I feel we have a team that can win on any given night.”
That job will fall to Jack Capuano, who is entering his first full season as Islanders coach. He took over last year when Scott Gordon was fired, and slowly engineered a bit of a turnaround.
It was too late to salvage anything tangible in last season’s standings, but the bottoming out of the team and a sense of resurgence helped the young club bond. From Oct. 23 until Dec. 13, the Islanders lost 20 of 21 games and earned only five of 42 points (1-17-3). That sealed the fate Gordon, in his third season. He was fired on Nov. 15 while the team was mired in a 10-game skid.
After bottoming out to 17-29-7 on Feb. 8, the Islanders went on a 12-4-5 spurt and showed signs that maybe better times were ahead. They made it to within four games of .500 (29-33-12) on March 22, before closing with a 1-6-1 fade that tainted the final mark (30-39-13).
“Maybe we’ll look back on that streak we had where we didn’t get many wins,” Moulson said. “All we had during that time was guys inside this room. It made us closer as a team.”
The Islanders were decimated by injuries last season, and with a low payroll they didn’t have nearly the depth in the organization to replace missing pieces such as Okposo and defenceman Mark Streit.
Okposo missed a large chunk of the season, and Streit sat outall of it—both because of pre-season injuries. Okposo will help solidify the talented group of forwards, and the veteran Streit will anchor the defence and give a big boost to the power play.
The Islanders thought so much of Streit that he was tabbed last week to be the new team captain, replacing Doug Weight, who retired to be an assistant coach with the club and an adviser to Snow.
“Our future looks bright, and I think the future is now,” Streit said. “We want to win games and we should put the rebuilding part behind and go out there and show what we can do. We need everybody on our team. We’re kind of the underdog, but we want to do some damage and we want to win games.”
One tricky spot for Capuano could come in goal. Rick DiPietro is still the incumbent and still has several years left on his landmark 15-year deal with the team. Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov has joined the team after refusing to come last season after he was plucked off waivers from Detroit, which was trying to acquire him out of the KHL in Russia.
Nabokov is used to the West Coast life and a winning atmosphere with the perennial contending San Jose Sharks. He isn’t quite sure what to expect out East with a club that is still trying to learn how to be successful.
“I cannot be surprised with anything in the NHL,” said the 36-year-old Nabokov, who won 46 games with the Sharks in the 2007-08 season. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that. It sounds like a parrot all the time. I only can control what I can control, which is to stop the puck.”
Capuano insists that whoever is doing that the best will get the starting nod. Contracts and name recognition won’t factor into the decision. After all, the Islanders haven’t been about big-name players in years anyway.
This group is talking a good game. They know the detractors far outweigh the supporters around the hockey world. To say it doesn’t concern them would be an understatement.
“I don’t think we get the good end of the stick too much from people’s perceptions, but I don’t think we really care,” Moulson said. “We know what we have in this room, we know what we have in each other and this organization and how much Garth and (team owner Charles Wang) believe in this team and how much we believe in each other.
“That’s all that really matters.”