When the New York Islanders announced the signing of Rick DiPietro to a 15-year, $67.5 million contract back in September of 2006, it raised a lot of eyebrows not only in the NHL circle, but the world of sports as well.
The reaction for the most part was disbelief. Charles Wang and Mike Milbury decided that DiPietro was a sure thing, a goaltender who had ability far and above most in the league. He was a No. 1 overall selection, had catlike reflexes, an uncanny ability to play the puck and a great personality to boot—the perfect candidate to make the face of your franchise and build your team around.
The Islanders organization would tell you that it was a can't-lose situation. DiPietro would be well worth the $4.5 million he would be paid per season, considering that he would be an elite goaltender who should be making at least $7 million a season when he reached his prime. Not only were they holding on to a franchise player for 15 years, they would be making a wise business move. How could this possibly go wrong? Well, it did.
Since the 2006 signing, the Islanders have managed to make the playoffs just once. Their only playoff appearance was a short-lived best of seven series against the Buffalo Sabres, which the Islanders lost in five games.
In that series, DiPietro missed the first game due to a concussion that he received three weeks earlier in Montreal. From 2008 to present, DiPietro has played a total of 34 NHL games. This for a goalie who played 63, 62, 63 and 50 games the prior four seasons.
Injuries, including concussions, groin pulls, fluid in both knees and two knee surgeries, have plagued the goaltender for the past three and a half seasons. This is not what the Islanders envisioned when they signed DiPietro to the longest contract in NHL history more than four years ago.
This current season, DiPietro has a 3.36 GAA and a .890 save percentage in 21 games. These are not stats worthy of a 15-year, $67.5 million contract, even though injuries have a lot to do with those numbers.
Keep in mind, it's not fair to blame DiPietro for any of this. If you or I were a 25-year-old playing in the NHL and had the opportunity to sign that type of contract, you would be crazy not to. This is the fault of Charles Wang and Mike Milbury. Now that Milbury is out of the organization, the only person who can now be blamed is Wang.
Neil Smith was the GM during this signing (remember him?), and it was rumored that he was trying to sign the goaltender to a four or five year deal, until Wang informed him that he wanted him to work on a 15-year deal, one that would have supposedly been a new and innovative way of signing franchise players in the NHL.
Milbury, who was still employed by Wang, was said to be part of the brain trust who was in agreement with this plan. Smith, who was openly against it, bit the bullet and signed DiPietro to the deal. Whether you want to believe the rumors or not, the bottom line is the deal was signed and the team is now paying the price.
Now the question is, where will the organization go from here? They have two options. Considering DiPietro continues to sporadically sit out games, and isn't capable of playing in back to back dates on the schedule, the Islanders should realize that at the very least, they need to sign or trade for another No. 1 goalie who will play 41 games minimum, or dare I say, become the sole No. 1 goalie while DiPietro backs him up.
Their second option is to hope rookie goalie and arguably the club's top prospect, Kevin Poulin, is ready to make the roster full-time next season and play him in enough games where he continues to develop while being the "No. 2" goalie behind DiPietro.
Poulin has shown in the small amount of games he has appeared in to this point that he is more than capable of handling the NHL. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch at all to say he has outplayed his counterpart. It is no surprise the Islanders claimed Evegeni Nabokov off waivers two weeks ago.
General Manager Garth Snow is well aware that they have a situation in goal that needs to be addressed. Nabokov would have been a second half of the season stop gap, but there is the chance he would have tried to sign Nabokov next season as the No. 1 or 1a goalie on the roster. Unfortunately for Snow, Nabokov wanted nothing to do with coming to Long Island.
If the Islanders want to move forward, they must acknowledge that DiPietro is no longer the face of the franchise. Injuries to blame or not, he is nowhere near the goalie he was prior to 2007. He can't be relied upon to play on a regular basis, especially as a No. 1 goalie. It's not fair to the players, the fans, and quite frankly DiPietro himself.
Garth Snow must make a statement this off season and acknowledge that the once "face of the franchise," who will turn 30 years old by the time the 2011-2012 season begins, is nothing more than a 40-game a year goaltender at most, and one way or another find a goalie who will bring stability at that position. Sometimes you need to admit your mistakes before you can move forward.