Monday, September 29, 2008

Islanders have a breakout!

Compared with last season, the Islanders are coming out of their own end far more decisively on the breakout almost as if they have a definite plan.
Music to the ears! While the Islanders don't have Hall of Fame-caliber QBs on the blueline, they do have several guys who are beyond competent handling the puck. Apparently, they added a new one in their intrarivalry shot-across-the-bow waiver claim of Thomas Pock. It's nice to see Scott Gordon encouraging them to move the puck smartly.

Another of those puckhandlers, Chris Campoli, is out for ... um, some undefinable "good period of time." It's still preseason, and already it feels like a circus regarding the NHL's brilliant new injury nondisclosure policy.

Carrying this bizarro world further into the unreal, Chris Botta informs us that players have been told not to talk about their injuries, period [under the 11:30 entry of that post]. It's like carrying a politician's communications strategy into the locker room: "Chris, what's that wrap on your shoulder for?" >> I've never said I have a wrap on my shoulder, so I categorically deny that my shoulder is an issue. "So you'll be back in the lineup tomorrow?" >> I'll be back in the lineup at an appropriate time, and when that time comes, you'll be told.

I understand some fans don't see what the big deal is -- "why do we need to know about their injuries, anyway? It only provides other teams a competitive advantage." If you agree with that, please feel free to comment. I understand that every fan comes at this sport, this league, with different interests in mind (e.g. fighting, Canadian teams, goaltending, etc.). Personally, I view information about what I'm watching as part of the product package that the league gouges me for.

The league could also strip the names and numbers off of every player uniform -- "why help your opponent know who's on the ice? It only gives them a competitive advantage." But somehow, that bit of information helps customers like me better enjoy -- and buy more of -- the game.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fall appetizers

Some weekend tidbits:

... It was the Frans Nielsen/Trent Hunter show in the Isles' preseason win over Florida. Nice to hear Gordon's pressure game unsettled the Panthers.

... I know it's fall, not because of the weather or calendar, but because they're laying down the ice at the Coliseum. Hmmm...wonder if they have that shade of orange paint at Home Depot?

... On an innocent cab ride, Islander Outsider finds an example of the Islanders' product placement strategy in action.

... A local Canadian pub, the Daily Gleaner, runs a Q&A with Isles' property Rob Hennigar. Hennigar, the all-time leading scorer in U. of New Brunswick history, is the interesting case of a 25-year-old Canadian college player signed to his first professional deal last spring, representing Garth Snow's attempt to accumulate assets/depth by turning over leaves wherever he can find them. A no-risk move. Likely depth, but who knows -- maybe a late bloomer who could fill a role in the NHL? Hennigar talks about the grind of pro training camp, the "love the game" attitude a player needs to keep going, and lining up in the same uniform as his favorite NHL player, Doug Weight.

More from the same pub on what Scott Gordon thinks of Hennigar's chances:

"He has to identify that there's more in the tank than he's using. The biggest thing is how quickly can he make the adjustment to become quicker on the ice and more explosive, and play out of that comfort zone.

"That's all up to him. If he doesn't do that, it's going to be pretty hard for him because the pace of the play is a lot faster than Canadian college."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Splintered Blades, 9-26-08

Back to on-ice hockey now, with some assorted this and thats:

1. Mike of has a look at where the blueline offense will come from under Scott Gordon's system. Included is a note about offense from unexpected places, plus -- do we have an Islesblogger Guarantee?! -- a forecast for DOUBLE the goals from the Islander blueline. Given the way Gordon seems to be a guy with a suddenly much better toolbox to play with at the NHL level (as if he's thinking, "Wow, ALL of my guys can make and receive passes!"), I have hope that Islesblogger's projection comes true.

2. Greg Logan updates on Friday's light day in Islanders camp. Gordon says Yann Denis wasn't at fault in the 4-0 loss to Philadelphia. And Logan, if I've read it right, has narrowed the picture on Jeff Tambellini's injury from "below the neck" to now "lower body." Which I assume means below the waist (hey, HEY, keep it clean here). Grief. Should be a fun season, injury-wise. In other news, I'm a fan of a team who finished in the "lower half" of the 30 teams last year. I also root for a team "east of the Rockies." On the next Islanders fan survey I get, I'm telling them I see "between 1 and 80 games per year." (Sorry to belabor the point.)

3. Islanders360 hits on two points I fervently agree with: 1) We missed Jon Sim last year more than we -- and league-wide pundits -- realized; 2) If Gordon's scheme produces more shots, the Isles will still need to bump up their shooting/finishing percentage. We'll need some pure sniping; shots that truly "beat" an already-set goalie rather than just shots that get by based on positioning and traffic. I actually think Mike Sillinger is one of the guys who's capable of sniping shots past the goalie, but his hip rehab worries me terribly.

4. Finally, a nice feature on Kyle Okposo at Most huff-and-puff rec players -- except those who think someone, somewhere robbed them of their rightful spot in the NHL -- marvel at the steep upgrade in speed and skill that accompanies each ascending level of hockey. There are guys in my league/pick-up games who amaze me, and it's both humbling and awing to think that they couldn't hold a water bottle at the lowest semi-pro minor league. To that end, the feature on Kyle Okposo includes this quote, a nice bit of insight for any fan but particularly for the huff-and-puffers [italics are my emphasis]:
"It helped a lot (playing in the AHL first)," he said. "If I had come straight from college to the NHL it would have been a bit of a tougher adjustment. The guys are so much bigger and stronger up in the NHL, and the game is even more controlled, which is unbelievable. That's the most unbelievable thing I found, defensemen are just so much smarter up there, smarter with their sticks. They don't do as much but they feel like they're covering more ground, so playing in the AHL helped me a lot."
I like that italicized point. Economy of movement -- including maintaining a position that is psychologically threatening to the forward -- is one of those traits of grade-A defensemen that is harder to observe and impossible to capture in stats. It's not just about covering a forward; it's about making a forward think he's covered when you don't have him and, conversely, making him think he's free when you actually have him funneled right into your domain.

Okposo also says some good stuff about the difference between the college schedule and the pro schedule, something for us to keep in mind during his first mid-season slump.

NHL injury policy is a scam, period.

*sigh* Again with the injuries.

I've vented about this before, but now it appears it will become a topic recurring again and again and again. The blight of injury misinformation has somehow, defying all logic, become an NHL league-wide policy.

When I saw the note buried in Gerg Logan's notes about the Isles' non-disclosure on Chris Campoli's shoulder, I thought, "Here we go again." I also immediately wondered how former Isles PR head and now quasi-independent blogger, Chris Botta, would respond. Botta is (granted, I've never met him, but from all accounts he is) a PR man in the classic sense of "truth and communication is always the best strategy." But no strategic communicator has been closer to both sides of this issue than Botta was: Knowing info is good for fan/media relations on one hand, but knowing the NHL old guard and many players -- i.e. his employers and the players whose cooperation he needed to do his job -- would rather keep it all "in the room."

Fortunately for Isles fans, Botta is outraged. And he sums the issue plain and simple: "When it comes to injuries, a balance between protecting your players and informing your fans can certainly be struck." Hopefully Botta beats the drum far and wide.

This is such a no-brainer, I honestly hate writing about it. I hate to get all hyperbolic about it, but it is insanely unjustifiable, and it's an example of the type of insular thinking that makes the NHL a media punching bag. It's the kind of thing that needs to be set forcefully at the central office, so the GMs stop worry about the tiny competitive edge they could get by hiding injury information like news at the Kremlin. But I don't see the league changing unless they realize fans -- not just reporters, the stereotypical bogeymen -- don't like it, either. So I'll be tacky and quote myself here rather than recreating all my thoughts:
In one way my interest in this sport is dependent on having a decent amount of info with which to assess what I’m watching. Just like I want to know if one team I’m watching has twice the payroll as its opponent, I also want to know if my top scorer has had shoulder surgery: Maybe that will lead me to cut him slack, maybe it will lead me to say retire the old bum. That’s my right as a fan ... Likewise, I want to know if my franchise ‘keeper on a 15-year deal has had surgery on both hips and a knee in years 1 and 2 of his deal. [New edit: Or a freaking concussion!] Etc., etc.

That influences my assessment of the roster, my evaluation of the goaltending, my opinion of what kind of back-up goalie we need. [Edit: To say nothing of implications for fantasy players, another revenue source.] And as long as the league is publicizing the draft, publicizing free agency, and publicizing the players — make no mistake, those are all part of the PR picture to build fan interest and buy-in of the product — then they owe paying customers that kind of communication.
NHL leaders will likely tell themselves, "See, these diehard fans keep writing and coming to games regardless of our injury policy. Revenue is grand." Fine. For the short term. But the NHL is a niche league with strained credibility in many areas. A league that needs to think long-term to ensure growth (i.e. North American popularity). And here is a gift-wrapped opportunity to be a leader: to be a league that plays it straight with fans, that is as fan-friendly as its mythically down-to-earth players. But the GMs, in their short-sighted nature, have screwed that up.

If they want to pass up that opportunity, if they want to inch closer to the unreality of pro wrestling, if they want to widen the disconnect between players and fans ("Is he hurt, or does he just suck?" and "Why do they boo me when I'm doing my best on one leg?"), if they want to give us another reason to question why we bother paying escalating prices when there are other hobbies and diversions in this multichannel world, that's their decision. And their long-term loss.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bailey, Botta impress in debuts

The other day I wrote that I'd be beyond shocked if Josh Bailey doesn't return to his junior team this season. So naturally today's story out of Newsday is how Bailey has impressed at camp, and his prospects for drawing an NHL paycheck this year are already better than they were two weeks ago.

When I blog, sometimes the devil on one shoulder says, for the topic of the moment, "Go on, just emit the first opinion that comes to mind." On the other shoulder is a different figure. This figure is no angel but nonetheless a little less threatening than beelzebub: an editor. And the editor in me says: "How stupid will this statement show you to be in one week, one season, one year?"

So yesterday the devil in me -- who hasn't seen Bailey play -- said: "The kid is 18, he wasn't one of the acclaimed gems of this draft, the trade-down-and-pick to get him was controversial: no way in hell he makes the team." The editor counters: "Actually, he just might make the team, but only for nine games. Almost inconceivable that the Isles will put more than that on him at this age."

Well, we'll see! The oddsmaker in me still points to his age and expectations to figure the Isles will think more long term (heck, even think monetarily, considering the value of a cost-controlled, entry-level contract) by shipping him back to juniors before game #10.

But if Bailey continues to impress, if he fills a hole created by Mike Sillinger's injury, if in those first nine NHL games he is a bright spot of what could be a tough season ...

When I read Scott Gordon comparing the situation to that of Patrice Bergeron as a rookie, the devil in me scoffed: "Bergeron is an elite player, invaluable to the Bruins! No comparison!" Then my editor checked to see that Bergeron was a 45th pick overall -- one whose only "flaw" was a lack of size. As Gordon recalled, Bergeron's play and stability forced the Bruins to keep him up at age 18.

While Bailey has a different set of assets and a different future role on the club, if he can show the same kind of character and usefulness now ...

... I'll be elbowing that devil off my shoulder, again.

The Botta Resurrection
As for the other "B" in this post's title, most visitors will already know former Isles PR man-turned-blogger Chris Botta has launched the new Point Blank. After his 40 days (okay, quite a bit more) in the post-Islanders-employment desert, he has fully returned to ascend to a role that is, frankly, more directly valuable to the info-craving Isles fan.

For the first 24 hours, a dizzying array of posts on a variety of topics. His insider access already shines through, particularly with his review of the Islander D-men and scouts' takes on them. Finding an excuse to run a photo of Alyssa Milano in heels and tight-fitting clothing doesn't hurt, either, and demonstrates an astute mastery of the Web's tried-and-true eye-candy tactic.

Between Bailey's prospects, Gordon's promise, and Botta's insider prose, this season is already shaping up to be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Injuries bring new cries for an Isles enforcer

The Islanders won their first preseason game, 2-1 in OT, over the Bruins, after heavily outshooting the B's. But according to the game report, the Bruins awoke and came out hard in the third -- responding to the lopsided game flow -- and took out two Isles, Kurtis MacLean and Chris Campoli, with hard checks.

Amusingly, this ignited calls on the Newsday comment forum (already!) that the Islanders must have a full-time enforcer. Because without one, the thinking goes, other teams will run roughshod over the Isles. Nice theory and all ... except that one of the candidates for Isles enforcer, Mitchel Fritz, was in the lineup!

While there is a deterrent value to dressing enforcers -- which is why GM Garth Snow has implied they will use them on a game-by-game basis this season -- the equation that Enforcer Present = No One Runs Your Players is a gross exaggeration, a falsehood. Some intimidation and policing built up over a season can be a deterrent, sure (even in today's NHL), but come on: Fritz's presence in the lineup obviously kept no one from taking their licks to earn a spot on the Bruins.

I don't begrudge fans of fighting, which is a storied, character-filled and oft entertaining part of the game's history. But saying full-time goons are essential today is ridiculous. I thought the Red Wings had already disproven this errant theory, repeatedly, all the way to a Cup.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Each day reveals a little more of Scott Gordon

The Islanders preseason starts tonight, baby! The primordial look at Team Gordon.

And he is really the story here. This edition of Islanders training camp gets its intrigue almost solely from the coach making his first impression on the job, and not from players trying to make impressions to win a job.

The Islanders are fully stocked with NHL contracts, so the only possible "surprises" are young Jack Hillen on defense and the feature story-like tale of Brandon Sugden. You can throw first-round pick Josh Bailey in there if you want, but shock is not strong enough to describe how I'd feel if the Islanders kept the 18-year-old from returning to juniors to continue his development.

Anyway, each day reveals a little more about new coach Scott Gordon. Today, Greg Logan dropped lots of early impressions from vets new and old, like Doug Weight and Brendan Witt. With the all-important caveat that it's early, and everyone wants to embrace a fresh start, the quoted vets like Gordon's get-down-to-business approach.

For example, is it really OK that Gordon is focusing on teaching, drilling, learning, and not scrimmaging? Witt thinks so:
"I like it better that we practice because we’re working systems. The last couple years, my first time on ice was the intrasquad game. It’s kind of nice to get to practice and learn the system before you even go in any exhibition games."
What of the "overspeed" concept. Is Gordon really trying to make players become "faster"? Weight clarifies:
“He’s not talking about the way you skate as a style,” Weight said. “He’s saying, ‘You’ve got to move your feet more and move them more often.’ We’ve talked about it, and I’m a guy that slows the game down. But when I’m at my best, I’m playing my fastest while slowing the game down. You get more room the faster you are, and you can still make your snowplows and still make your fakes and buy yourself room.
Logan has plenty more in both his online post on this topic, as well as his regular article about Weight's fresh start, in which Weight re-iterates that he thinks two seasons ago was his best form in nearly a decade.

The other salient point is Gordon's desire for the defensemen on breakouts to consider hitting the center more rather than sending it up the boards to the wings.

That should be fun to watch. Look for some unsightly early turnovers as they adjust, and -- maybe, just maybe -- some pretty breakouts if the Isles' D rise to the challenge of bringing more options and zip to the proceedings.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

We have lines

Greg Logan has put the Islanders line combinations up, for the start of camp at least. No surprises, although 2008 first-round pick Josh Bailey is getting a look at center with Mike Comrie on his right wing. Interesting. Newcomer Mark Streit is on a third pairing with Cris Campoli, the pairing Logan speculates will be the #1 powerplay blueline.

Elsewhere, if you don't check TSN much, they've been previewing a different NHL club each day this month, in alpha order. The Islanders day came up yesterday ... but their preview offers nothing new. Did you know Mike Comrie's relationship with Ms. Duff was the "high point of last season?" I'd no idea ... somehow I thought they played 82 games, fired a coach, hired a new one.

Actually, I've been pretty disappointed with all of the TSN team-by-team previews. I thought they might shed a little "inside perspective" on each club, but so far they haven't offered up anything you wouldn't pick up from following the league, and certainly not anything matching even The Hockey News' beat-writer round-ups.

But whatever. If you're interested or have taken the summer off, the Rangers preview (including a whole paragraph devoted to ... the Ottawa Senators 07-08 season?) and the Devils preview are also up. For the Devils, I'll admit some intrigue about how the returns of Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston will go. The rest of the league, as they come up, is here.

Faust and the Devil Hit it Off
It's early, early, early, but Miro Satan is hitting it off in Penguins training camp, with four goals in three scrimmages. Serving the platter is one Sidney Crosby. If Satan excels in Pittsburgh, count me as happy for him. He did all he was asked here, he fought through injuries, he rarely had a center to assist his sniping ways.

Finally, the first Islanders preseason game of 2008 is just three days away -- Tuesday, in fact. But if preseason hockey isn't your thing, maybe you'll be glad to know, um, Def Leppard is playing the NHL's (not the Isles') season opener.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Plenty of stories in Isles camp

Be still my heart. As training camp opens, the first signs that Newsday is actually ramping up coverage have emerged. Sure, it's early, but it's nice to see them, over the past couple days, covering multiple angles before a regular veteran has even set skate to ice. Any guesses on how long it lasts?

To that point, although the Islanders roster was just about "set" with all the players they have signed and the seven D-men they have on one-way contracts, this camp will still be teeming with storylines. To wit:

(In honor of Radiohead's incredible summer tour, some lyrics to introduce each topic)

A jigsaw falling into place / So there is nothing to explain ("Jigsaw Fallng into Place")
New coach Scott Gordon is serious. So serious, the team won't be repeating the time-honored tradition of intrasquad scrimmages -- he wants the time to teach his system and hardwire it to the brains of each player. Players will soon learn what former P-Bruin Ben Walter already knows: Gordon's is a system that emphasizes forechecking, defensive diligence, and the soon-to-be-legendary (or infamous) "overspeed." Gordon's proven young players hungry for a job can learn this; this season's success likely depends on whether the veterans get on board.

Trapped in this body and I can't get out ("Bodysnatchers")
The Islanders' NHL roster is not totally young, and not all that healthy. You're pardoned if you suspect the Isles fell prey to a package deal with a hip surgery salesman in Colorado. (I hope they didn't order the truecoat.) Turns out Mike Comrie was paparazzi'd on crutches this summer because he, too, had hip surgery. Not as involved as Mike Sillinger's, not as pivotal as Rick DiPietro's, but hip surgery nonetheless, on a player whose game depends on agility. Captain Bill Guerin is also returning from (shoulder) surgery; half the defensive corps finished last season on the shelf. Who's nagging recovery becomes the cause for sub-par production all season before they are reshelved?

Destiny, hold my hand, protect me from the world ("Anyone Can Play Guitar")
Kyle Okposo has nine games of NHL experience. But by all accounts, at 20, already a good head rests on his shoulders. His entry-level deal kicks in now. The factors affecting the value of his next deal begin calculating in October. There will be ups and downs; I imagine his ceiling is a great second-line winger or a dependable first-line winger with scoring punch and physical presence. But that is TBD. I'm tempering my expectations here, hoping the Isles do the same and guide him carefully through inevitable streaks and slumps.

Infrastructure will collapse, voltage spikes ("House of Cards")
Speaking of injuries, D, and youth... As mentioned, the Isles have seven D-men on NHL contracts. That does not include Jack Hillen, who went from completing four years of NCAA play to a home-and-home series versus the Rangers. Welcome, kid. Hillen, not big but very poised, has the type of vision and passing that would seem to fit Gordon's system well. He's already receiving praise for adapting to that system quickly. If push comes to shove, does Hillen make the team? Would the Isles actually waive or demote one of last year's regulars? Magical injuries may intervene.

I only stick with you because there are no others ("All I Need")
What do we have in goal for the non-DP 25% of the season? The Isles pledge to reduce Rick DiPietro's workload -- this time, before they're forced by injury to do so. Even though DP, true to form, insists he wants to play every game. We know that Joey MacDonald is Dubie's default replacement. But how will he do? His record is ... incomplete. It's taken him a long while to get to this moment. But it's not his fault he was stuck in the system of the NHL's most successful club of the last 15 years. That could be a bad thing (Roman Turek?), or a good thing (Tim Thomas?).

How come I end up where I started? ("15 Step")
Real camp starts Saturday. Let the stories and intrigue begin!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Snow should bid for Radulov

The fabled KHL season in Mother Russia has begun. Nashville Predators exile Alexander Radulov has already started collecting his rubles. But by several accounts, Radulov has indicated an interest in returning to the NHL (perhaps not until next season). What's more, Nashville may understandably want to trade him rather than take him back as a prodigal son who screwed the franchise at its most vulnerable moment in time.

It won't happen now, it probably won't happen during this season, but at some point, Radulov's rights are likely to be on the NHL trade market. If I'm Garth Snow, I check in on that sale early and often.

Judging by his first two seasons -- and the Predators brought him along carefully, perhaps lowering his stats -- he's a proven scoring talent superior to anything the Islanders currently possess (including Kyle Okposo's ceilling). He also might occasionally injure your captain during an overzealous playoff celebration. Hey, every star carries baggage.

He's entering the third and final year of his entry level deal. So pending the results of IIHF arbitration panel (which could, don't forget, rule Radulov was somehow free in the IIHF world to do what he did), and depending on the NHL's reaction, he could enter next season with either one year left on his deal or with team-controlled rights as an RFA.

Either way, you have a guy who bailed on his team and the NHL for the rubles -- so who knows, he might bail again -- but who's in a position to make enough cash on his next NHL deal to keep him happy and on the sunset side of the Pacific. He's also owned by a team that, presumably, wants to be rid of him before he plays another NHL game.

So, those are the factors that enter into his trade value, into the leverage you bring into trade talks with Nashville. It's too early to anticipate what Nashivlle would want for him, much less what the trade market would bear for him (a similar prospect? No dice; we have none. An offensive defenseman and a couple high picks? Maybe.) But talent-wise and age-wise, the 22-year-old Radulov is precisely the type of player that Isles GM Garth Snow should be looking at to advance his youth rebuild.

In a proper youth movement, you hang on to your assets and you plan for the long-term. But the one long-term boon that's worth giving up some of your future prospects for is a young, certain talent who gives you something you don't have in your system.

Someone like Radulov.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rookie camp opens; Schneider hits waivers

Rookie camp has opened, and Adam at Growing Up with the Isles is all over it. Day 1: Lots of coaches, lots of drills, one lost equipment bag, one healthy Jon Sim, and one Mike Sillinger skating and practicing slapshots (sans equipment). Adam will likely be updating each day, with interviews, so it should be some good stuff.

Meanwhile, would you claim Mathieu Schneider off waivers for the Isles at $5.75M? Nah. Too much coin at a position we don't need. But it should be entertaining to see who bites.

I know there are some complaints about the cap, about how it makes keeping a good team together difficult, but I think it's better than the alternative. I'm not a Brian Burke-hater, but I think it's great that this has happened. Burke knew of this risk -- that Niedermayer could come back and the Ducks would have cap issues -- when he first signed Schneider. When I saw the term last summer, I remember recoiling, "wow, that's a pricey stopgap."

In short, GMs ought to pay for their short-sighted mistakes. Maybe, just maybe, it will motivate a few more GMs to stop throwing cash around as if the cap isn't there. And as if the cap isn't guaranteed to keep spiraling upward. I am reminded of seven years for Ryan Malone. I am reminded of six years at $6.5M for Wade Redden.

'We're all Islander' followers

I hope to have news in the next few weeks about a new, final relocation for this blog. It will include a new name (you know, because the "frontier" of yesteryear has been razed and paved with new subdivisions). But more importantly, I'll have a better user-friendly format where I can add features and invite user posts, as well as interact better with bloggers from other teams. Then I'm done moving, I promise.

I tease this now because there are some exciting media developments that should make this a great season to follow the club: First, Newsday -- recently purchased by Rangers owner Cablevision -- has pledged to increase its coverage of both clubs. Second, the Islander blogosphere is abuzz with news that former Isles PR man, "blog[box]father" and prolific blogger himself Chris Botta has announced his return as a regular blogger of the Isles.

I’m not going to jump to grand conclusions about an upswing in popularity or coverage for this much-maligned franchise. But the success of the BlogBox last year – and the fact that Newsday’s Greg Logan cites the prevalence of blog coverage of the Isles and Rangers as one reason Newsday is expanding coverage – are undeniably positive signs. Lacking a foothold in the “old media” world of network TV, the NHL must nurture its already strong presence on the Web – including its growing fountain of stats information -- to maintain its relevance.

Our multichannel media world, I suspect, is going to continue to specialize or “niche”-ize fans’ interests in all the major sports. The more the NHL fertilizes its already strong online niche, the better off the league-player "partnership" will be. Although, admittedly, that will mean ever-higher ticket prices and Center Ice subscription fees for us fans, who are generally left out of the "partnership." Alas.

Regardless, it’s great that a very connected yet off-the-payroll (sorta) guy like Botta will be following the team closely. I guarantee we're going to get tips and insights on the team and the league that other clubs' fans will not. That, combined with expanded Newsday coverage and the club’s growing fan blogsophere, will absolutely make following the team this season even more fun than last.

Heh, off the ice, anyway. On-ice joy is still TBD.

Monday, September 15, 2008

That hole at center

With the Islanders so thin at center, Mike Sillinger's slow recovery from hip surgery is, well, not happy news. Richard Park can do Sillinger's role, but with scoring power scarce at center it's nicer to have Sillinger there while Park serves a jack-of-all-lines role.

Frans Nielsen showed wonderful hockey intelligence last season, and I have hopes for him making further strides this year; it'd just be nice to have more flexibility for who plays where, especially when another injury arises. I believe Ben Walter provides less of the same, although he may get a bigger chance. (update: Logan says in their discussion, coach Gordon curiously omitted Walter's name: judgment on past exposure -- the Bruins did deal him, after all -- or oversight? Hmmm...)

But we can't really hope for help from outside. The unsigned market of centers is pretty nonexistent, beyond Mats Sundin (ha) and Peter Forsberg (double-ha) -- neither of whom would come to the Island at this point, and Forsberg, if he played, would probably get fewer games in than Sillinger will this season.

After that ... uh, did Jason Allison ever retire? I think had him on every single team last year, which of course never happened. Fellow faceoff man and Sillinger-esque traveler Yanic Perrault is still out there, as best I can tell. Old friend Shawn Bates doesn't have a team, though he and Sillinger could trade notes on hip injuries. Speaking of nostalgia, Randy Robitaille has signed with Lugano in Switzerland.

So barring a trade, we're stuck with the depth we have. Get well soon, Mike!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Gordon commits to youth, hopes for speed

Strangely, some observers cite the Islanders' number of veterans, or the roster's "average" age, as reason to scoff at the notion of a youth movement. But most of these veterans are stop-gap mentors on short-term deals who will fill out the roster and carry the team while the team accumulates, retains, and develops its prospects.

The youth movement is a decisive shift in philosophy. It's not about finding a magic box of young studs -- it's about the commitment to youth. No one (well, almost no one) is claiming the current crop of green NHLers will carry them to the promised land now.

On that note, the overarching storyline for this year will be how the youngsters perform and how they're evaluated after what should be considerable more ice time under new coach Scott Gordon.

Jeff Tambellini, come on down. In Gordon's thorough interview with Newsday, he mentioned replacing the lost "scoring" of Miro Satan and company with more minutes for guys like Sean Bergenheim and Tambellini:
"If Bergenheim scored 10 goals last year and you give him more minutes, does he score 16 goals? Jeff Tambellini played a minimal amount of minutes. What happens if his ice time doubles?"
Gordon also acknowledges the Great Tambellini Mystery (i.e. "Is he legit, or is he just a AAAA player?"). Brackets in the following are my explanatory notes:
"Somewhere along the way, he's not being himself. From what I've been told, he hasn't had the confidence up here that he has down there. If we can get him to be in the right state of mind, hopefully, he moves closer to the 38 [goals he had in the AHL] than staying near the one [goal he had with the Isles]."
The other interesting part of the interview is his discussion, not for the first time, of increasing team speed through intelligent play. You could understandably call that a pipe dream; or you could call it good coaching. Either way, it will be fun to watch develop -- and fun, particularly, to see how the veterans on their last NHL legs receive it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sillinger low on lubricant

I cringe when I read about Mike Sillinger's setback from hip surgery recovery -- not just because he's a pretty valuable forward whose game is dependent on speed (and a healthy hip) -- but because it sounds like the whole process is bloody painful:
As part of the surgery, he had two holes drilled in his hip. He has regained strength in the hip muscles, but he said the joint is tight and the muscles aren't firing properly yet...

... In mid-July, Sillinger suffered what he described as "a little setback" because his hip joint wasn't producing the normal amount of lubrication and required an injection to speed the process.
Two holes drilled. An injection of lubricant. An oil change. Hopefully no transmission rebuild is necessary.

This, plainly, stinks. Sometimes an older veteran's longer summer recovery is a bonus: They play fewer games and add fewer miles, avoiding the dregs of the season that wear players down. But for Sillinger's hip to be this touchy eight months after surgery does not look good. Speed is so essential to his combination of hockey smarts and high-energy play that makes him such an effective two-way forward. Without it ... ack, he becomes just another grinder.

Gallantly changing roles

I suppose if you wait until after the draft and start of free agency to change coaches, you can wait until the eve of training camp to remove your top assistant coach. That's just how we roll.

So even if there's nothing under the surface to the Isles sudden announcement that Gerard Gallant, Ted Nolan's top assistant -- who was retained for Scott Gordon with the rest of the staff -- is moving to a "consultant" role upstairs, it will still be added to the annals of "unconventional" (to put it kindly) moves by Islanders management over the last two, eight, twelve, fifteen (pick your regime) years.

Many signs point to Snow valuing Gallant. That Nolan's assistants were (originally) retained is one; that he escaped blame for last year's powerplay, which he ostensibly ran, is another.

So one initially wonders if Gallant and Gordon found they had different philosophies, whether in styles or in powerplay tactics. But it could be simply as publicly stated, that Gallant -- after a summer of reflection to change his mind -- wants more time with family and to watch his son play junior hockey.

Greg Logan says Gordon gave no hint of this change when he sat down to interview him this week for a feature; but if it was truly just Gallant's personal choice, that wouldn't be Gordon's place to announce it, anyway. Actually, if Gordon knew something was up, he could have pushed management for the announcement after that interview, effectively saying, "Look, I had to dance around this topic in the interview. Can we clear it up so I don't get off on the wrong foot with our lone beat reporter?"

No drama here. But until training camp starts (please, soon!), we're going to be parsing whatever bits of news that comes about. Now ... who will be Gordon's new assistant?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

DiPietro's rehab is on target, we hope

The thing that concerns me most about the Isles' upcoming season is, surprisingly, goaltending. I can buy that Scott Gordon will be a fine coach. I can buy that the powerplay should improve. I can buy that this is a necessary transition year -- yet I can even buy, over a strong beer or three, that they have a shot at the playoffs.

But I'm not sold on Joey MacDonald as our backup (admittedly, it's due to lack of data on my part). And last season made it clear that a) they need to limit Rick DiPietro's games, and b) they can only do that with a strong backup.

Enter the recent Newsday story about DiPietro's rehab. At first I thought it was a late-summer "we're overdue to run something on the Islanders. Seriously." fluff piece. But upon second glance, it reveals that DiPietro, after hip surgery and knee clean-up surgery, is "optimistic" that he'll be ready for opening night. This means training camp will be spent playing but perhaps taking it slow, rounding into form. And it implies that, at worst, our unproven backup starts opening night (not likely), or at best, our starter hopes to feel 100% for the first time only when the games start for real.

Not trying to make drama out of nothing here. But this could linger if we consider that the Isles need a good start for several reasons (the new coach, fan support, a chance at the playoffs, etc.), and that if DiPietro is not truly ready on opening night but plays anyway -- if he "rushes it" again -- we're in for a long season of wear and potential re-injury that could haunt him and the club.

We already went through that last year after the All-Star break. It wasn't fun.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The leftovers scroll by

At this point in early September, the curtains drawn late at night, succumbing to my hockey withdrawal to watch a Whalers-Bruins playoff series from the 1980s (man I miss the Whale), the NHL Network's "bottom line" provides a moment of levity with its team-by-team list of what it calls NHL "unsigned free agents."

With the exception of Mats Sundin, who doesn't seem to know which shirt he'll wear in the morning, and Teemu Selanne, who is waiting for the Ducks to screw yet another teammate -- er, I mean clear cap room -- to re-sign him, the scrolling list is a collection of down-on-their luck vets being pushed out by the wonderful cost certainty of youth. After tasting the good millions, suddenly to stay in the NHL, these vets must accept the pride dent of a training camp tryout and "only" six figures.

Former Islanders are well-represented in this scene. Sean Hill is there, even though he's signed with a team in Switzerland. Bryan Berard is no longer there, thanks to his Flyers invite. I know you're sorry to hear Brad Isbister is no longer there, having inked a two-way deal (ouch) with Ottawa. And Mark Parrish is there, having been bought out by his home state Wild from the silly deal that took him off the Island. I've wondered but didn't see Josef Vasicek listed -- maybe because he's signed on with the KHL's Lokomotiv, where he'll join a certain former Islanders captain who's still on our payroll.

These old vets are victims of the CBA, true, but also of something else: As the game of hockey's popularity and accessibility (for players) has increased, the pool of talented players has grown by far more than the number of jobs made available through NHL expansion. So for an NHL club, it is a fair bet to believe one of its many prospects can emerge to do a decent third- or fourth-line job for far cheaper than the veteran UFA looking for one final payday.

This is why I do not fear the KHL or European remigration: Thus far, they're mostly feeding on the "extra parts" pile of NHL veterans, which can be filled by the many kids who grow up dreaming of a chance at the Cup. And until North America's talented youth grow up dreaming of slipping on an ad-laden Bili Tygri Liberec jersey we're gonna be OK.

If that sounds a tad dismissive, it's not meant to be. It's a wonderful thing that NHL vets like Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, or Andrei Zyuzin can return home (or closer to home) to finish out their careers and reward their old fans. (Besides, if you're not an elite player, isn't it great that you no longer have to be a continent away from your family/roots just for the money?) Likewise, it's great that a guy like Wade Dubielewicz can see the world and make money playing hockey.

It's a win-win to me. So good luck to all the former NHLers exploring or returning to Europe. And good luck to all of the spry youngsters who get the chance to take their place.

Friday, September 5, 2008

File under 'Creepy'

Whoa. Former NHL agent David Frost, awaiting trial for charges of sexual exploitation, has had his bail amended in a Canada court to enable him to leave the country to attend Phoenix Coyotes training camp and "monitor the progress" of Adam Keefe.

How does that happen?

You may remember Frost's association with Keefe's brother, Sheldon. He's also the agent who had the, um, uncomfortable representation of Mike Danton, the former Devils/Blues forward who's in prison for arranging to have Frost killed. Danton was likewise estranged from his family and had his surname changed. I think you catch the vibe that surrounds Frost.

I occasionally play rec hockey at the rink where Danton met the teenage rink girl through whom he eventually found a prospective "hit man" (it was an undercover cop), and I still think of that bizarre scenario whenever I walk into the place. It drives home again how predators who take advantage of young, vulnerable adolescents are bad, bad people; they have a knack for finding the easiest prey.

Kudos to Coyotes GM Don Maloney for coming out and forcefully saying Frost isn't welcome. (Warning to Maloney: Frost generally doesn't take "no" for an answer, so this could get ugly.)

On that note, I must admit it's nice to see Maloney at the helm somewhere. Of course his tenure in Long Island was "rough" to say the least -- I still have a wound from the Turgeon/Muller fiasco -- I must admit he was thrust into the role early in his post-playing career and at a difficult time for the franchise. Since his firing, years spent as a scout and assistant GM -- paying his dues like he did as a player -- earned him another chance. That's fair enough.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Wang accused by ex-Isles co-owner

The elephant in the room has returned.
Kumar alleges Wang "insisted that CA 'stonewall" the government probe of CA, arguing it would eventually "go away."

... Kumar said he and Wang had a major falling out after Kumar introduced a new business model in 2000, alleging Wang "was regretting giving up the CEO title." So Wang fired him over breakfast in November 2001, he alleges, though CA's board reaffirmed Kumar's post at a subsequent meeting.
Kumar is in a position to want to help anyone to lighten his 12-year prison sentence, so the credibility of his accusations will likely always be in question. That said, it always made me nervous that Kumar was to be "in the joint" while Wang hangs on to the Islanders, giving Kumar an axe to grind. If nothing else, it means accusations like this might resurface at any time.

What is Tampa Bay doing?

As the down time before training camp drags on, we turn our thoughts to other teams, any teams...

Have you asked yourself this offseason what, pray tell, the Tampa Bay Lightning are doing? I sure have. Forget for a moment the scent of irregularity that surrounds their new ownership group. And forget about hiring the coach who's been doing TV for the past decade-plus.

I'm thinking about their philosophy for building their team. Defense seems to have been forgotten; goaltending is an unproven gamble; money is stashed in some interesting areas. As I recall, offense was not why they finished 30th overall last year, yet they spent the summer throwing around money and term (seven years to Ryan Malone?!) around at forwards and ... offensive defensemen.

Honestly, if the Lightning do well, I think it's good for the league. It's a good market that shows up for its team, and Barry Melrose is a character who even casual, SportsCenter-watching Americans know. If he comes off looking good, feeling cocky, dropping silly or blunt quotes, it would be the kind of attention the league needs south of the border. Plus, any team that excels on the basis of offense-first will be a marketer/televiser's dream.

But I'm not sold on The Plan, such as it is.

Admittedly, when it comes to team-building, I'd trend toward the conservative, asset-accumulation model. I'd stockpile my younger assets (check) and be wary of the free-agent route to instant gratification. I'd be frightened by the exchange rate-aided rise in the salary cap (i.e. NHL revenues) and would choose very carefully before committing 2008-cap-level cash on several future years of: a) a power forward (Malone) who took a long time to peak and is likely to decline by the second half of his deal; b) a young offensive defenseman whose defense, reportedly, leaves much to be desired when not paired with Zdeno the Giant.

Not to mention shafting defensive leader Dan Boyle and replacing him with the hardly equivalent Matt Carle, plus the gratuitous addition of Gary Roberts, who appeared last season -- particularly in the playoffs -- to be running on Angry Veteran Fumes.

It's not just that Andrei Mezsaros is a somewhat questionable (if consistent) commodity; it's that the Lightning don't appear to have the kind of partner -- like Chara -- who can bring out his max value. It's not that Mezsaros is now overpaid for his potential contribution, it's that the Lightning handed him max value when he was still in his cost-conrolled, RFA years. I understand that is arguably the trend these days -- but it should only be a tactic for hanging on to your can't-lose assets (Vincent Lacavalier, Alex Ovechkin, etc.). If you're tossing away your leverage for third-year non-star RFAs, what category of player (who matters) will you ever have contract leverage over?

In goal -- and I cannot believe how any contender wannabe would scrimp on this position (yet there, too, are the Sens) -- the Lightning have Olaf Kolzig, whose career has become a Greek tragedy: all those great years loyally wasted on a subpar team, and now that the Caps are good, last season he could no longer carry them. More importantly they have Mike Smith, who is a defensible gamble -- but unproven! And should Smith falter, they have to rely on Kolzig, because they don't have the cap room to acquire someone like Nikolai Khabibulin. And of course, it was the abject neglect of this position, letting the Bulin Wall walk, that originally spiraled them from Cup winners into last season's mess.

Naturally, I may be wrong (Their season will be entertaining either way). Maybe Smith is the real deal, Mazseros just needs a stable partner, Malone continues to grow, Carle rises to a new level, and Melrose defies the critics who think he is not prepared to coach the 21st-century game. In a way, I kind of hope I am wrong.

But if I were a Lightning fan, I wouldn't bank on it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Capitals Retire Mike Gartner's 11

Without knowing the pulse of longtime Capitals' fandom, retiring Make Gartner's #11 seems fitting (if tardy?) enough. Gartner entered the Hall of Fame in 2001. He was the franchise's all-time leading scorer when he left (Peter Bondra broke his career Capitals marks, though Gartner still ranks sixth all-time in the NHL in goals). Funny that six players have worn #11 since, including Bob Carpenter, Esa Tikkanen and Jeff Halpern.

When I'm reminded that Dale Hunter's number was retired first, I cringe. Can't help it: I'm an Islanders fan and also generally opposed to dirty play, so Hunter's legacy to me is, at minimum, "mixed." But while they retired as players just a year apart, Hunter's decade as a Cap came mostly after Gartner's, so Hunter's number retirement probably had more resonance with current fans. And obviously, despite Gartner's gaudy numbers, Hunter's, um, "style" of play was the kind that struck fans' deeper, more primitive emotions. (I know, I know: "You had to be there. He was a leader," etc.)

Gartner was swapped to the North Stars for Dino Ciccarelli in 1988-89. Larry Murphy and Bob Rouse also changed hands, making it one of those classic "shake-up" asset swaps that just don't happen anymore. Pretty incredible to think that in one trade, the North Stars acquired two Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers, and within two seasons they'd shipped both of them out.

When I think of Gartner, I think of his classic hockey Schnurrbart. I think of him streaking down the wing in that red Cooper helmet. I think of the 15 consecutive seasons of 30+ goals ruined by the lockout. I think of his curious 1985-86 trading card, where he was stretching his leg on the boards in warmup, with the bottom of his skate blade in the immediate foreground. I think of him continuing to rack up goals with Minnesota and then the Rangers. I think of him at the end, cleanly shaven, a white upper lip where the hockey Schnurrbart should be.

But I also think of him as one of those guys who just missed out on a Stanley Cup. The guy who goes the wrong way in a deadline deal to get the "final piece" of the puzzle. Does he ever dwell on that fate? Isn't it cruel that after enduring -- and scoring -- for three years with the up-and-down Rangers, he was shipped away during their Cup-winning year for a fellow Hall of Fame winger who already had five Cup rings?

Maybe Gartner was too good a guy. Maybe Messier wanted "his people" in the trenches. Maybe Mike Keenan wanted "proven playoff performers" (Note: the previous time the Rangers made the playoffs, Gartner had 8G, 8A in 13 games). Who knows with the bizarre dynamics of that Ranger management/locker room atmosphere. But if I'm Gartner, I'm thinking "we'd" have still won the Cup without making that trade.

On that note, the defensemen in that original Capitals-North Stars deal, Rouse and Murphy, each went on to win Cups with other clubs. Gartner and Ciccarelli, of course, just missed. Hockey careers -- and the myths we build around them -- can be funny like that.