Isles see positive future after another down year
It is easy to tie up the New York Islanders' latest disappointing season in a neat little package, but that would fail to tell the entire story.
Yes, they finished last in the Atlantic Division for the fourth straight season and in the bottom five in the overall NHL standings again. Another coach was let go with few tangible accomplishments to show for his stay on Long Island.
Through all the negative attention the club gets because of its long out-of-date arena, its shoestring budget and payroll, and uncertain future, the Islanders claim they have a good working plan - and they might be right.
''We improved in a lot of areas. We did some great things building for next year,'' said John Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft who led the Islanders with 67 points. ''It's time for us to take that step and put it together for 82 games and find a way to get in the playoffs - really get us on the right track.''
While that goal is ambitious, it is one that echoed through an empty Nassau Coliseum as the Islanders cleaned out their lockers before another long summer. But the core is there to build around with Tavares, Matt Moulson, fortunate find Michael Grabner, and young holdovers Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey.
Grabner came out of nowhere after being claimed off waivers from Florida and scored a team-high 34 goals in a stellar rookie season. Moulson reached 30 goals in his second straight season with the Islanders, and Okposo struggled through 38 games after returning from a preseason shoulder injury that sidelined him until late January.
Only three teams had fewer points than the 73 put up by the Islanders (30-39-13) - six fewer than last season - so it would be a stretch to suggest that injuries were the sole culprit that kept New York out of the playoffs for the fourth straight time.
But the roster was decimated, especially on defense. Mark Streit, the Islanders' quarterback on the power play and most reliable defenseman, didn't play at all this season after he also hurt a shoulder during the preseason. Mike Mottau (hip) sat out 62 games, Mark Eaton (hip) missed 45.
In all, including the 64 that captain Doug Weight was sidelined, the Islanders had over 600 man-games lost to injuries or suspension. Although they had their share of bans from the NHL for their aggressive nature, it was nowhere near the amount of sick days.
''I know it's going to get better,'' Okposo said of his shoulder. ''I know what I can do and I know what I've done my entire career, my entire life. I have no doubt in my mind when I come to training camp I am going to be in good form.
''We have a great core in the locker room. I don't think we're going to sneak up on anybody next year, and we're going to be ready.''
This season, for all intents and purposes, ended early, during a stretch from Oct. 23 until Dec. 13 when the Islanders lost 20 of 21 games and earned only five of 42 points (1-17-3). That sealed the fate for third-year coach Scott Gordon, who was fired on Nov. 15 while the team was mired in a 10-game skid.
It took a while for things to change under interim coach Jack Capuano, but the mood and results improved over the second half. After bottoming out to 17-29-7 on Feb. 8, the Islanders went on a 12-4-5 spurt and showed signs that maybe better times were ahead.
They made it to within four games of .500 (29-33-12) on March 22, before closing with a 1-6-1 fade that tainted the final mark.
''In that losing streak, we really learned a lot about ourselves individually and as a team that brought us much closer together,'' Tavares said. ''It's not something you ever want to happen, and you're always striving to make the playoffs, but as a group it's going to really make us better in the long run.
''The best teams always seem to find ways to win even when they're not playing well or when things aren't going well. Their losing streaks don't really last that long.''
If they can heal on defense and get solid goaltending that always seems in flux because of the never-settled health status of franchise goalie Rick DiPietro, then the Islanders might have a legitimate chance to move up in the standings next season.
Al Montoya proved to be a solid backup to DiPietro after he was acquired from Phoenix, and youngster Kevin Poulin also showed promise before his season-ending knee injury cost him the final 30 games. New York used an astounding, team-record five goalies.
In unbelievable fashion, DiPietro not only missed time because of a chronically injured knee, but because of broken bones in his face caused by a fight with Pittsburgh goalie Brent Johnson. That, and a questionable hit by Penguins forward Max Talbot that left the Islanders' Blake Comeau with a concussion, set the stage for a record-setting fight night on Feb. 11 when the teams met again.
When it was over, Matt Martin was suspended for four games, Trevor Gillies received a nine-game ban, and the Islanders were fined $100,000 for lack of control. Gillies lasted only one shift on his return, before a hit to the head of Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck resulted in a 10-game suspension.
''We kind of have an identity,'' Martin said. ''Before, the league was bashing us and fans were bashing us for us just being the lowly Islanders. Now, at least, they have somewhat of a reason. We stick together, and it's us against the world and we'll take on all comers.''
That message was repeated by Zenon Konopka, who amassed 307 penalty minutes in 82 games.
''Do we want to be a team that's going to take suspensions and penalties? No,'' Konopka said. ''We want to be a team that's going to be harder to play against.
''We've made a step big time toward that. We're not a doormat anymore. I think everyone can agree on that. We have to build off that for next year.''