New York Islanders Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
Steve Stirling could've just picked up the phone and called.
But after the communications disasters that wreaked havoc on Peter Laviolette's locker room, the new Islanders head coach jumped on a plane and headed to Europe this summer to meet with key veterans in person and lay the groundwork for a solid rapport.
Stirling went to Zurich, Switzerland, to see Alexei Yashin, then to Stockholm, Sweden, to meet with Mariusz Czerkawski and finally to Angelholm, Sweden (an hour south of Stockholm) to visit Kenny Jonsson in his hometown.
In other words, Stirling spent his summer communicating with his players and remaining open to new ideas, something Laviolette struggled with in his two seasons at the helm.
"I had talked to them on the phone and I knew them fairly well, but I just wanted to spend some quality time with them and pick their brains," Stirling said. "I wanted to get them to know me, and me to know them better."
While in Sweden, Stirling also confabbed with the coaching staff of Swedish Elite League team Djurgarden and observed their practices. It's hard to imagine the single-minded, confident Laviolette looking at how other teams run a practice in an attempt to pilfer some new ideas.
Stirling is familiar with the Isles' team personnel from having coached the team's AHL affiliate in Bridgeport the past two seasons and having served as Lorne Henning's assistant on an interim basis at the end of the 2000-01 season. Stirling estimates he watched the team play about 50 games on satellite last year, and he knows Rick DiPietro, Eric Godard, Trent Hunter, Justin Mapletoft and Justin Papineau from coaching them on the Sound Tigers.
"I think there's got to be a confidence and respect level between me and the players," Stirling said. "I have a pretty good handle on their skill level and what they bring to the table with regard to roles on the team. I just need to figure out more about their personalities to figure out the best way to communicate with them and to use them. And they need to find out more about me so that they know that my door is open and that I will listen. I don't always agree, but I will listen to any conversation, any comment, any feedback whether good, bad or indifferent."
The talent in the locker room is good enough to compete in the wide-open Eastern Conference -- now it will be up to Stirling to improve team chemistry and get the most out of his players.
Judging by his first two months on the job, he's prepared to go to the ends of the Earth -- OK, maybe Europe and back -- to make the Islanders a better team.
Alexei Yashin, C -- It's hard to avoid the tag of "go-to guy" when you have an $8.4 million salary. But Yashin sure didn't perform like a superstar during a disatrous 2002-03 season.
Yashin tallied 29 goals and 36 assists, which isn't an awful season. It just isn't what the team had in mind when it swung the big draft-day deal in 2001 to get him. The 29-year-old pivot had respectable totals of 14 goals and 15 assists on the power play. Unfortunately, that means his even-strength output amounted to just 12 goals and 24 assists, hardly the numbers a No. 1 center needs to put up.
Stirling expects his star to rebound, but he isn't counting on Yashin alone to carry the load every night.
"I think there are a handful of guys who can be go-to guys, and they aren't necessarily the goal scorers," Stirling said. "The obvious ones are Yashin, Michael Peca, Adrian Aucoin, Jonsson and Roman Hamrlik, because they are veteran guys who have had success in the league. But the little obvious ones are guys like Garth Snow, Jason Wiemer, Dave Scatchard and Jason Blake. There is a group there that can all share the responsibility. I don't think there is any one guy that I am going to lean on to say that he has to be the leader on the ice or the leader off the ice."
The sentiment of building a balanced team is grand, but No. 79 needs to produce more than 65 points. Billionaire team owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar may have deep pockets, and general manager Mike Milbury may be a bit kooky as his "Mad Mike" nickname insinuates, however, Wang and Kumar aren't rich enough, nor is Milbury crazy enough, to keep paying Yashin what worked out to be more than $125,000 per point last year.
Scoring -- The Islanders led the Atlantic Division with 224 goals last season. However, following a 3-0 win in Game 1 in Ottawa, New York managed just four goals in the remaining four games of the first-round playoff series.
The Isles have offensive talent, it's just that a lot of their top players underwhelmed last season. Third-line center Scatchard led the team with 27 goals, making him one of the top checking-line players in the game last season. But it also highlighted the need for the top-six forwards to step up their play.
"We're going to have to work hard to score goals," Stirling said. "We've got talent, don't get me wrong, but we aren't just going to be able to show up and score goals. There are going to be nights when we have to fight and claw just to get two. On a good night, maybe we'll get three or four, but in this league unless you play real good, tight, smart defense, you may not be able to win with that. So on the nights that we are only going to be able to get two or three, we have to be able to find a way to win."
The Isles will have to find other ways to win, mainly with their forwards helping on the backcheck by playing a complete game. Anaheim and Minnesota proved last year that you don't have to be a high-scoring team to go deep in the playoffs, and New Jersey has followed that model with great success for several years. Through hard work and smart play without the puck, the Islanders could improve their scoring output by generating more goals on the counterattack.
How will the Isles balance the minutes in net?
After Chris Osgood was sent packing to St. Louis at the trade deadline, the Islanders finally cleared a permanent spot for 2000 No. 1 overall pick Rick DiPietro with the big club. They split the workload between Garth Snow and DiPietro down the stretch, with Snow playing very well and 22-year-old DiPietro continuing to offer inconsistent results.
Stirling will begin training camp with Snow pencilled in as the starter, but he expects DiPietro to play 30-35 games.
"I'm excited because both guys are very, very excited about the season," Stirling said. "They like one another and I think they will key off one another. I think Garth will be really good for Ricky to teach him what it takes to prepare as a professional and what it takes to progress in this league. And at the same time, Ricky is talented enough and is such a personality that I'll think he'll challenge Garth in good ways both on and off the ice. So I think it's a good, healthy competition between them."
The tandem will offer opponents very different looks. The big, classical butterfly-style Snow takes up a lot of room in the crease, while the smaller, younger DiPietro showcases an athletic hybrid style that is somewhat reminiscent of Martin Brodeur, right down to the excellent puckhandling skills.
Even though the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Snow fills a good bit of the crease and offers little net to aim for, he will face a big adjustment this season with the NHL's mandate of limiting the length of goalie pads to 38 inches. Snow's pads were among the biggest in the NHL (believed to be close to 44 inches), so while his pillows will be smaller, his mobility should increase and make him a better puck handler due to the improved maneuverability.
Sean Bergenheim, C, 6-0, 185 pounds
Bergenheim had only six points in 38 games with Jokerit last season, but he was playing in the top Finnish league at the tender age of 18. He proved at the junior levels that he can be a prolific scorer, and the Isles are hopeful that he'll emerge into a skilled top-six forward.
"We're hoping that he can make the opening-day roster. We took him with our first pick a year ago for a reason. He came into our rookie camp in June and July and had a really good three weeks. We like what he brings to the table. We're hoping that he comes in in great shape and makes this club, because we are going to give him every chance to do so."
If Bergenheim fails to stick on the Island coming out of training camp, Milbury would have few reservations about sending him to Bridgeport to play a ton of ice time in the AHL and adapt to the North American style.
But once he is ready -- whenever that turns out to be -- the Isles believe they will have a versatile, two-way forward who could turn into a bigger version of superpest Jason Blake.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.