From Victors to Vanquished: An Overlook of Islander Hockey From The Mid ’90s Until The Present Day

During the late twentieth century, the National Hockey League experienced some substantial growth as expansion franchises were added into the league. While many expansion franchises experienced various forms of success, the New York Islanders became the toast of New York City by winning four Stanley Cups throughout the 1980s. However, the reign and dynasty of the New York Islanders was brought to an abrupt end as the team struggled with managerial changes and an inability to secure developing talent during the 1990s. Even though the New York Islanders returned to the playoffs at the turn of the millennium, ownership woes and questionable managerial decisions transformed a once proud franchise into a measuring stick for failure.

The success of the New York Islanders in the 1980s was marred by incompetent ownership during the mid-1990s and into the modern day. After a miracle playoff run during the 1993 season, the 1994 New York Islanders were quickly ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers. While long time owner John O. Pickett allowed the Islanders to develop into a contender throughout the 1980s, his commitment to the franchise waned in the mid-1990s as he entrusted the franchise to executives and employees who were simply uninterested in the future of the New York Islanders. While players such as Pat Lafontaine, Pierre Turgeon, Steve Thomas, and Ray Ferraro helped to ease the fans’ transition into the new decade and guided the Islanders’ spectacular 1993 postseason run, many of the aforementioned players were lost due to trades, free agency, and contract disputes. Individuals such as Bill Torrey and Al Arbour stayed dedicated to the franchise until the 1994 season and then General Manager Don Maloney began a process of rebuilding that the New York Islanders have not recovered from.

After a lockout shortened 1995 season, Don Maloney started the dismantling of the New York Islanders as he traded players such as Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov to the Montreal Canadiens for Kirk Muller. While Muller was thoroughly despised by fans and management for not wanting to play and help the rebuilding process on Long Island, Maloney’s hiring of Mike Milbury as the coach of the 1995-1996 New York Islanders had various ramifications. Don Maloney’s stay on Long Island was brief and he was eventually replaced by Mike Milbury, an individual who was twice replaced as the coach of the New York Islanders. Milbury’s reign was hindered by an ownership that refused to keep paying players such as Zigmund Palffy, but Milbury’s draft day acquisitions and questionable trades pushed the Islanders further out of contention and into the doldrums of the Atlantic Division. Players such as Zdeno Chara, Olli Jokinen, Roberto Luongo, Bryan McCabe, and Todd Bertuzzi were just a few of the talented names that were drafted to become Islanders stars, only to end up enjoying their careers elsewhere.

While Milbury consistently made trades that rarely benefited the Islanders, new ownership in the forms of Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar allowed Milbury to field a squad that would fight for playoff contention in the Eastern Conference. Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar enabled Mike Milbury to spend money that he had not previously had at his disposal. Both of the entrepreneurs made their money through their successes at Computer Associates and were not perpetuating a fraud such as the one that was committed by John Spano when he attempted to purchase the New York Islanders in the 1990s. Milbury’s first move under new ownership was to acquire star forward Alexei Yashin from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for defenseman Zdeno Chara and a future first round pick that turned out to be a center by the name of Jason Spezza. Milbury also acquired players such as Michael Peca, Chris Osgood, Mark Parrish, and Jason Blake, all individuals that briefly revived the winning culture on Long Island. The emigration of talent from Long Island was briefly forgotten as the Islanders fought for playoff positioning throughout the early 2000s. However, the Islanders never made it out of the first round of the playoffs under Mike Milbury and one of the few shining moments of the playoffs came off the stick of forward Shawn Bates, who converted the first penalty shot in Islanders history to force a decisive Game 7 with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Center.

Despite losing their seven game series to Toronto in 2001, the Islanders were expected to build off of a year that featured marked improvement and re-established faith in the fans. However, the Islanders did not come close to winning a playoff series in the future as teams such as the Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Buffalo Sabres quickly dispatched the lower seeded Islanders. Milbury traded fan favorites such as Chris Osgood and the Islanders were eventually forced to buy-out Alexei Yashin’s ninety million dollar contract. While Milbury depended on the likes of unproven prospects such as Rick DiPietro, the lockout of the 2004-2005 NHL season made matters worse. The lockout and the subsequent rule changes that were stipulated for the 2005-2006 season changed the NHL into a much speedier and quicker league that allowed smaller and faster players to maximize their skill sets. Scoring in transition became the focus of the post-lockout NHL and the Islanders once again failed to adjust to a new era. After an unremarkable 2005-2006 season, Mike Milbury was finally released of his GM duties in favor of the Stanley Cup winning Neil Smith, who only lasted a mere forty-one days before being fired. Even though Smith’s replacement, former backup goaltender Garth Snow, was looked upon with scrutiny in NHL circles, Snow and owner Charles Wang promised a commitment to the future of hockey on Long Island.

Garth Snow’s first year as the General Manger of the New York Islanders featured an improbable push for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and the acquisition of well known and respected players such as Ryan Smyth and Richard Zednik. Spurred on by amazing goaltending from backup Wade Dubielewicz during the final four game stretch of the season, the Islanders secured a playoff spot but were ousted by the first seeded Buffalo Sabres. Once again, the Islanders were poised to build off of their success in the post-lockout NHL, but turmoil ensued next season as gritty head coach Ted Nolan was fired for a difference in philosophy. While the Islanders made the playoffs for the 2006-2007 season, their team was largely filled with mercenaries and older players who were not a fit for long term success. Snow’s dedication to the future was evidenced as he fired Ted Nolan and embarked upon a rebuilding process through the NHL amateur draft. The newer and faster NHL game that the lockout had brought about forced Snow to re-evaluate the talent on Long Island as he hired Scott Gordon to coach a franchise that was young, inexperienced, and struggled to find an identity in the post-lockout era.

After a couple of seasons that were finished in the confines of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, Garth Snow stockpiled young talent such as Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau, Kyle Okposo, John Tavares, Travis Hamonic, and Calvin De Haan. Snow’s prowess on waiver wire transactions also earned him praise as he plucked players such as Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner off of waivers in order to add some much needed depth on the Island. However, the situation on Long Island further deteriorated and this was evidenced throughout various offseasons in which the Islanders threw money at big name free agents such as Dan Hamhuis and Christian Ehrhoff, only to be snubbed for less money and an ability to play in a more productive atmosphere. While Garth Snow and Charles Wang remain accountable for the extended misery on Long Island, past ownership and a losing environment have made Long Island an eye-sore for established players.

Even though a commitment to rebuilding through the NHL draft paid some dividends when the Islanders finished amongst the top point earners in the second half of last season, the team rapidly regressed from the absence of physical and vocal leaders such as Zenon Konopka and Trevor Gilles. Many analysts pegged the New York Islanders for improvement in the current NHL season, but the team mired itself in another woeful losing streak early on in the season. While the blame might fall on head coach Jack Capuano, the Islanders have exposed themselves to be a young team that will still go through many growing pains.

After years of irrelevance, upper management also becomes responsible at some point and must be held accountable for their inability to lure free agents and draft formidable long-term talent through the NHL draft. While Garth Snow has done the most that many GMs in his position would be able to do, the future of hockey on Long Island looms heavily, especially with Nassau County voting down a project that would keep the Islanders in Uniondale for the foreseeable future. With the lease on Nassau Coliseum running out in 2015, Garth Snow and Charles Wang must right a ship that has been slowly and painfully sinking into obscurity. The New York Islanders have certainly become faster and younger, but their mismanagement continues as the team cannot readily establish a healthy and consistent starting goaltender.

Rick DiPietro’s fifteen year contract remains a hindrance to the team and the organization is still paying the buyout of Alexei Yashin’s contract, an action that helps the team barely reach the cap floor. Head coach Jack Capuano steered the team to a strong second half finish in the 2010-2011 season, but will constantly be on the hot seat unless the Islanders can pull themselves out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. While the Islanders own one of hockey’s most lucrative cable television deals, Charles Wang continues to lose money on the Islanders and Long Island residents as well as Islander fans alike might soon be deprived of the only professional sports franchise on Long Island. Even though the Islanders remain at the bottom of the Eastern Conference throughout the current NHL season, their predicament could be resolved if ownership and upper management can produce a winning product in the years before their lease at Nassau Coliseum expires.

While the Islanders have shown flashes of brilliance during the current 2011-2012 NHL season, they have also shown why they are a developing product. The team sometimes struggles to find their groove early on in games and have relinquished many leads in the third period, especially when leading by wide margins. The goaltending carousel of Evgeni Nabokov, Rick DiPietro, and Al Montoya was a huge problem as the team could not get comfortable with a goalie that was starting games on a consistent basis. The Isles have also struggled to score consistently and the defensive core has been responsible for spotty play. While players such as Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan are up and coming defenseman with much potential, there are many holes in the Islander’s lineup that must be plugged. The team obviously feels very comfortable playing with Al Montoya in goal, but the goalie is out with a concussion that he sustained from a hit by Evander Kane. Recent callup Anders Nilsson is a work in progress, but it is absolutely befuddling as to why Kevin Poulin was not recalled instead since he has shown that he is more NHL ready than the Swedish netminder. Islanders management will be under the microscope for the rest of the season as the possible release of Jack Capuano could undoubtedly prompt questions about Garth Snow’s stay as the General Manager of a failing franchise.

However, one thing has been made abundantly clear, the Islanders MUST win in order to stay in Long Island. There has always been a tradition and a hockey culture on Long Island and the sport is definitely cherished by the fans, but the loyalty of these same fans has been tested every single year for over a decade and attendance figures have suffered as a result. The young Islander core will continue to develop and build upon their chemistry, but it will ultimately be up to upper management to secure additional talent for the young core to mature into a finished product.