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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Thanks For Playing - Part 4: New York Islanders

You could make an argument that while the 2007-2008 Atlantic Division had one of the more interesting and exciting playoff races ripe with rivalries in full effect, old school hatred brimming over and plenty of tight games to decide who landed where in the standings that it may have been one of the most exciting divisions to watch beat each other up endlessly throughout the unbalanced schedule.

You remember that nightmare where intradivision opponents would play each other up to eight times a year during the regular season. This was Herr Bettman's method of developing rivalries between teams within the division.

Think of how dumb that sounds on its own. For the most part, these divisions featured teams that have been playing each other since each other's inception. The Atlantic, in this case, had no expansion teams - the most recent addition to the crew was the Devils in the early 80s and they managed to tick off the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins over the course of the last 20 years pretty easily. The battles between the Flyers and Rangers, Penguins and Flyers, and the playoff matchups that ensued between the Devils and Rangers as well as the Pens against the Rangers and Flyers proved that Gary Bettman's means of creating rivalries, in the Atlantic Division's case, was pretty freakin' stupid.

The Atlantic featured some of the closest games last year and had some of the best competition on the ice in the NHL....

Hang on, sorry. That's what the NHL suits would like me to write. Here's what it really was like.


Let me clarify a bit. Games that involved teams from outside of Pennsylvania were horribly, terribly, boring.

The biggest offenders of this? You ready for it?

No, seriously...You ready to hear who the most brutally boring team in the Atlantic Division as well as the entire NHL was last year?


Surprised? You better not be - get ready for a statistical throwdown.

I'm showing you the standings because there's a column to the right of wins, losses and losses obtained due to the skills competition. It's the GF column. That's "Goals For" for those of you who have been dumbstruck by the revelation that the New Jersey Devils weren't the most boring team in the NHL.

The Islanders scored 194 goals last season - good for second-lowest in the NHL. Columbus was one worse with 193. They allowed a stunning 243 which makes it more abundantly clear who Philadelphia and Pittsburgh seemed to be lighting up the most. The Flyers allowed 233 goals but they at least covered up for themselves scoring 248, best in the division. The Flyers also finished the year as the #6 seed in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Islanders finished 13th in the East and 15 points out of the 8th spot in the playoffs. With Ted Nolan at the helm and teaching an overly cautious defense-first style of play on a team that was also riddled with injuries...well, suffice to say, it wasn't meant to be for the Isles.

This year? Ted Nolan is out after disagreeing with General Manager Garth Snow over just about everything and Scott Gordon moves up from the AHL where he coached the Providence Bruins. With him, Gordon brings his upbeat, pressing and attacking brand of hockey. Good things, right?

Not so fast. The Isles are severely lacking in a little thing called "talent." To their credit, they were smart and tricked/convinced college standout Kyle Okposo to leave the University of Minnesota and jump into the fire in the NHL. This year, he'll be counted on heavily to make a major contribution to a team that is relying heavily upon untested youth.

Sure you've got Mr. Hillary Duff, Mike Comrie leading the way, but he's coming off of off-season surgery. By the way, Comrie lead the Isles in scoring last year with 49 points. 49!

There's the semi-ageless Bill Guerin on the wing and while, sure, he's the captain of this team... I can't think of another captain in the league who's as well-traveled as Guerin is. Then again, Isles owner Charles Wang figured that naming him captain upon arrival to the Island was a good idea, especially since Alexei Yashin was given the boot. I guess anyone would've been a step up from Yashin but...yikes.

Looking at their depth chart as it stands now the team looks like the kind of lineup you would put together if you were playing fantasy hockey and you had to assemble your team after 29 other teams had done all of their drafting already and you got the scraps of what was leftover.

After all, if you're really thinking that Doug Weight is your #2 center...you're in deep.

Is there hope here? Maybe, but it will have to come from their youth. Jeff Tambellini, Sean Bergenheim, Blake Comeau and Okposo are all going to have to play above their expectations. Most of these guys got a healthy dose of NHL play last year which either means they could be ready to mature and emerge, or they'll be ripe for a sophomore-esque jinx and not build any chemistry with each other.

On defense, the Isles, and I can't stress this enough, have to stay healthy. Unfortunately, they're already dealing with problems. Andy Sutton and Chris Campoli are already dealing with injuries. Is it a harbinger of doom? Let's hope not - injury problems like the Isles had last year, including losing Campoli, Brendan Witt, Marc-Andre Bergeron for long stretches of the season made playing defense in Nolan's system even more difficult.

The Isles brought in free agent defenseman Mark Streit to quarterback their power play and should Gordon's system work out the way he wants it to, Streit will benefit greatly from it after playing something like that in Montreal. That said, the offense is going to struggle again and if Rick DiPietro can't carry the bulk of the load in goal (and given his injury history) things look pitiful on the Island.

At least when Wade Dublewicz was backing up DiPietro, there was some kind of safety cushion there that they could count on. Now it'll be up to Canadiens outcast Yann Danis and journeyman Joey McDonald to have to be ready at an instant to step in if/when DiPietro breaks himself again.

It would take a remarkable stroke of good luck and good health to keep the Islanders in the hunt for the playoffs and while the NHL schedule doesn't force as many intra-divisional games this year, the Isles still are getting the bulk of their games against four playoff teams. While each of those other four teams all have their own sets of question marks, those teams are also light years ahead of where the Islanders are right now. The Isles will get to fatten up on the likes of Toronto and half of the Southeast Division, but they're going to get beaten up and tossed around by their neighbors.

The only bright spot I can find here is that at least they won't be completely dreadful to watch. An upbeat, aggressive style, even when played with less-than-stellar parts can be entertaining. At least then you can count on the better teams using that to their advantage and showing off.

Then again, Isles fans, those few of you out there who are continuing to stick by them, and bless you for doing so, you don't want to watch your team get throttled on. The only bit of advice I can offer to you is to listen to this guy (and ignore the lizards):

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