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New York Islanders head into another uncertain off-season after playoff exit

Whether they'll still be by the end of the summer is the biggest question facing New York's other hockey team as it heads into another uncertain off-season.

Blake registered a team-high 40 goals and 69 points this season, and Smyth - acquired from Edmonton in a blockbuster trade in late February - finished with 36 and 68. All that offence could be gone from Long Island before training camp opens in September because both high-profile forwards can become unrestricted free agents this summer.

"Since Ryan's been here, he's helped in the development of some of our younger players," first-year coach Ted Nolan said Friday night after Buffalo eliminated the Islanders from the playoffs in five games. "He showed them what it takes to win. We'll do everything in our power (to keep him)."

It seems that the Islanders make most of their news after the pucks are put away as they strive to matter on the ice.

"What we're trying to sell here is we want to be a competitive team, and we want competitive people to play for us," Nolan said. "I think we accomplished that this year. We want to make this franchise proud and get it back to where it once was."

Nolan got back into the NHL after not being able to get a job since being dismissed by Buffalo in 1997, and his initial objective was to alter the mood and attitude around the Islanders. He got them into the playoffs after the team's one-year absence and he did it following one of the wildest off-seasons in club history.

That is saying something for New York, which has had its share of shake-your-head moments in the franchise's storied history. It is now 23 seasons since the Islanders' dynasty ended following four straight Stanley Cup championships.

"A major goal was how we were trying to change the culture here on Long Island," said Nolan, who directed the club to 40-30-12 mark and its fourth playoff appearance in five seasons. "Bring in a different breed, and getting the people on Long Island excited again.

"From the start of the season, we watched 4,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 people at some of our games. Toward the end of the season it was packed. . . . Hopefully, we can win the hearts of our fans back and get that pride back on Long Island that was gone for so long."

Nolan came back from NHL exile on the same day Islanders owner Charles Wang hired general manager Neil Smith, also desperate for another important job.

But Smith, the GM who built the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, didn't fit in with Wang's board of directors-style front office and was fired 40 days later, long before the Islanders played a game under his watch.

So for the second time in one off-season, the Islanders hired a GM. The shocking choice this time was Garth Snow, who retired as the team's backup goalie to take the job.

That upheaval was trumped later last summer by the announcement that goalie Rick DiPietro signed a landmark 15-year contract with the Islanders that will pay him US$4.5 million a season until the brash netminder is 40.

When DiPietro was sidelined twice by two concussions in a 12-day span, the Islanders hopes of a playoff berth seemed all but gone. Backup goalie Mike Dunham couldn't keep New York competitive in consecutive losses to Montreal, Ottawa and Florida in which he allowed 16 goals - including at least five in each.

Two more losses during DiPietro's second absence prompted the switch from Dunham to career minor-leaguer Wade Dubielewicz, who added another loss to Ottawa before running off four straight wins to wrap up New York's playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.

Dubielewicz took the loss in the series opener to Buffalo before giving way to the healthy DiPietro for a win in Game 2. That's when the Islanders continued what can now be called a disturbing trend.

In its last three postseason appearances, New York has gotten into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and earned a road split from the top seed before returning home for two games. But the Islanders dropped all six contests at Nassau Coliseum and then bowed out in Game 5 on the road against Ottawa (2003), Tampa Bay (2004) and Buffalo.

"It's tough to sit here and say, 'You're happy that we made the playoffs,"' DiPietro said. "But a little piece is proud that we made it this far. But we're all pretty disappointed that it's ended."

Smyth shed tears upon leaving Edmonton, his hometown and the only team he played for during his first 11-plus NHL seasons. Whether the Islanders can keep him from heading back to the Western Conference or to another Canadian team remains to be seen.

"We fought as a team and battled a lot of adversity since I arrived," Smyth said. "I got a taste last year of being so close to the trophy. This one really hurts. It's going to hurt for a while."



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