John Tavares and the New York Islanders: Rebuilding a Dynasty
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Old-time Islanders fans like me are a spoiled bunch. Our team started out as the NHL's laughingstock and made a serious run at the Cup just two years later. Little more than a decade after it was established, our franchise had four Stanley Cups to its name.
How spoiled does that make us? Teams like the Blues, Sabres and Canucks that were established before the Isles have yet to hoist the Cup once. The Leafs' last Cup was five years prior to the Isles' founding.
The Isles are the last professional sports franchise to win four straight championships, and the Oilers and the Wings are the only other teams to win as many as four Cups since the Isles' last Cup in 1983.
Maybe that explains why we are so impatient for the current Isles team to succeed after thrashing about in the hockey wilderness for so many years. Denis (The Captain) Potvin got his Islanders to the playoffs in his second year. John Tavares has already missed that benchmark, and this year's team has yet to show that it is a contender either.
In building a champion, impatient is one thing you cannot be. Rome was not built in a day, and neither are most champions. It took five years for Jimmy Devellano to get a winning record in Detroit...but now he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Islanders have players in their system now who will make this team a bona fide contender in a few years. Centers like Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas and now Ryan Strome; wingers like Kirill Kabanov, Nino Niederreiter and Kirill Petrov; defensemen like Calvin De Haan, Matt Donovan and Scott Mayfield; goalies like Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson.
Which members of the current squad will be part of that championship core? Tavares will obviously be an important piece. Forwards Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Matt Martin are likely to be there. Frans Nielsen is excellent, but he will have a lot of competition at center. Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have already established themselves as a very good second defensive pairing. Al Montoya may well prove to be a No. 1 goaltender for the Isles going forward. Mark Streit will be 34 next month.
Other players are more questionable. Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey were both top-10 picks of whom much was expected, but they have yet to deliver as promised. Blake Comeau was not drafted that early, but he has shown promise off and on. Bailey and Comeau could wind up on the trade block at the deadline if they do not improve.
And then there's Rick Di Pietro. He of the No. 1 overall pick, the record contract and the many many injuries. He was starting to look like a No. 1 goalie when his injuries started a few years ago. Now the question is whether he can stay healthy long enough to show whether he still belongs in the NHL at all.
Is the current team able to contend? They have decent goaltending and special teams, so they might have a shot if the scoring picks up as it should. Niederreiter could help if he has a big rookie year, but Okposo, Bailey and Comeau have to start scoring if the Isles are to contend.
The Isles need a serious upgrade at the No. 2 defensive position. They tried for Christian Ehrhoff during the offseason and wound up settling for Steve Staios. Staios is a good guy, but he's not a number two on a contender. If the Isles can work a trade for Cody Franson, for example, it would be an enormous upgrade for the top pairing. Evgenyi Nabokov would likely be part of any such trade.
It may not happen this year. If it doesn't, Garth Snow will have another prime draft pick to add to the pot. Meanwhile, Islander fans, breathe in, breathe out. And remember that the first part of love is patience.
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