Friday, August 29, 2008

Islanders after Schneider?

Throw this one in the "curious rumor" pile. As Islesblogger points out, TSN's Darren Dreger says Garth Snow has been "persistent" about keeping the Islanders "in the mix" for Mats Sundin. I'm sure that, if true, that's a one-way persistence. Since Sundin doesn't even know whether he's playing (I wonder how he decides on what to eat for breakfast), "in the mix" would include any team that's still bothering to call Sundin's agent. The Isles lose nothing by going after a player who almost certainly won't sign here.

But I'm fatigued by the Sundin Saga.

More realistic, yet almost equally strange to me, is later mention in the TSN article that the Islanders are one of the teams after Mathieu Schneider, whom Anaheim must move (here we go again) to make room for Teemu Selanne (here we go again).

It's like the Bryan McCabe drama all over again. Are the Isles really looking to add another d-man? Would the Ducks only want a lower-salaried d-man in return? How badly would we want Schneider on the Isles blueline? Harumph.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wrong end of the table

Flipping through my Hockey News "Yearbook," I was hit upside the head by something.

Now, THN's yearbook always arrives too early -- comically so -- to be a proper season preview or reference guide, but it nonetheless entertains during August's slow hockey days. Its pre-training camp best guesses, premature though they be, aren't totally outlandish. Which is why this hurts:

Both of my favorite teams, the Wales and Campbell representatives I've followed since I first recognized a puck, are picked to finish last. Dead last.

The Islanders don't receive any love after their offseason of "Believe in Youth" and the tardy removal of a coach who many pundits credited for last season's pre-injury plague playoff drive. Then again, their write-up is by a local reporter whose paper barely acknowledges the team's existence. As a mark of just how premature THN's yearbook is, they didn't even know the Islanders' new coach at press time.

On the other side of the compass, the St. Louis Blues are picked last in the West after a similarly quiet offseason, personnel-wise. So I'm going into the season under a dark forecast ... but hey, the only way is up!

As much as it hurts, I can't blame THN. To be distant from the team(s) (except for the Leafs) provides THN some objectivity -- at the expense of understanding why a club thinks it can get by with what it has. If I had to do it, I might come to the same conclusions.

But parity has crept into the NHL so pervasively, I'm no longer surprised when any team in each conference's 6th-15th slots surprises or disappoints vs. their pre-season expectations. And that's what gives us hope something good can happen. Hey, last season's THN pick for 15th in the East was ... the 94-point, 8th-place Boston Bruins.

Alas, the preview isn't solely depressing for this fan. For one, there's a priceless photo of an afro'd Mike Bossy on page 35. (Somehow, seeing him in an afro makes him more mortal. Like maybe, just maybe, you too can score at least 51 goals in every healthy season of your NHL career. Or not.)

For another, in celebration of the Canadiens' 100th season, they've included a sampling of facts you didn't know about the club. Among them: Pierre Turgeon ranks second all-time in Canadiens history for points per game. That's a nice arrow for my quiver in my next Turgeon argument.

And finally, Jay Greenberg's tedious "I only write in vacuous puns and similes" season prediction routine is as absent as Pavol Demitra come playoff time. As yearned for as a 0-0 tie. As essential as the NHL's shield redesign. That absence, to my eyes, is a relief.

But now that I think about it, I'm probably misremembering the timing of my misery; that column probably appears closer to the actual beginning of the season. Damn.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Splintered Blades 8-27-08

"August was the cruelest month..."

Or so T.S. Eliot would have written if he were a hockey fan. (Of course, if Eliot were a '90s-era fan, "The Wasteland" may have been "The NHL.") August is so slow that you get concoctions like a not-very-funny assignment of various NHLers to respective Summer Olympic events. The lone highlight of that one, I suppose, is naming the Sedin Twins for synchronized diving. (I know, comedy is hard.)

So I'm turning over stones around the Internet for hockey items I missed or meant to mark:

  • I wondered why an Islanders game from 1997 was a "Cats Classic" on the Panthers' site. So I had to laugh when I checked it out and saw the commentary at the opening faceoff -- from the Panthers TV feed, mind you -- was: "Todd Bertuzzi, the goat -- according to Coach Rick Bowness -- on the game-winning goal last night by Randy McKay." Retroactive schadenfreude, baby. Bertuzzi's immature Island act enshrined is one thing; Bowness throwing a player under the bus to a TV announcer is another. I think Bowness meant to call it "direct disobedience," though.
  • If slow hockey August has you yearning for a dose of good-natured Islanders-Rangers trash talk, the Gallof brothers are at it again. I give the nod in this one to B.D., naturally. Of course I'm as reliable as the Russian judge in this competition.
  • We know the Isles have seven D-men under NHL contracts. But what if Jack Hillen shows in training camp what we secretly hope he can? If he makes the big club without an injury to another defenseman (not likely), it's a good sign for our blueline. A solid, month-old interview with Hillen at NY Sports Day.
  • Finally, an interview of MLB pitcher Tom Glavine by ESPN's underrated Davide Amber that was as fun to reread now as it was back in March. Everyone knows the story of Glavine being an NHL draftee. But it's funny to think of him being picked in the fourth round before Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Presumably, the perception of his skating skills was better than those two future Hall of Famers, whose draft stocks were hindered by their lack of speed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Good luck to Berard

He's hard to picture as a Flyers d-man, but I hope it happens for Bryan Berard, Philadelphia's new training camp tryout.

He made it on an NHL roster doing the same thing last year on Long Island, so here's hoping he defies the odds again. Any Berard update is always tempered by the disappointment of what could have been. But on the other side of the coin, it's good to see him still making a go of it. Berard was a serviceable defenseman last season, particularly early on, providing occasional spice to the Islanders' struggling powerplay.

But whether from injuries or fatigue (or both), his effectiveness declined and his output never matched his hot training camp start or the offensive d-man label he re-inherited. His defense was by no means like Marc-Andre Bergeron's, but it wasn't stellar. By the late stages of last season, we were almost equally surprised when both he and Marc-Andre Bergeron (dumped at the deadline) held up their own end.

Berard's first injury (groin) happened two weeks into the season, and between Nov. 15 (when he returned) and Jan. 16, he had exactly one point. He was again playing around 20 minutes by February and March -- he just wasn't getting many points. (Granted, no one on the Island racked up points.)

Which reminds us why defensive depth is always nice. The Flyers have a young-ish defensive corps outside of Kimmo Timonen and Derian Hatcher (whose knee will probably be a question the rest of his career). Most of their late-20s guys are not what you'd consider "prime" guys, so it's conceivable Berard could steal an "experienced veteran" depth spot from one of them if he has a good camp. If so, you have to picture him as an injury fill-in and a complement to their powerplay when needed. When not relied on too heavily, his presence could be a true bonus.

Berard impressed with play and attitude on a tryout during last season's camp. Here's hoping he can do it again.

Friday, August 22, 2008

We just need more team facial width

When coaches and pundits talk about needing more "team toughness," what they really mean is more team "face width."

Ha. In the "we needed to use the grant money on something" department, a Brock University study found that NHL players with wider-proportioned faces served more time in the penalty box. Because writers who cover scientific/academic studies always jump to a headline-worthy conclusion, the article implies that such players are more aggressive.

Nonetheless, the obvious caveats: 1) they only measured the Canadian Six teams; 2) they based it on headshots, not actual measurements of their faces; 3) even if the wide boys do rack up more PIM, it could easily be because refs interpret them as more aggressive. There is a legion of academic work examining how humans interpret and draw instant conclusions about all kinds of facial attributes -- from whether they want to jump into bed with the person to whether the person might be a con man. So while we all know NHL referees are the Absolute Supreme Bastions of Impartial Judgment, they may yet succumb to the same human follies that plague the rest of us from time to time, such as whether or not that was obviously a hook nose. Time to add "whether Devorski thinks you're a goon" to the variables in facial cue studies.

That said, don't tell me you didn't immediately conjure images of a past wide-mugged goon or two when you first heard about this study.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Speed kills, hopefully doesn't injure

Just when I was having coverage envy over the transcripts provided by LA Daily News beat man Richard Hammond from his extensive interview with new Kings coach Terry Murray [those links are broken up into several posts by topic], Newsday checks in with some thoughts from Scott Gordon about the logistics of settling and his practice philosophy.

Not quite the pages and pages of stuff on youth, coaching, toughness, etc., that Kings fans got on Murray, but it's only Gordon's first week. Murray's sit down happened after a month on the job, a job he won much earlier in the offseason.

Anyway, the salient thing for me was a little expounding on Gordon's love of speed: Not only does he see speed potential on the Isles roster (agreed), but he wants to instill a higher tempo by practicing drills at an "overspeed" rate. A rate in which, from the sounds of it, players are pushing the limits of their balance, "past their comfort level."

That way, the theory goes, even when they dial it down to a "safe" speed during real games -- which is probably necessary to properly read and react without overskating plays, anyway -- they'll still have high tempo as their default.

This is an interesting concept, one that I imagine will require the right kind of sale to convince players. ("You want me to increase my odds of losing an edge and crashing into the boards?") And it's the first specific tactic to come up where critics might chide -- particularly after an in-practice injury: "Ack, but he was a goalie. What does he know about players doing X?"

I'm eager to see if this takes, and if we'll notice the difference.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Kelley mails it in, and other shocking news

Soo slooooow, these August days of hockey be. So let's react to a random dose of "news" and opinion around the league, beginning with the beloved Isles:

The "I'm on vacation autotext" column. I've often enjoyed his stuff, but my god did SI's longtime hockey reporter Jim Kelley mail this one in. His column on the Islanders' hiring of -- well, no, actually, it's more about one line new coach Scott Gordon said in his press conference -- is littered with all of the trite pseudo-history every writer lazily throws together when they need to mention something about the Islanders.

According to Kelley's theorem, the Isles are dysfunctional, they've had a lot of coaches since 1994, Snow has no prior GM experience, so mentioning aspirations for the Stanley Cup (you know, that shiny thing everyone is in this for) amid 2+ hours of interviews was foolish of Gordon. Not that Kelly bothered to catch any of the interview footage, by the looks of it. Coverage like this does not advance information to anyone: it just ticks the club's fans off, while it misguides fans of other teams who don't pay close attention to the other club. It's like going to an article about the Blackhawks only to read, "Bill Wirtz destroyed this team and its fan base." Thanks for the memo, but what's happening with the club now?

[Update 8/22: Former Isles PR man Chris Botta -- who has, ahem, a tad more reach than I -- tackles a different lazy facet of Kelley's mailed-in-piece. That's nice to see -- not just as an Islanders fan but also as someone who generally roots against misinformation.]

Prospect Quits at Age 19. Apparently, the Blue Jackets have lost the 37th overall pick from 2007, Stefan Legaine, who is quitting the game. There are a hundred reasons why a kid -- even a well-regarded one -- could say enough is enough. You hate to see someone throw away a chance at financial security at a still-maturing age, but I can imagine a lot of ways a kid would get to that point. Not to speculate, but the quote from his father ("Until September 20th [when training camp opens], he hasn't quit anything") reminds me of *shudder* hockey parents whose kids' careers are their sole focus. Again, not saying that's the case here; just saying the overbearing parent is a scourge in any sport.

Likewise, I'm reminded of Alexander Daigle's own journeys through vocation crises. It's all a reminder that these humans who we pin our hockey hopes and passions on are often just adolescents going through their own process of self-discovery -- often complicated by pressures from those around them.

Who are the Top 50 Trade Values in the NHL? TSN columnist Scott Cullen, with a nod to Bill Simmons, tries to drill down the top 50 players by trade value in the NHL. This is no small effort. The idea is much more conducive to NBA rosters (where Simmons originated the idea), because those are largely confined to five starters with well-defined roles plus a "sixth man." Things like age and contract term/value are key to the rankings. It's a fun list, and you can debate the names and rankings all day. So I'll take issue with one that immediately popped out: Tomas Kaberle at #43.

Cullen reasons that Kaberle's is a relative bargain contract at $4.25M through 2011. My quibble: He has a no-trade clause! That clause, which apparently did not expire this summer, rather erodes his trade value. The fact that he has leverage over where he'd end up -- if he'd end up elsewhere -- should mean that, as with Bryan McCabe, another GM won't give you full value in a trade. Kaberle's off my list.

Ryan Whitney has Surgery, Out 3-5 Months. That is a sizable blow -- especially since, for some reason, surgery wasn't decided upon and conducted until now. But if it fixes the problems that slowed his production last year, his return should be a nice boost for the Pens come stretch-drive time.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead. Speaking of the "No Trade Leafs," this guy Mats Sundin -- you may have heard of him -- hasn't signed yet. Thought you'd like to know.

Of Course You Realize, This Means War. First they took Branislav Mezei. Then they took Dubie. But now, oh-ho-ho now, they took Ladislav Nagy. I'm, like, so totally boycotting the Great Threat that is the oil-drenched Mother KHL. They're stealing all of the players we fans hold dear. Where else in North America will we possibly find the talent to replace them?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Portrait of the Coach as a Young Man

Back in that innocent, transitional time when hockey trading cards still came with bubble gum, new companies joined the game to turn our larks into another cold, heartless quick buck. But for a while there, while different companies tried different gimmicks ("Ooh! A hologram!") to gain traction, it was quite a ball.

Pro Set's strategy revolved around quantity, but they had a nice product with some fun gimmicks. One was cards for coaches, something I thought was long overdue but which sadly never caught on (I guess a guy in a suit isn't as appealing as a rotund manager in a baseball uniform). Thankfully, Al Arbour was back with the Isles long enough to have his own place in trading card history.

Another fun thing from Pro Set was their "Series II" within a season that went way beyond (again, in quantity) what other companies included in their batch of late-traded players. These series included the infamous coaches' cards but also pretty much any traded vet or new youngster they could get a shot of.

Sometimes that youngster was a future star whose free agent status would dominate NHL talk in summer 2008 (oh, *sniff* he was so young)...

...and sometimes, he was just a backup goalie and future promising young coach who would get his first big shot in 2008 (*sniff* oh, the Nordiques were so bad then):

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Weight Question

It is not polite to ask someone about their weight, but it is so bloggone normal to use 93 cheap puns on a player's name to help the season go by.

So: can we expect the Isles' last free agent addition to pull his own Weight?

I tackled this issue a bit in the old space when the Isles were rumored to be looking at him. But at that point I was more focused on my fear that they would overpay the man and create unreasonable expectations he'd never live up to. At $1.75 mil (potentially $4 mil+ with bonuses), that fear now appears unfounded -- although only time will tell us what those bonuses are and how easily they can be met. (If you've seen them or know where to look, do let me know.)

The Gift of Gab
This time I want to go into a little more detail on what the Isles bought, and how we can expect him to perform. Anyone who saw him at the recent Open House or caught his candid interviews on ITV can catch the vibe that he is a solid character. From what it's like to move the family again, to how Wayne Gretzky told him what his new number should be (some guy on a long-term deal has his traditional #39), to how it felt to be buried by management last season, he'll tell you how it is in a frank but respectful way -- or as captain Bill Guerin jabbed: "Get ready for some long-winded answers." Isles fans can expect him after games to speak honestly about the team's performance this season.

In fact, the one area where he seems to not speak openly is when a team's management is in the process of shafting him. Both in St. Louis and Anaheim last year, he took it on the chin and didn't raise a team-distracting fuss when management was using him and speaking to him in a way far below what he was told when acquired.

But will Weight's presence on the Islanders' roster help them win more games than they would have won without him?

As usual, there are multiple ways to look at the matter. The easy way is to say he's old and done. The measured way is to figure out what he's done recently and project what he could add to the team in a non-worst-cast scenario.

Old Man near the Sea

Let's start with the ugly part:

Weight hasn't nabbed 60 pts. since 2003-04. He hasn't netted 20 goals since 2000-01 with Edmonton (25 G, 91 P). He's 37 and will turn 38 at mid-season. Last year he went from 16 minutes per game (with poor wingers) in St. Louis to 12 minutes per game (and no wingers) in Anaheim, who acquired him only because the numbers worked to fit Scott Niedermayer back into their cap. His game has always been built on speed and passing, but the former has receded since his heyday. To top off this leaflet for the "he's old and washed up" crowd, Weight has had fairly significant abdominal, hip and shoulder injuries since 2002. Speed, most cheetahs have found, is no friend of hip and abdominal pains.

Reason for Hope: Powerplay and Guts
But the reason the abdominal/hip injuries affected him for so long is also one of the reasons we can hope he brings something useful to the Islanders: Weight played through the sprained pelvis that ultimately necessitated abdominal surgery. As a team leader (he was the Blues' $9 million center), he seemed to do everything he could to get back into the lineup and remain there, demonstrating the classic hockey "play through the hangnail" ethos that is so foreign to MLB. Blues followers never heard him complain, but there were always whispers well into the next season about how painful the injury was, and how the recovery was prolonged by his continued play.

He assured Isles fans at the Open House that, despite thoughts of retirement last season, he is fit and ready to go. He obviously has some incentives, including proving that he's not done as well as getting to -- and beyond -- the 31 points he needs to reach 1,000 for his career.

He also said that about a year-and-a-half ago -- coincidentally, when Bill Guerin was a Blue -- Weight was playing some of the best hockey of his career, resurrecting a nearly lost Blues season after the mid-season hiring of Andy Murray as coach. I'd say his best was actually in the 2003 playoffs, when he manned the point on the powerplay after Al MacInnis was injured and -- with 5G, 8A in seven games -- almost carried the Blues past the Canucks despite half the team being felled by the flu.

That series was Weight at his best: rallying the troops through adversity and asserting himself on the powerplay. If it ever repeats on the NHL Network's "Classic Series" program again, DVR it and you'll see what I mean. Whether he can replicate some of that six years later is naturally a question of age and health. But my guess is that he'll do it and whet our appetite some nights, while age (i.e. the weakened ability to recover quickly) will stymie him and frustrate us on other nights.

To that point, Weight's powerplay numbers have in fact gone down in recent years. But there are two factors beyond age that may be affecting that: He was on some horrendous powerplay clubs in St. Louis after MacInnis retired and Chris Pronger was dumped. And last year in particular, his powerplay minutes were not spent with, erm, "ideal" teammates, as the team tried to revolve its number one unit around Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk.

Lasting Impact is 'In the Room'
So where are we going with this subjective thesis? Essentially, despite a fresh start I don't expect Weight to surpass his recent numbers. (Shock!) A mere repeat of 2006-07's 16-43-59 would be glorious, even if it cost us bonuses that took us up near that $4 mil. That said, with faith and opportunity from management like he hasn't had in recent years, and with finishers like Guerin and perhaps Kyle Okposo, and puckmovers like Marc Streit and Mike Comrie, there should be ample opportunity for him to rack up points while improving last season's woeful PP unit.

Then there's that other area, the fabled intangibles. As I mentioned, Weight is widely perceived as a stand-up guy in the room. Even if that character has zero effect on this season's final standings, it should still have an important, mentoring effect on the youngsters in this club's all-important youth movement. You know, the ones who will be leading the Isles and talking of past mentors when we recall Weight as one of those veterans from the "transition years."

So one more slanted factoid that may reflect his effect in the room: Last season, the Weighted Blues were 16-11-2 and in the playoff race before trading him for the younger, contract-controlled Andy MacDonald (MacDonald was signed through this year, and the Blues understandably worried about how they'd attract another center on the market). But after the trade, there was a noticeably sour shift to the tone coming out of the Blues' room, and the team went 17-25-11 the rest of the way to finish ... one spot behind the 26th-place Islanders.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Parrish the thought

I love* it when agents pimp their players to the press: "No really, there's interest in my guy! Tell the fans! Spread the buzz!"

*may be sarcastic

But it's particularly amusing when an agent ties the future of his average player to the future of a superstar. Don't get me wrong: The way Vancouver sees its cap situation, it very well may not sign Mark Parrish until they know Mats Sundin wants no part of them. But the implication that Parrish is a "Plan B" for Sundin's "Plan A" is laughable hyperbole. (Granted, these are not the agent's direct words, but all agents are guilty of false innuendo until proven innocent.)

The way the NHL circle of illogic works, Brendan Shanahan's future is also tied to Sundin's. (In this latter instance, it's not the agent but rather Blues GM John Davidson who's taking advantage of a little free agent uncertainty to milk fan nostalgia).

Now, the Canucks need offense from somewhere, and they've found the pickings slim this summer, so they may indeed bid on Parrish. But not by preference. It's like when the Mrs. sends me to a big box home store with a $10 off coupon. By God, there's nothing there I need or want -- certainly not a nice copy of NHL 2K9 -- but I'm too cheap not to use the coupon for something. So I come home with a throwaway pillow for the dog. Sundin is that piece of electronics you can't buy here; Parrish is the dog pillow.

Disturbingly, the agent (or perhaps the reporter from a different *cough* "source") also implies the Islanders have "inquired" about Parrish. Using my AgentSpeak-to-Truth(TM) conversion table, "inquired" is the least significant of verbs in the agent's rumor-mongering arsenal. Where "pursuing" means a team has made an offer and "interested" means they've discussed general money and term, "inquired" means they've talked and asked, "Is he desperate enough to take the league minimum? We'll even send a taxi."

So, though it's against their youth movement and a laughable suggestion, I suppose the Islanders may have asked about Parrish, reasoning that he would be easy insurance if he came cheap (not impossible, considering he will still be paid handsomely by the Wild).

But it doesn't make sense for our youth movement to sign him to real dollars, and he won't sign for a paltry sum (not with the Canucks throwing money around), so it's not gonna happen.

Nor do I want it to. I liked Parrish, he did good things as an Islander, it was too bad he had to leave the first time. But we knew in 2007 that he wasn't going to be worth what he would get from his home-state Wild, and now the Wild know that, too, having bought him out.

Plus, seeing him as an underachieving Islander in the sunset of his career would only remind of bad things, like the Mad Mike asset mismanagement move that first brought him here. Not Parrish's fault that he was acquired with a stiff for two guys who got much, much better after they left the Island. But still. Until my therapist works me through these issues, I cannot welcome him back. Like the hilarious Gnarls Barkley relationship breakup video, it shouldn't work this way, but it does.

So I'm sorry, Mark. Good luck in Vancouver.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What does Gordon see?

So New York reporters took a look at new Islanders coach Scott Gordon yesterday and liked what they saw: He was nervous about the big press to-do ("Ooh, fresh meat," they told themselves), but he stuck around an extra hour answering questions and he generally made sense. He explained his strengths in defensive systems, but he also left the appetizing suggestion that his team won't be strictly a modern-age trapfest: The man likes him some team speed and some forechecking.

Speed -- whether it scores or it recklessly runs off the rails -- is never boring. So the reporters and fans may have gotten what they want. GM Garth Snow definitely got what he wants. But other than an NHL job and better travel to games, did Gordon get what he wants?

Perhaps the more answerable question is: What does a new NHL coach see when he looks at the Islanders? Let's consider. Feel free to add yours:

Franchise Goaltender? Check.
Outsiders may consider him merely "franchise" by default because of the contract, but Rick DiPietro showed last year that he has the head and the ability -- when healthy -- to carry a team. He was a huge key to their strong start, and before he was injured, longtime observers noticed how much he'd matured, both in efficiency of movement and in puckhandling decisions. The inevitable, exaggerated "is he playoff material?" debate can wait until he actually gets a fair shake in the playoffs.

A Margin of Error? Check. Gordon's not taking over the Sharks, who have the players and the expectations to win It All now, but have lacked the delivery. Instead, Gordon's taking over a team committed to youth (i.e. growing pains are expected), run by a GM who's plan and employment depends on making it work for the long haul with his hand-picked coach. Even if the club struggles this year, and possibly next year, it is likely Snow will stick with him for longer than a GM in another situation would.

Likewise, blame might fall on the players -- even the prospects: Remember, Snow thought the Islanders were a playoff team last year. He also thought the prospects should've played more under Ted Nolan, because we don't know what we have until they get their chance. With Gordon, they will get their chance.

A Defense He can Work with? Check (I think). Brendan Witt will jump on several grenades to stop a goal, then hobble his remaining flesh up ice to finish a check. Marc Streit provides enough puck-moving smarts to let us think the powerplay will inevitably improve. Andy Sutton can deliver intimidating open-ice checks (granted, it was under Ted Nolan's scheme) without getting all Pilon'd out of position. Radek Martinek is one steady Vaclav out there. Freddy Meyer, when given the chance last year, was a balanced mix of all of the above. And Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais, when healthy, have the makings of solid 3-4 defensemen but may well be used as 5-6.

There are some "ifs" here, but this blueline corps has the mobility and a bit of size to do whatever Gordon asks. That said, I'm sure Gordon wouldn't refuse a Pronger if one fell from the sky.

Proven Scorers? Rain check. If he's looking at this lineup, Gordon has to be honest with himself and know there's not a single forward that makes him say, "Count on 20 goals from that guy." There's potential, sure, but you don't know when age catches up to Bill Guerin (Father Time says: "Soon."). You know Doug Weight, if he fully revives, will get his points from assists, not goals. Mike Comrie's season may depend on the chemistry that develops with his wingers (Kyle Okposo?). Okposo has 20-, juuust maybe 30-goal potential at this level, but that's a lot to ask from a rookie still in his first year as a professional. Jeff Tambellini received a long-term commitment that implies he will be a 20-goaler someday, but the jury is still far, far out on his NHL potential.

The glass-half-full perspective for Gordon is: a) This is where the speed and forechecking game comes in (if you can't blow them out, blow them up and convert the turnovers); and b) the assortment of pesky forwards with hands should get their share of goals: Bergenheim, Comeau, Sim, Sillinger, Hunter, Nielsen ... all guys who should at least score in the teens during a full season.

Of course, two 20-goal scorers and a bunch of guys in the teens is what the 30th-scoring Islanders had last year. Fedotenko, Vasicek and Satan tied for third-most on the team with 16 each. Gordon has to know scoring will remain a big chore, and if it improves, it will likely come from improving the 29th-ranked powerplay. Welcome to the party, pal.

Mid-Season Talent Infusion? Negative. Suppose the Isles are nibbling around a playoff spot at mid-season, but some injuries or glaring weaknesses threaten to spiral them downward. Will Snow swoop in and save the day? Of course not. It's not in the plan, it's not in the budget, and the Isles do not have the cupboard nor the inclination to part with any assets that could bring back legitimate help. Gordon must know this season's success depends wholly on the roster he saw during his job interview.

But that's where that margin of error comes in. I'm by no means down on the season's prospects -- if anything, I'm pleased with the hiring and ready to see how he works. But that is the perspective on the club I imagine a coaching candidate like Gordon took into the interview. It's a mixed bag, to be sure, but there are some bright spots -- not the least of which is the unspoken promise that he will get plenty of time to make the most of his make-or-break shot in the NHL.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Imagining Gordon's strengths, obstacles

The Isles haven't even had the press conference yet, but I've been mulling new coach Scott Gordon's reception -- and somewhat late start -- since I heard the news last night. Generally speaking, before he's even said a public word about his new job, a lot of fans and pundits at least endorse the move.

So if most agree it's a sound, smart hire -- or at least it's August and we're all feeling sunny -- what do we expect to go right, and what do we fear may go wrong?

On the plus side, we have:
  • his track record of working with young players
  • his commitment to defense, which is sort of important when you can't score
  • glowing reviews from peers, and
  • the fact that his position during his playing days was the same as the other two most important people in the Islanders organization. Between Gordon, Garth Snow, and Rick DiPietro, the Islanders are now run by an Axis of 'Keepers. We all know goalies are crazy; now they're running the asylum.

On the minus side -- not minuses, really, but potential obstacles:
  • The introduction. Gordon's first three months will be potentially the most critical part of his tenure: How he runs training camp, how he sets rules, how he adapts to the "luxuries" that NHLers are used to, and how the season starts. The Isles could easily start the season struggling. A few bounces or bad calls are the difference between a Laviolette-ish start and a less-than-Stirling start. How he carries the team through that (or whenever their first slump hits), will go a long way toward how the team receives him, and how long a leash he'll have the next time the seas get rough.
  • As I've mused and Chris Botta gently warns, despite the youth movement the Isles have several important veterans who will need to be won over. All of them -- even Doug Weight -- signed on with the understanding that they would be playing for veteran-friendly "player's coach" Ted Nolan. Gordon is actually only a few years older than those guys: he entered the NHL around the same time and may be on the same generational wave length. Conversely, those guys went on to 15 years of million-dollar salaries, while he's spent the time busing through places like pre(post-pre?)-NHL Atlanta, Roanoke, and Providence. Not until next pay day will he have a remote understanding of how those wealthy vets shop for groceries.
  • Speaking of veterans and starts, how will Weight and Co. react the first time they're told they're not back-checking enough?
  • The "circus" factor: Although it appears owner Charles Wang has finally, fully entrusted hockey operations to Snow, Wang has -- how do I put this -- um, "changed his mind" before. But even if Wang stays out of things and lets Snow and Gordon do their job, NHL reporters will continue to bring up Wang, Milbury, Yashin, and even Little Big Horn because they are easy past references that require little checking into what's actually going on with the team right now. When the team slumps, Gordon will need to be able to brush off media innuendos and resist the paranoia that can set in when you're new to your position at a place where goofy things have happened before.
More to come, but I guess I'll let the man speak before speculating further about his future. One thing's certain: It's a relief a guy named "Gordon" wasn't hired when our club was sporting that other logo.

NOW we're ready for camp

Al-riiiiight. The Islanders, having discovered later than anyone else this summer that they were in need of a new coach, persevered and found a sound choice in their new general.

They certainly could have done worse than last year's AHL coach of the year. And considering the backup catchers and role players of the world are often the observant fellows who make astute coaches later on, I'm not a bit disappointed to realize new Islanders coach Scott Gordon is that Scott Gordon -- one of the poor saps who tended goal for the dearly departed Quebec Nordiques when they were dredging the bottom of the NHL in search of 31-point seasons and bounties named Sundin, Nolan, and Lindros-er-Forsberg and Friends.

At my old stomping ground, I audited the "retread" candidates for the Isles job who had established NHL careers. From that analysis, I found I desired none of them. Those who think Joel Quenneville would have been the right pick for this team, ah, well, they weren't season ticket holders for the Blues during his time in St. Louis, and they might even be columnists who only follow the Isles when they draw the short straw. That's not a knock against "Coach Q" [note: it may be a knock against eat-and-run columnists]; it's just a relatively sober analysis of the man and the team at stake.

So, since I liked none of the above, you may count me as one of the fans of the Gordon hiring. He's respected, he and Garth Snow hit it off, and he gives them as good a chance as any to grow together and provide the continuity that the Islanders have not known since Al Arbour's (amen) first tenure with the team. He's also likely to jibe with the guy who's tied to the franchise for 15 years, which is no small concern.

Of concern: a) he wasn't allowed to pick his own staff (it seems all assistants will be retained, although that could help him with the NHL transition), and b) he's going to play a tight defensive system, which while arguably necessary will not make for exciting firewagon hockey.

But besides Isles-centric concerns, it will be interesting to watch how the latest NFL-esque copycat trend of hiring "young" (ha!) first-time NHL coaches works out. [Next trend: hire winning offensive coordinators!] Who will become the "brilliant hire" and who will become the one who "just couldn't relate to players at this level"? For the armchair GM's, we'll get to watch John Anderson in Atlanta, golden child Peter DeBoer in Florida, Todd McLellan in San Jose, and now Scott Gordon on the Island.

May the best former Nordique win.

Islander Frontier is on the move

Just an introduction to explain WTF.

If you're here, you may have seen -- and even occasionally read -- my Islanders blog at MVN. The format there wasn't ideal for me, so I decided to quit and strike out on my own. But I left that blog location in good hands. It was a peaceful parting.

This may just be only a transition, it may not be. But one thing I learned about myself during this disengagement from the old spot is that ... I still want to write about the Islanders.

I actually thought about tackling the Blues, my other favorite team (my NHL bigamy is another story, albeit quite defensible). Considering I'm in St. Louis, they are quite a bit more geographically accessible. But the Blues have wounded me too many times over the years. [This is the part where Islanders fans gasp and say, "You mean there are others?"] I'm still in rehab from the butchering delivered them by a Wal-Mart heiress' spouse who bought the Blues as a toy and treated them like one that was going out of style.

Besides, I find I'm more objective when discussing the Isles -- admittedly, being insulated from lunatic radio callers might help -- and frankly, I enjoy it more, too: My childhood introduction to playing and watching hockey is inextricably tied to their history and glory years. And they have Deb Kaufman, which is nice.

So my sports-blogging heart is with this storied club, its ups and downs, and its merry band of passionate fellow fans (and bloggers).