Things were going to be different for the Islanders this season.
With the NHL's new rules in mind, GM Mike Milbury overhauled the roster when the lockout ended, tossing aside players he thought would be left behind in a warp-speed league and replacing them with speedskaters who had a scorer's touch.
Out went defenseman Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik and Kenny Jonsson, with captain Michael Peca following them out the door. In came Miroslav Satan and Mike York. Alexei Yashin, whose goal production had declined in four straight seasons and whose $7.4 million salary was an anachronism in the salary cap, was not only allowed to stay -- he was promoted to captain. Surely, Milbury thought, this was the formula for the franchise's first playoff-series victory since 1993.
Not quite. The Islanders are one of two teams -- the Bruins are the other; more on them in a bit -- whose post-lockout planning has turned out to be a grand failure. And now Milbury's miscalculation has cost him and coach Steve Stirling their jobs. After running practice on Wednesday Stirling was fired (assistant Brad Shaw will fill in for the rest of the season) and Milbury said Thursday he will step down as GM as soon as owner Charles Wang finds a replacement.
No one should be surprised by Stirling's firing. (In recent days even he had suggested his days were numbered.) This is how things are done on Long Island, where seven different men have stood behind the Islanders bench since Milbury became GM in 1995. The Isles are 18-22-2, seven points out of a playoff spot, a half-season of mediocrity that would threaten any coach's job security.
After a tumultuous decade in charge -- three playoff appearances in nine seasons -- Milbury didn't have much rope to begin with. It didn't help that none of the moves to position the franchise for success in the league's new era have worked.
Yashin has been a bust as a scorer (just 15 goals) and as a dressing room leader. The Islanders' offense ranks in the middle of the NHL pack, but the emphasis on speed left them virtually defenseless. (Where have you gone, Michael Peca?) Just four teams have allowed more than the 3.55 goals per game surrendered by the Isles. And New York has been outshot by the opposition 30 times this season, more than any other team in the league.
It's no coincidence that the Islanders (38 points) are tied for 12th in the East with the Bruins, another team that had its post-lockout strategy blow up in its face.
Before the lockout, GM Mike O'Connell carefully stripped down his long-term contractual commitments, leaving Boston with just three players (Tom Fitzgerald, Ian Moran, Patrice Bergeron) signed for this season.
O'Connell's thinking was that there would be a flood of free agents available when the league came out of hibernation, and he would have plenty of room under the new salary cap to build a team.
It sounded good at the time, but the Bruins were blindsided by the details in the new CBA. The leaguewide salary rollback meant teams could keep more of their players, thinning the free-agent pool. Center Joe Thornton, a restricted free agent, suddenly had more leverage in negotiations because he could leave after this season. And the free-agent market wasn't as inexpensive as O'Connell anticipated.
The Bruins had to spend more than they planned to sign Thornton ($20 million over three years) and scrambled to fill out the rest of their roster. That left them thin with experienced defensemen -- and now Thornton is a former franchise cornerstone, as O'Connell traded him to San Jose in a desperate attempt to reinvigorate the team on Dec. 1.
"Maybe our strategy was flawed," O'Connell conceded after the trade. "Not signing players put us in a difficult situation."
It's also undermined the job security of O'Connell and coach Mike Sullivan, who could soon join Stirling in the unemployment line. Best-laid plans often go awry, but in the NHL someone always pays.