On Trade Deadline Day 2007, the Islanders made a bold statement to their fans and the rest of the league that the organization would no longer settle for mediocrity. Trading former first-round picks Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra, along with their 2007 first-round pick for Ryan Smyth was a loud and clear message that the fans would no longer be asked to look to the never ending future for a winner. I was happy. It was a clean break from the loser mentality that has plagued this franchise for far too long.
On Free Agent Day 2007, the Islanders received their death sentence. It hurt a bit that the lowly Capitals took away the Isles' two most underrated UFAs in Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov. It was a slap in the face when Jason Blake went to the Maple Leafs, the team that still leaves a horrible taste in fans' mouths from the 2002 playoffs. And even if one conceded that the Islanders never had a shot at the top trio of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, or Scott Gomez, their landings on the Flyers and Rangers were a tremendous blow to the body. But the knockout punch came when Ryan Smyth, the singular focus of the Islanders' efforts, ditched the Island for Denver. That's right. Not Toronto or Calgary. Denver.
So, to recap, gone from the Islanders' roster has lost four of its top six scoring forwards and its 2nd highest scoring defenseman. I do not blame the Islanders for letting go of Blake, but every other move is highly questionable. I also take the unpopular stance of disagreeing with the Yashin buyout. I understand that he will never live up to his salary. That is old news and I am past it. What I do know is that he would easily do is fade into the background, make no noise and play on the 2nd line, where he could almost guarantee you at least 70 points per season if healthy. I do not know the full extent of his perceived negative impact on the team or how much of his departure was to cater to Ryan Smyth, but I do know that that kind of production in a secondary role is extremely difficult to come by.
I followed all of these developments on TSN.ca's Free Agent Tracker and at the moment of the Smyth signing, the top two items were: "The Colorado Avalanche have signed winger Ryan Smyth..." and right under it, "The New York Islanders have signed winger Jon Sim..." I saved the image of my computer screen showing this, so that I will never forget the moment that signalled the beginning of the end for the Islanders.
The point of the day is that regardless of the Islanders' efforts, the franchise is doomed. It seems abundantly clear that star players want nothing to do with playing on Long Island. Quite frankly, it's hard to blame them. The Islanders consistently rank at the bottom of the league in attendance and play in a building that has existed since Richard Nixon was in office.
The fans are here, but they will not shell out money to see games for the novelty of it. They respond to winning. And if that was not enough of a problem in years past, the coming year will surely harken back to the lows of the late 90s. Charles Wang bought the New York Islanders with a vision to turn around the franchise and once again make it the pride of Long Island. He did this with the understanding that serious renovations to the rinky-dink Coliseum and surrounding area were necessary to make ownership a worthwhile venture. So far, he's held up his end of the bargain. Regardless of management decisions, he has put up a great deal of cash for this franchise, while monetary financial losses each and every year. It's been years since he unveiled his plans for the Lighthouse at Long Island project that would save the franchise, with seemingly no progress to speak of to this day. When you couple the state of the product on the ice with the financial realities off of it, I do not think it is a stretch to say that within a few years, the Islanders could be sold and moved.
I say all of this knowing that I risk drastic overstatements in not having that clairvoyant crystal ball. Maybe the team will turn things around this very offseason. Maybe the team will once again stun everyone and be successful, just as it was last year when many had the Islanders finishing last in the NHL. Maybe the team will be awful this year, but bounce back the following season better than it has been since the Cup years. But maybe I am right. Maybe the disaster I foresee for the upcoming season really is the beginning of the end.
A look at the roster should be proof enough of impending doom. The roster, as it currently stands as of 5 PM on July 2, 2007, combines for a cap hit in the ballpark of $25 million (including the lingering penalties for Alexei Yashin and Garth Snow), which falls well below the salary floor of $34.3 million for the 2007-2008 season. Some might not think much of that, but if one looks at the roster, there are not realistically many holes to fill.
There are no questions about goaltending. Wade Dubielewicz will deservedly get his shot as the permanent backup to 15-year franchise goalie Rick DiPietro.
On defense, there are six players solidly penciled in for the roster. I have little complaint with 5 of the top 6 defensemen being Brendan Witt, Radek Martinek, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Bruno Gervais, and Chris Campoli. Freddy Meyer is a solid 7 defenseman to have as an injury replacement. That leaves one signing needed for the backline and I imagine the Islanders will make a solid, unflattering choice to fill that hole left by the departures of Sean Hill and Tom Poti.
The horror starts when the roster evaluation gets to the offense, though. There are 9 spots spoken for as it is. What would be a great 3rd line in Trent Hunter, Mike Sillinger, and Jeff Tambellini must now act almost as a 1st line. The Islanders will look to acquire a center to use on the other scoring line between Miroslav Satan (who, despite dated salary comparisons, is far worse than Alexei Yashin) and Sean Bergenheim. Beyond that, the remaining 6 or 7 forward spots will consist of Jon Sim, Andy Hilbert, Shawn Bates, Richard Park, and either free agent signings, trade acquisitions, or prospects such as Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, and Petteri Nokelainen.
This entire forward class would lack a premier player - even if the Islanders signed two of the best remaining free agents - and would have almost no scoring depth. To make things worse, the Islanders are devoid of prospects with significant potential, save for Kyle Okposo on offense and Dustin Kohn on defense. The future, that up until July 1, 2007 looked very bright, seems more bleak than ever now. At least when the Islanders wore a fishsticks mascot on their chest, there was no reason to think the team should have any hope. The impact to the franchise's long-term survivial could be far more severe this time around.
For now, I will keep rooting for the Islanders. But unless Charles Wang, Garth Snow, Ted Nolan and the rest of the management-by-committee committee can pull something off that I cannot even fathom at this point, I might have to look for a new team to root for when the Islanders move to somewhere like Winnipeg, Hamilton, or Las Vegas.