Thursday, January 31, 2008

Buyers or Sellers?

This past Tuesday I sat in a relatively barren NYI Blog Box (just me and Dee from 7th Woman Blog, more on that later) in a relatively barren Coliseum (a disappointing post-All Star crowd) watching an uninspiring loss to the Senators. As I sat there in all that empty space, numb to any of the normal excitement I get attending a game, my mind started churning. I started thinking about the work I needed to do later that night for my "real" job, the renovations I'm doing to my house. Eventually my thoughts returned to hockey (although not on the game at hand) and I started pondering the upcoming trade deadline. My internal dialogue was raging with the age old debate...

Buyers or Sellers?

For a team that consistently finds itself right on the precipice of a playoff berth, this is always a tough question to answer. Are we one or two pieces away from making a serious run at the Cup (and, if so, do we have the resources to acquire those pieces) or are we better off unloading some of our resources with an eye towards the future? To me, there are four key elements to examine in answering this question.

1. The DiPietro factor - as every hockey fan knows, any team with a hot goaltender (not looks-wise, ladies) can make a serious run at the Cup. DiPietro loves the big stage and is capable of carrying this team on his shoulders. From that perspective, perhaps the addition of one or two scorers can get us to that next level and make us a real threat in the East. Let's be honest, Ottawa aside, is there anyone in the East that scares you? If we can capture the #7 seed or better and avoid a first-round matchup with the Sens, anything could happen.

2. The 2008 free agent pool - we currently have a good amount of room under the salary cap, and we have 9 UFAs that may potentially come off of our roster at the end of the season. It would take a crystal ball to even hazard a guess as to what this team will look like next year. But clearly the quality of the upcoming free agent pool, coupled with Snow's ability to land the guys he wants (old arena, wah wah wah), will have a big impact on what he opts to do at this year's deadline. While I follow the Isles very closely, my knowledge of the broader list of UFAs throughout the league is limited. But certainly, this is a big factor.

3. Confidence in our prospects - this can impact things in several ways. On one hand, you could argue that we could move some of our veterans at the deadline (e.g. Comrie, Satan, Fedotenko) and back-fill them with some of our young guys (e.g. Tambellini, Nielson, Okposo) and still make a run into the playoffs. In doing so we could acquire some prospects, rebuild our farm system, and unload players we likely would lose or let go at the end of the year anyway. On the other hand, if our confidence in these rookies is not that high, we could still go this route with an eye towards simply acquiring prospects for the future. Or, on the third hand, if the confidence is not high but we feel like we can make a run at the Cup this year with our current team, we would opt to stay put and let things play out.

4. Talent available via trade - so this one is a no-brainer. Obviously the quality of the players available, coupled with their contract status, will have a big impact. The standings are so tight, it's bound to make things interesting this year. There isn't a clear list of "sellers", as most teams rightfully believe they have a shot at the playoffs. There will no doubt be a few marquee names in the mix (e.g. Mats Sundin) but it's hard to ascertain just how deep the candidates will run.

I'm sure we could add a dozen more items to this list, but these are the ones I have been thinking about.

So what do I think should happen between now and Feb 26th? As usual I'm on the fence. But if I were GM, which is a scary thought by the way, I'd be more inclined to be a seller at this year's deadline. We have a number of pending UFAs that could be attractive throughout the league, most of whom I would classify as unlikely to be resigned by the Isles. And since I would say our realistic chances for the Cup this year are slim, why not stockpile some prospects for these guys while we can? And frankly, I'm of the belief that we could probably backfill these roster spots with guys like Tambellini and Nielson and probably not see too big a drop-off in scoring. In fact, I could argue that things might get better, but that's a topic for a different post. What I can say with confidence is that we won't make the same kind of splash we did last year. And based on the way things turned out from that, that's not a bad thing.

Kudos to Dee - for those that missed it, just wanted to say "great job" to Dee from the 7th Woman Blog for representing the Blog Box so well during her in-game interview with CJ Papa. Despite her self-deprecating comments in her blog, she handled things well and spoke highly of all of the writers contributing to the Blog Box.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

D is for Depth

Chris Campoli is done for the season. I fear I put the jinx on him by awarding the "most pleasant surprise of the year" to the development of him and Gervais, in my previous post. It's like talking about a no-hitter, you don't do it unless you want it to end. So my apologies to all Islanders fans, and to Bruno....BE CAREFUL!

But this is where the Isles much discussed defensive depth pays off. And it puts a spotlight on an unheralded story, the phoenix-like rising (no pun intended from his brief days as a Coyote) of Freddy Meyer, aka The Fabulous Fourth. Coming into this season, I was not a Meyer fan. I had no reservations when I learned he was plucked off of waivers by the Coyotes. Weeks later, after not cracking the mighty Phoenix lineup, we grabbed him back and I was left scratching my head. Now here we are, 19 games later, and his inspired play is proving me wrong. In fact, he was recently granted a 2 year extension, helping to solidify his place on our blueline. So congratulations to Freddy, who seemed to take all the ups-and-downs in stride, and is making the most of his second chance.

Now, some notes on last night's 6-3 victory in Carolina...

- Good resolve shown by the team in bending, but not breaking, with a 2 goal lead late in the third. After blowing two goal leads the previous two games, they allowed Carolina to get within one before snapping out of it. And it's a good thing, can forgive such gaffes for a couple games, but when it hits three it becomes a trend. And trends can be hard to break.

-Nice to see Dubie back in form. Even as a Dubie supporter I couldn't help but wonder if his poor play earlier this season was simply indicative of his lack of playing time, or attributable to something more fundamental. His play over his last few starts has answered that question. He's as solid a backup we've had (with apologies to Garth) since DP supported Osgood.

-Finally, 3 shorthanded goals! What more can I say?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mid-season Awards

Before I jump into my mid-season awards, here's a quick plea to the local NY media...

Football season is almost over (as a Giants fan, hopefully not until after Feb 3), the Knicks are a trainwreck, and juiceball doesn't start until how about we see an increase in hockey coverage over the next few months? We've got three local teams in the playoff mix, and some interesting stories associated with each. You can help create an appetite for the sport by improving your coverage of it.

OK, I'll get off my soapbox. Now onto my random awards:

MVP - Rick DiPietro. OK, so this one is a no-brainer, and not even worth expanding upon. Or so you would think, but leave it to Al Trautwig of the illustrious Hockey Night Live! to disagree. He chose Bill Guerin as the Islanders MVP, bolstering the claim that he either doesn't know or doesn't care about Islanders hockey. I guess when you work in close proximity to Isiah Thomas, the insanity can be contagious.

Most Pleasant Surprise - the development of Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais. There was widespread support from the fans before the start of the season to cut ties with one or both of these guys to make room for Bryan Berard. I made my feelings to the contrary clear back in August. I'm glad to say, I was right (something which doesn't happen every day). Both players have raised their games to the next level this year, and continue to show improvement on both ends of the ice.

Least Pleasant Surprise - the disappearing act of Mike Comrie. Part of me hesitates being overly critical of our leading point scorer, a guy who has 50% more points than our #2 scorer. So the fact that he wins this award despite that speaks volumes. My concern at the start of the year was that he was going to take advantage of his one-year deal to put up monster numbers and then jump ship to a more competitive team. After all, this was the chance he's been waiting for - to be a #1 center in the NHL. Unfortunately, rather than work hard every shift to make the most of this opportunity, he's become prone to disappearing for long stretches. Also, he has a unique issue with skating - his speed moving towards the offensive zone is easily double that of his speed coming back to help out defensively. It's an odd phenomenon, but no doubt a big contributor to his team worst minus 12 rating.

Biggest Bummer - the injury to Jon Sim. I think Billy Jaffe is a good analyst, and so when I heard him say that Jon Sim had one of the best wrist shots in the league I took notice. Plus, his style of play seemed a great complement to the Sillinger line, and I was excited to see if they could be even more productive than last season. Unfortunately his season ended in the home opener, and perhaps not coincidentally the Sillinger line has failed to click thus far in the season.

First UFA to Sign to an Extension - Trent Hunter. We have 9 unrestricted free agents on our roster. They are: Hunter, Comrie, Vasicek, Fedotenko, Satan, Simon, Berard, Meyer, and Dubielewicz. At various points this season, Comrie, Vasicek, and Fedotenko all looked like "must sign" players, but over time much of that luster has worn. By a small margin, I choose Hunter. Last year, he was hands-down my favorite player on the team. Despite a disappointing year thus far, he's the first guy in the group I'd sign.

Best and Worst Trend of the Year - celebrities at the Coliseum. Kevin Connolly, the Duff sisters, Pat Sajak (??!!??)...what to make of this? I guess any exposure is good exposure. Plus I did get a kick out of watching Connolly seemingly challenge a Toronto fan to a fight. He's not a big guy, but it's easy to be bold when you have 15,000 people behind you.

That's it for the First Annual Islanders 360 Random Mid-Season Awards show. Due to the writer's strike, the ceremonies will not be televised this year.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Chance To Get It Right

When the puck drops tonight in Binghamton, the Kyle Okposo era will officially begin. In doing so, the Islanders organization will be taking a huge step forward. At least that is what I'm led to believe by so many of the journalists, bloggers, and fans who have been eagerly awaiting his arrival since the day we drafted him in 2006. Even the simple use of the phrase "Kyle Okposo Era" is burdened with so much inherent expectation, I'm worried we're setting up this talented young player for failure from the outset.

I'm not down on KO by any means. To be honest, all I've seen of him are a handful of You Tube highlights and some clips from Draft Day '06. From what I've seen and read, he seems like the real deal. But in a world where perception is reality, what is it going to take for Okposo to be considered a success for the Islanders?

I think the shift in perception from Okposo being a talented pick to a potential franchise savior started during last year's trading deadline. Buried in all the excitement of Ryan Smyth's arrival was the clear statement to the rest of the league that Okposo was "untouchable" and not available in any trade, no matter how attractive it may be. For many fans, most of whom had not (and still have not) seen Okposo play even one shift, this high-potential power forward began to develop a reputation distinctly different from those picks that came before him. Even casual fans knew his name, and the inevitable comparisons to some of the top power forwards in the league grew more pronounced.

A greater factor in the canonization of Kyle Okposo is attributable to the team he is joining. Without rehashing our organization's painful mismanagement of top draft picks, clearly this is a team that hasn't seen a top pick make an impact with the Islanders in a very long time. Obviously DP is the exception to that rule, but even that success is dampened by the events surrounding it (as much as we love DP, wouldn't we rather have Luongo and Heatley?). I believe that so many view this as our chance to get it right. A step towards erasing our memories of all of the top picks we passed on, traded away, or failed to develop. And that is exactly why I'm concerned. Nothing will change what has happened, and we need to be sure we don't put the burden of the last 15+ years on this man's shoulders.

For me, I'll be tracking his progress with great excitement just like anyone else. But when I watch him play, I won't be seeing the ghosts of Luongo, Spezza, Nilsson, Heatley and all the other "what-ifs" that populate the fringes of our past. I'll just be watching Kyle Okposo, a man who I hope will one day be a strong contributor to our team.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Top 5 Games (so far...)

Happy New Year to all! Let's start 2008 by taking a look back at my favorite games of the season thus far.

#5 11-28-07 Islanders 3, Senators 2 (SO) - this game makes the list primarily because it marked our first victory over the Sens since 2004. But beyond that, it was a pretty exciting game in and of itself. Ottawa tied the game with under 2 minutes to go in regulation, leaving this Isles fan convinced that he'd have to wait another 4 years to see a win against the mighty Senators. Things looked all the more dim when Ottawa was granted a 4-on-3 power play in the OT session and sent out four forwards - Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Mike Fisher - to finish the job. The Isles PK was strong, as it has been virtually all season, and the game went to a shootout. Alfredsson put Ottawa up 1-0 and it came down to the Bill Guerin, the Isles final shooter, to tie it up. As we all know, he did and the shootout continued for six rounds, with Mike Sillinger scoring the eventual game winner.

#4 10-06-07 Islanders 3, Sabres 2 - there's always something special about the home opener, especially when the Isles win. The game completed the sweep of the home-and-home series with the Sabres to open the season. The game had a very different feel from the previous night's game, and the Isles played a much tighter team defense in relation to the free-for-all witnessed in Buffalo. Mike Comrie had us all talking "contract extension" with his second two-goal game in a row. For me personally, it was my first game in the NYI Blog Box and the start of an exciting experience.

#3 09-24-07 Islanders 5, Rangers 4 (OT) - normally a preseason game would have no shot at cracking the Top 5, but in this case I have to make an exception. In fairness, it can barely be called a hockey game. It was the type of night that validates the old joke "I was at a fight and a hockey game broke out". If you were there, you'll never forget it, especially watching DP throw left hooks into Al Montoya's head. I'm not normally into excessive fighting in games, but no can argue that the energy in the Coliseum that night was anything but electric. And let's not forget that the Isles came back from a 4-1 deficit to win the game in OT. It showed a lot of character for a team looking for an identity.

#2 12-26-07 Islanders 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) - the most recent game on my list, Steve Mears referred to it as the "game of the year" during his post-game comments. The return of Jason Blake to the Coliseum was overshadowed by the game itself, specifically the overtime. Richard Park's hooking penalty ignited a flurry of Toronto chances, with Wade Dubielewicz making one phenomenal save after another. The Isles survived the onslaught and Park was able to redeem himself by poke-checking the puck from Blake to lead a rush down ice, resulting in Comrie knocking home Park's rebound with 9.6 seconds left on the clock. The fan reaction was the most exuberant I've seen all year.

#1 11-03-07 Islanders 3, Penguins 2 - Al Arbour night. I won't go into too much detail, as I've already covered the game in a previous blog entry. In short, it was a magical night and a great experience for all in attendance. A fantastic game, and a great tribute to one of the all-time greats in NHL history.

Feel free to share your favorites in the Comments section. And here's hoping the best is yet to come.