The Strangest Franchise
By most any measure, the once proud New York Islanders are a failure of a franchise. They're still in the NHL, but barely, it seems.
Yet as they arrive in Toronto to take a poke at the perfect Maple Leafs tonight, the hockey team itself appears to be anything but a pushover.
Despite being without veteran defenceman Mark Streit and young forward Kyle Okposo, and without young star John Tavares before he returned on the weekend to help in a victory over Colorado, the Isles have been ornery and competitive so far, with only one regulation loss in five games so far.
Credit head coach Scott Gordon, centre Josh Bailey and winger Blake Comeau are good young forwards and the return of goalie Rick DiPietro has certainly been useful, although DiPietro's numbers aren't great or even as good as Dwayne Roloson. Adversity seems to have welded this long forsaken club together - the Isles haven't won a playoff round in 17 years, remember - and these players, so far, have banded together in impressive style.
Actually, adversity may not even be the word for it. For most of this calendar year, the Isles have been either dysfunctional or bizarre, depending on your definition of such things.
--The club planned a pre-season trip to China and would have been the first team to travel there for the Far East. But then owner Charles Wang abruptly cancelled the trip, with differences with the NHLPA part of the problem.
--The team recently signed a radio broadcast deal with Hofstra University under which students will serve as analysts and reporters. It's the kind of move you'd expect from a minor-league baseball operation. And not the high minors.
--Organized "split" squads for pre-season games, and had to sign four free agent players to tryouts just to meet the NHL's minimum veteran rule.
--Defenceman James Wisniewski recently made a lewd gesture towards Ranger forward Sean Avery that got him suspended for two games. Gordon made a bit of a fool of himself by walking out of a post-game press conference when asked about the incident.
--Attendance for last Monday's Ranger game, always the Isles best draw, was under 12,000.
--The team's plans for a new arena as part of the larger Lighthouse Project have gone on and on for years with no end in sight. Nassau Country Coliseum is now, without question, the league's worst facility.
--The club's payroll is so low that it would be below the NHL's minimum if not for charges from old buyouts to Alexei Yashin ($4.75 million) and Brendan Witt ($1.33 million).
It goes on and on. Yet in the early going, the Isles have been no soft touch this season. Good for the players. Keeping it going won't be easy.
And don't be surprise if they end the Leafs' winning streak tonight.