Jan 9, 2001
Several months ago, a ray of hope seemed to shine down on Long Island. New ownership arrived with the promise to spend money. The team won the draft lottery and gained the first overall pick in the draft. Mike Milbury was able to place several key trades and improve the talent level of the club, while at the same time drafting players like Rick DiPietro and Raffi Torres. Such events brought great optimism to Islander fans and a turnaround seemed eminent after a disastrous decade.
Fast-forward to today and things have not exactly gone as planned. The Islanders are once again at the basement of the league and continue to struggle. Except for a seemingly brief 6 game unbeaten streak earlier in the year, losses have continued to pile up, just as they did last year. But the difference between the two years is that currently, games are being played with very little passion. To some extent the poor play of the team can be blamed on several key injuries to such talents as Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Johnsson, Brad Isbister, and Kevin Haller. However, other players have failed to pick up the slack and nobody has stepped forward to guide this team. Horrible defensive play, poor special teams and continuous off the mark passing kills the Islanders on a nightly basis. Even in rare instances when the team wins, the games are hardly masterpieces.
So what needs to be done? This is a very challenging question due to the fact that the GM, coach and players themselves all bear some of the blame. Many critics of Mike Milbury, namely those in the media, are quick to jump on Mike for his personnel decisions. When I look at the moves he has made, I see some very good along with a few that should never have taken place. But would not that be similar to the record of most GM's? I look at deals like Robert Reichel for Brad Isbister, a fourth round draft choice for John Vanbiesbrouck, Eric Brewer and Josh Green for Roman Hamrlik, the deal with Tampa to allow the drafting of Raffi Torres, and the signing of Kevin Haller. These deals have all worked out very well for the team. Even the deal that sent Roberto Luongo and Ollie Jokinen to Florida for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha has worked out better for the Isles than it has for the Panthers.
Let's also understand that for the past few seasons, Mike has been operating with a budget in the 15-20 million-dollar range. Even this year, the payroll is a far cry from the upper echelon squads. There are however a few players the organization would like to have back, namely Wade Redden, Todd Bertuzzi, and Zigmund Palffy. However, hindsight is 20/20 and the deals that involved those players either looked good at the time or were done for budgetary reasons. I do not want to make things sound like Mike Milbury is a hero or that he deserves a pat on the back. The fact of the matter is, the team is losing just as frequently this year as it was last year, the year before and so on. All due respect to Mike, but I feel it is time for an organizational change. He not only has failed to put a winner on the ice, but he has seemed to drive a wedge between some of the players, himself and the organization as a whole.
Butch Goring is in a tough position. He could be Mike Milbury's scapegoat and get the axe to save Mike's job. Or he could be fired along with Mike to allow the new GM to handpick his new coach. For now, Butch may be spared along with Mike, due to the injuries that have plagued this team. Last year it seemed Butch did a tremendous job, getting the most out of a young team and inspiring them to play a passionate game regardless of their lack of veteran players. This year however, there is a totally opposite product on the ice. Players seem very unmotivated and unwilling to take things to the next level. Special teams have been horrible to say the least and the offense has been anything but consistent. To what degree Butch is to blame for this is unknown, but we should find out in the coming weeks.
The team itself does have a good core. When healthy, the defense sports several veterans who know how to play the game and a couple of youngsters that will no doubt have good NHL careers. Offensively, 19-year-old Tim Connolly has a bright future despite his struggles and Brad Isbister and Taylor Pyatt will be punishing opposing defenseman for years to come. I think that the two most devastating injuries to the Islanders this year have been Eric Cairns and Steve Webb. The Islanders have absolutely no physical presence on the ice and the team plays like it. Aside from the odd Scatchard or Chara skirmish, there seems to be no one with the ability to light a fire under this team or the miniscule crowds. Why Mike Milbury has not filled this gap is a great mystery. The ability to produce big hits as well as a few fights here and there can have a huge impact on a team if used in the right situations. This hole on the Islanders has been noticeable since day 1. Hopefully the return of Cairns and Webb will be in the not too distant future.
I have no doubt that the current Islander players wish to turn this franchise around and bring a winner to Long Island. What they need is a jolt, whether it stem from personnel or management changes. But something needs to be done very soon before the young players lose all their confidence and 500 fans start showing up instead of 5000.
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