The 'we'll be better next year' mantra has already started on Long Island. The season has 8 games remaining on 2009-2010, and the Islanders have almost solidified themselves with either a top-3 or top-5 pick in this year's upcoming draft. Throw in to the mix that Rick DiPietro has yet to play another game, allowing many to assume that his come back year may be shut down prematurely, forcing his resurgence to take on another season.
This team should be better next year. I believe they will be. I will go as far as saying that this Islanders team should make the playoffs next year, probably at the 7th or 8th seed. But that talk will have to wait until the summer.
Many critics who did not watch a lot of Islanders hockey this season will laugh. Sure, this year was an improvement. Instead of finishing dead last the team only moved to second to last, or third to last. But the fans that have watched this young team grow know what lies ahead on the horizon for the Islanders. There is a promising future on the Island and next year will definitely be a big step for the rebuild; it will be the first year of the end, marking the start of this team belonging to the likes of Okposo, Tavares, Moulson, Bailey, MacDonald, Hillen, Comeau and Nielsen.
Keep in mind that the Isles will draft another top player that will have the potential to be a future star. Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic, two players that may end up being two of the team's best top-4 defenseman, are likely only a year away from becoming NHL regulars.
But this summer will be time for General Manager Garth Snow to come through on the next step by finding a way to attract impact free agents.
Garth has done a great job finding diamond in the rough players such as Dwayne Roloson and Mark Streit. I have spoken to Ranger fans who are so frustrated that Ranger's GM Glen Sather signed Wade Redden to that long contract while the Isles locked up Streit for five years at an affordable price. Roly has hands down been the team's all-star of the year as well, keeping his team in every game in almost every start. Garth also did a good job by bringing in Doug Weight to play with Bill Guerin last year. He averaged almost a point-per-game for the first half of the season before being injured in his first year with the Isles. Re-signing him this past season was important as he provided valuable veteran leadership, despite missing the majority of the year.
But now it's time for Garth to add key pieces to the puzzle. There is no doubt that the blue line is thin. Martinek, Streit, MacDonald and Hillen are four players that will be on this team next year. Witt is likely to be traded or bought out this summer and Meyer is about to face free agency. With Hamonic and de Haan likely facing their first pro-season with Bridgeport next year, the Isles will have some gaps to fill. Assuming that Bruno Gervais will still be with the team despite many fans' displeasure, the Isles will likely want two defenseman on board for a total of seven since Martinek is almost a guaranteed injury. A shut down dman and offensive dman are needed. One to play the body like Andy Sutton did in front of the net, and the other to take the pressure off of Streit and to provide more offense from the back-end.
The young guys have taken over the offense but certainly could use a little help. Tavares had to go the entire season without any veteran prowess at the age of 19. He handled it pretty well, but there is no doubt in my mind that he could have done better if he played with someone that was more experienced than Okposo and Moulson. A top-six winger is needed, whether it be a guy like Paul Kariya or Alexander Frolov. The team can also use a bottom six winger that can play on the fourth line and provide some veteran assistance with readiness to drop the gloves. Hopefully Matt Martin will start the year with the big club. He too could use some seasoning from a guy that knows how to fight and play the game at the same time. Tim Jackman and Richard Park have ran their courses here, and it seems as if they may be on their way out this summer as UFA's.
So in a nutshell, the Isles can use two forwards and two defenseman as well as signing another goaltender to play with Roloson since Rick's health is about as stable as the economy. Biron is fine by me. If he chooses to find another home, there will be other affordable options.
Wang has told Snow that he has permission to spend some money this year. Many are speculating that the increase in parking to 10 and 15 dollars, depending on where you wish to park, is a sign that management is planning on making a splash. Scott Gordon has told fellow blogger Dee Karl in an interview she conducted that he is very excited about what his team will be capable of next year. Fans that have watched them play from October to now know that this team is better than a bottom-five pick. There has been significant improvement, and a little help from free agency can propel this team even further.
It will be up to Garth to lure the attractive players here. Long Island is a great place to live. Many players that once put on the NYI jersey end up returning. Miro Satan was skating at Ice Works in Syosset, the Islanders practice facility, before signing with the Boston Bruins. Mark Parrish was doing the same as he is still close with guys like Eric Cairns and Garth Snow. He even signed a try-out contract with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers last year before the Dallas Stars offered him an NHL deal. Even former NHL players and Islander fan-favorites like Benoit Hogue still play here. Many friends of mine have skated with him in Long Island men's league games. Long Island can be a hockey hot bed, but a lot of that depends on the movement of the Lighthouse Project.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor, Kate Murray plans on having the revamped proposal for Wang by Memorial Day. It is uncertain on whether or not he will accept the greatly scaled down version of his original plans for the renovation and expansion of Nassau Coliseum. His other options, such as Brooklyn and Queens, seem very unlikely, and it is not expected for an outside buyer to step up and purchase the team to keep them in Long Island. In addition, Gary Bettman is not a fan of moving NHL franchises and has been a supporter of the Lighthouse Project from day one. Many predict that selling the team to an owner that wishes to move the hockey club will be a downgrade for Wang's profits as opposed to accepting Murray's offer. Plus, even if he wishes to work with Murray's new proposal, negotiations may ensue, thus delaying the process even further.
I am not one for Long Island politics and usually leave it to bloggers such as Chris Botta, Dee Karl, Mike Schurlein and B.D. Gallof to handle those stories, as they both do excellent jobs on the topic. Most of the information I have just provided have been from articles written by them.
But as you can see, a lot of questions still circle around Long Island which may scare away many UFA's despite the benefits of a young, upcoming hockey team in an area that many players have loved.
It's up to Garth to find a way to sprinkle in those free agents he talked about since he started the plan on Day 1. July 1st will be his first chance to show what he is truly capable of as the General Manager of the New York Islanders.
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