30 Years Removed from Greatness: How the Islanders and Oilers Can Win Again
In May 1984, the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders faced off in their second straight Stanley Cup Final. The Islanders were a dynasty, having swept the Oilers the previous year to win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup championship. The Oilers were a dynasty in the making and would defeat the Islanders to win the first of five Cup titles in seven years.
That was the last time the Islanders and Oilers faced each other in the playoffs. In the 30 years since, both clubs have suffered long and painful declines. The Islanders missed the playoffs 16 times and are poised to do so again this year. The Oilers are about to miss the playoffs for the 14th time since winning their last Cup championship in 1990.
For both teams, the past three decades have been filled with false promise, considerable disappointment and endless rebuilding. It's testing the patience of their most loyal fans, who often see their hopes for renewal cruelly dashed.
The Islanders and Oilers not only share a culture of losing but also several problem areas. The following is a listing of eight key areas that must be addressed to put them back on the path to greatness, or at least respectability.
8. Improve Their Draft Selections in the Later Rounds
Since 2006, both clubs have done well selecting first-round talent. That's usually because their low placement in the standings assures them of a draft lottery pick. In recent years, the Oilers selected Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner, while the Islanders picked John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.
Over the same period, however, both clubs had less success finding decent roster talent in the subsequent rounds. Of the players drafted by the Oilers on their current roster, Jeff Petry (45th overall in 2006), Anton Lander (40th in 2009) and Martin Marincin (46th in 2010) weren't first-round picks.
The Islanders did a little better, selecting Travis Hamonic (pictured above, 53rd overall) and Matt Martin (148th) in 2008, along with Anders Nilsson (62nd), Casey Cizikas (92nd) and Anders Lee (152nd) in 2009.
Both clubs must do a better job scouting and drafting talent beyond the first round.
7. Get Stronger in the Faceoff Circle
Both clubs are in the bottom third this season in faceoff percentage. The Oilers are 20th at 49.0 percent, while the Isles sit 26th at 47.6 percent. Oilers third-line center Boyd Gordon (above, left) is among the league leaders in faceoff percentage (.573), but teammates Sam Gagner (.457) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (.423) are well behind him.
Frans Nielsen (.502) is the Isles' best faceoff man, followed by John Tavares (.491) and Casey Cizikas (.479).
Bolstering their faceoff percentage is crucial for future success, especially on the power play and penalty kill. Free-agent options for both clubs could include Jay McClement (.540), Mikhail Grabovski (.541), Vernon Fiddler (.532), Brian Boyle (.530) and Steve Ott (.532).
6. Find a Power Forward
Nearly all the NHL's top teams possess at least one big, physical forward with strong offensive skills. A good power forward can change the course of a game with a goal or a big hit. While the Oilers and Islanders possess several skilled players, they both lack a true power forward.
The dearth of power forwards available this summer via trade or free agency could force both clubs to seek solutions elsewhere. The Islanders could look toward rookie center Brock Nelson (pictured above) to possibly fill that role.
The Edmonton Journal's David Staples noted youngsters Nicholas Ritchie, Leon Draisaitl and Jake Virtanen are highly rated prospects in this year's NHL draft. Both clubs could pursue these youngsters as potential power forward options.
5. Boost Their Second-Line Scoring
As of March 19, the Islanders are currently 16th overall in goals per game (2.70) and 19th in power-play percentage (16.7 percent). Much of that production has come from John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and the recently traded Thomas Vanek.
The Oilers, meanwhile, are 22nd (2.47) and 20th (16.4) in those respective categories. Their scoring woes are partially due to Sam Gagner's early-season injury and Nail Yakupov's sophomore slump.
Both could improve next season. The Islanders have high hopes for promising forwards Ryan Strome (pictured above), Brock Nelson and Anders Lee.
Both clubs, however, could benefit from the addition of an experienced second-line forward. This summer's free-agent options could include Jarome Iginla, Ryan Callahan, Mikhail Grabovski, Brian Gionta, Olli Jokinen and Dave Bolland. Another free-agent option for the Islanders could be former Oiler and current Ottawa Senators winger Ales Hemsky.
4. Bolster Their Defense Corps
The Islanders lack experienced blue-line depth beyond Travis Harmonic and the ageing Lubomir Visnovsky. Young defensemen Calvin De Haan, Kevin Czuczman and Matt Donovan have promise but could benefit from experienced defense partners.
The Oilers also need defensive depth, particularly a true top-two defenseman. Acquiring one via trade or offer sheet, however, is extremely difficult. They've got some promising defenders in Justin Schultz (pictured above), Oscar Klefbom and prospect Darnell Nurse. They need experienced, skilled veterans to show these kids the ropes.
Free-agent targets for both clubs could include Montreal's Andrei Markov, Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Florida's Tom Gilbert or Boston's Andrej Meszaros. The Oilers were shopping Sam Gagner earlier this season and could use him as bait at the NHL draft for a defenseman. They could also shop their first-round pick.
3. Find a Reliable Starting Goaltender
In recent years, goaltending was a significant weakness for both teams. This season, the Oilers made moves to address this issue, acquiring Ben Scrivens from the Los Angeles Kings and Viktor Fasth from the Anaheim Ducks. Both have so far posted promising numbers with the Oilers. Time will tell if Scrivens or Fasth can become a reliable starting goaltender.
This season, the Isles put their faith in Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson. The trio has combined for this season's worst save percentage. The Islanders must find a significant upgrade this summer. Free-agent options include Ryan Miller and Jonas Hiller, but it's unlikely they'll sign with the Islanders.
A better fit could come through a trade. Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer could be their best bet, though he has a concussion history. Ottawa Senators netminder Craig Anderson could be another option.
2. Continuity Behind the Bench
The Islanders have made the playoffs only once during Jack Capuano's four seasons as head coach. There was speculation earlier this season he would be fired. The New York Post's Brett Cyrgalis reported management didn't fault him for the club's struggles. A series of injuries to key players this season significantly hampered the Isles' performance.
Last season, Capuano guided a healthier Isles roster to the team's first playoff berth in six years. He has the respect and loyalty of his players and deserves another chance next season.
Oilers rookie coach Dallas Eakins had his share of struggles this season. His club is currently mired down at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Of late, however, the Oilers are showing signs of improvement. From January 16 to March 16, their record was 9-7-4.
The Edmonton Sun's Terry Jones reports Eakins has management's full support. Having gone through five coaches in six years, it's worthwhile to give Eakins another shot next season.
1. Shake Up the Front Office
Mismanagement is largely responsible for the ongoing woes of both clubs. Last year, the Oilers hired Craig MacTavish as general manager. He pledged to make bold moves but has found it difficult delivering on that promise. It's too early to suggest replacing MacTavish. Given the club's poor drafting record beyond the first round, it may be worthwhile shaking up the scouting department.
Garth Snow's been the Islanders GM for eight seasons, a span during which they've made the playoffs twice. He gambled and lost earlier this season when he shipped Matt Moulson and two draft picks to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek and couldn't get a decent return for the latter at the trade deadline.
It's time for owner Charles Wang to replace Snow with someone from outside the Islanders' organization. He could try targeting the assistant general managers on several top teams. Possibilities include Boston's Jim Benning, Pittsburgh's Jason Botterill and St. Louis' Kevin McDonald.