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If you've ever really tried, you know it's truly hard to dig a hole for yourself. You might think that a dire situation has mostly to do with bad luck, but the truth is that bad teams are in bad straits usually because they've made an effort that put them there before bad luck arrived to do its nasty part.
In the case of the New York Islanders and their current owner, Charles Wang, their ugly situation started with a woeful decision in 2001 to dump boatloads of dough ($87.5 million) on Alexei Yashin. The Isles dug themselves a 10-year money pit that they have yet to fully climb out of even though Yashin is now playing in Russia and banking his $17.63 million in buyout cash. The hole got deeper with the 15-year contract they awarded to oft-injured goaltender Rick DiPietro six years after their extraordinary Draft Day decision to trade away the blossoming Roberto Luongo and start over again by taking the 18-year-old DiPietro with the first overall pick.
Who can forget general manager Mike Milbury's infamous "think Tom Barrasso" line? It was a reference to when Buffalo Sabres GM Scott Bowman drafted and started an 18-year old goalie right out of high school in 1983. The proverbial lightning, alas, did not end up in the Islanders' bottle this time.
A once great franchise, which had already suffered through a succession of losing seasons and dubious owners in the 1990s, has become a place where players and coaches don't want to go, major free agents don't even consider signing, and fed-up fans have been abandoning the crumbling Nassau Coliseum in droves. The shabby treatment of Neil Smith, who was dismissed as GM and not truly compensated after just weeks on the job in 2006, and the franchise's inability to effectively employ former Islanders stars Pat LaFontaine (who left his senior adviser post when Smith was booted) and Bryan Trottier (without a position after being relieved of his duties as player development coach this summer) have only served to complete the excavation to nowhere.
Smith's successor, Garth Snow, and coach Scott Gordon have hardly turned the Islanders into the second coming of the stellar organization that Bill Torrey and Al Arbour built in the mid-to-late-70s and maintained through four successive Stanley Cups in the '80s, but the franchise did seem to be making progress until training camp opened this fall with a thud.
In case you didn't notice, the Islanders did seem to have a plan. They intentionally became the last team to schedule exhibition games. (They played split-squad contests on Wednesday night in Saskatoon vs. the Calgary Flames, and in Philadelphia vs. the Flyers). Though it seemed odd that some teams had already played four, five and even six preseason matches before the Isles suited up for their first two, the idea had merit. You can make a strong argument that a young team needs practice time to institute a style of play and work out line combinations, defensive pairings and goaltending abilities far more than it needs to get a game face on. Gordon used that time and used it well, but -- and this is the part where climbing out gets even harder after bad luck shows up -- it's all gone for naught.
In the space of just days, the club lost two of its most formidable and indispensable talents: defenseman Mark Streit and up-and-coming forward Kyle Okposo to serious and apparently long-term injury. Streit, who is as good a power play quarterback as anyone in the game, suffered a freak shoulder injury that could keep out of the lineup for as long as six months...and that's only if a major surgery goes well. Okposo, a former first-round draft pick who was a candidate for rookie of the year honors in his first go-round with the team, suffered a similar injury and is expected to be out until around Christmas.
For a team loaded with talent, those losses are a setback. For a team that's trying to build with young players, it's devastating. Okposo scored 52 points for the Islanders last season and, along with Josh Bailey, was able to keep a lot of pressure off first-year pro John Tavares, who had a good rookie season (54 points) without having to shoulder the responsibility of being "the guy" while he learned the fine points of NHL play. Streit may have flaws in his overall defensive game, but he was solid enough for this developing squad, and his power play work helped lift the Islanders in that he could make plays that led to goals when the team had the man advantage. That's no small consideration for a young team that often needs a lifeline to hold onto when things get tough against quality opposition.
Now Snow's job gets tougher. The few exhibition games the franchise has scheduled need to be crammed in before the regular season starts in little more than a week. Meanwhile, Snow has to figure out how to replace Streit and Okposo, and his roster looks perilously thin. If the club loses, say, Matt Moulson, who scored a surprising 30 goals last season, or Blake Comeau or one of the few veterans like forward Doug Weight or defensemen Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina in one of those "tune-up" games, the season could be over for the Islanders before it's officially underway.
It may be nothing more than bad luck for a GM who seemed to have a reasonably well thought-out plan for the preseason, but given the precarious state of the franchise, that bad luck couldn't have come at a worse time.
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