The New York Islanders are the worst team in the NHL. Through eight games they are 2-6 for a whopping four points. They are in the Atlantic Division cellar which is precisely where they spent the majority of the 2007/2008 season.
Is this a harbinger of things to come for the ailing franchise or can they reverse course and move past some of the annual heavyweights in the division?
The Isles could essentially be the Tampa Bay Rays of the NHL.
The Rays went from last to first in a division dominated by heavyweight and perennial contenders and the Isles are in a similar situation. With the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers all in front of the them in the Atlantic Division standings the Islanders have little hope of making the playoffs or even contending.
On the other hand, that is what people said about Tampa Bay, too, who ended the season by setting record highs in wins and being the World Series runner-up, which isn’t so bad.
With a new coach in former Providence Bruin head man Scott Gordon, General Manager Garth Snow finally has a coach he can work with who shares his ideologies and is willing to rebuild the right way.
The Isles do have some significant talent, though, and if a few things bounce the right way a playoff run for New York’s other team isn’t out of the question.
Gordon wasn’t necessarily the popular hire for Snow to make as a few commentators seemed to think that Bob Hartley was the logical pick. Snow wanted someone who could get through to the young, up-and-coming stars of the team, and someone who could unite a diverse group of veterans and youth.
The key to success for the team though, starts with their multi-million dollar goalie.
The Islanders are built from the net out, but this season hasn’t exactly gotten off on the right foot so far for their franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro.
He has struggled tending goal, posting a 3.91 GPA in three games and then getting sidelined with an undisclosed lower body injury that the Isles are keeping on the down-low.
DiPietro is the present and the future for this team so getting him right both physically and statistically is of the utmost importance, though backup Joey MacDonald has been serviceable.
Injuries have the hit the defense corps hard as well with mainstays Brendan Witt, Radek Martinek, Freddy Meyer, and Andy Sutton all being sidelined by various ailments for anywhere from a few games to a few weeks. In the mean time Chris Campoli has stepped up as has 24-year-old Bruno Gervais, adding four assists.
Starring on the blue line, though, has been new acquisition Mark Streit. The Swiss defenseman signed a big five-year $20.5 million contract in the off-season to come and give some leadership and more importantly, some offensive firepower to the Isles ailing power play.
Streit has led the team in ice time with an average of just over 26 minutes per game and is tied with fellow newcomer Doug Weight for the lead in points on the team with three goals and four assists for seven points.
Streit is coming off a monstrous season in Montreal and has lived up to the billing thus far. He is now in his fourth season in the NHL and has seen his stats increase every year and this season looks to be no different with career highs in points and ice time looking inevitable.
While Streit will have to continue his spectacular play, and his fellow defense-men will need to get healthy, the team’s main problems seem to be taking place up front with the forwards.
The Islanders have been outscored this season in eight games 29-19. They are allowing an average of 3.6 goals per game and with the injuries to the rearguard and the franchise goalie, it’s the forwards who need to step up, and quickly, or risk becoming irrelevant in 2008-2009 for good.
With veterans like Bill Guerin, last season’s team scoring leader Mike Comrie, and the aforementioned Weight, the team does have a good core of leadership. However, the players next in line are almost all young or inexperienced or quite simply not talented enough.
The future of the Islanders lies with names like Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Jeff Tambellini, all highly regarded draft picks that the team desperately needs to succeed.
Bailey was the first round pick of the team in the 2008 draft but is currently sidelined with a groin injury. Okposo and Tambellini have got some playing time but their success so far has been limited as they have combined for only four points and +/- of -6 through eight games.
These youngsters, and others such as forward Sean Bergenheim and defenseman Bruno Gervais, will be key to the team’s success this year as the forwards will be asked to shoulder more of the load, putting more pucks in the net with DiPietro—and what seems like the entire back-end—sidelined with injuries.
The team's next game is at the Flyers, then home for Montreal and Columbus before hitting the pavement again to face the Rangers over the next week and a half.
These games could prove to be a crucial stretch for the team because if they get less than four points out of the four games, they could find themselves facing a nearly impregnable deficit in the Atlantic Division.
Or perhaps, like the Tampa Bay Rays, we could see this team take off and succeed on youth and naiveté, not realizing that they’re not supposed to be “there” yet.