Trying to predict how a young team like the Islanders will perform can be difficult. But that's not as challenging as figuring out who owns the club. John Spano ran the Islanders after the NHL approved his $165 million purchase of them last February, but he missed several payments to the former owner, was arrested in July on federal charges of bank and wire fraud, and relinquished control of the club in July. These days the only Islanders Spano is likely to meet are those on Rikers, and erstwhile owner John O. Pickett has retaken the reins of the team. For now.
Last month Coyotes co-owner Steve Gluckstern announced that he's heading a group that has agreed to purchase the Islanders for $195 million. That deal, which will probably come in December, is awaiting approval from the league's board of governors.
Overshadowed by this game of musical owners is a team stocked with young talent. By finishing 29-41-12 last season, New York improved its 1995-96 total by 16 points and remained in the playoff hunt until the final two games. Says general manager Mike Milbury, "Anything less than the postseason has to be considered a failure."
For a team that has missed the playoffs every year since 1994 ant has the league's second-lowest point total over the last three years, that's a lofty goal. It's also realistic. The Islanders have the NHL's best corp of young defensemen, led by '97 rookie of the year Bryan Berard. "The nucleus of this team is on defense," says coach Rick Bowness, who took over behind the bench in January when Milbury gave up coaching. "They're young, but we're no longer rebuilding. We're past that."
However, the best that can be said about the Islanders' offense is that it is a strong defensive unit too. Right winger Ziggy Palffy (48 goals, 90 points) is one of the league's most exciting players but he has little support—the Islanders were 10-30-7 last seasor when Palffy didn't score. Free-agent additions Mike Hough and Sergei Nemchinov will add toughness and defense at wing and center, respectively, but neither is the offensive force that New York needs to make the playoffs.
Barring a blockbuster trade, that scorer won't arrive until next year at the earliest, when Milbury calls his owner and gets him to ante up for a top-level free agent. Assuming, of course, he knows who that owner is.