There’s no nice way to say it. Over the past six-and-a-half seasons, the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders franchise has been woeful on the ice. During that period the team has compiled a 156-286-62 record [thru 1/25/01], a 35.3% winning percentage—and missed the playoffs six (going on seven) straight years. To the casual observer it appears the once-proud Islanders organization no longer has the ability to assemble a winning hockey club—and that the losing will continue for the forseeable future.
Many claim the Islanders’ troubles on the ice are directly related to the franchise’s turbulent off-ice existence, which has included a recent parade of uncaring and disingenuous owners. Since its last playoff appearance in 1994 the team has been controlled by an absentee owner (John O. Pickett, Jr.), an insolvent owner (John Spano, who was indicted on charges of fraud), and a duo that viewed its purchase primarily as a real estate venture (Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern).
With the ownership situation now stabilized—the team was purchased by Sanjay Kumar and Charles Wang last year—management appears committed to restoring a winning tradition that once produced four straight Stanley Cups (1980-83). While the results on the ice have yet to improve and the team is regularly ridiculed in the media for its performance, the vibe in the locker room and corridors of the Nassau Coliseum is anything but negative. The palpable feeling throughout the organization is that happy times are just around the corner.
For the moment, though, the sentiment most commonly expressed by the Islanders players and their diehard fans is “frustration.” And the exasperated fans have chosen to direct their anger at Mike Milbury, who has served as coach, coach/GM or general manager since 1995—voicing their displeasure by chanting “Mike Must Go!” at home games. Among Milbury’s co-workers, the feeling is that the criticism might be unwarranted.
“What bothers me about this whole situation is that people are real critical of the Islanders, Mike Milbury, and the way the team has played, without looking at the facts,” says assistant coach Greg Cronin. “You’ve got an organization that was literally stripped of its assets by very unstable ownership—a three or four year period where there was a real degree of destruction from a hidden agenda list.” In particular, Cronin refers to a one-year stretch where Milbury was ordered by ownership to dump payroll, regardless of consequences. “Every day was like a fire sale,” he says. “You talk about failure—you came into work every day and it was like getting punched in the stomach.”
The most prominent player Milbury has traded is Zigmund Palffy, currently one of the league’s leading goal scorers, and the Islanders’ second-round draft choice in 1991. “There’s no way Mike wanted to trade Ziggy,” says Jim Cerny, play-by-play announcer for the Islanders’ radio broadcasts, “but when your owner—your boss—tells you to do something, you have to follow through. He slashed the payroll and did the best that he could with it.”
Milbury also traded or waived many other former draft picks—most of them first-or second-rounders—including defensemen Rich Pilon, Scott Lachance, Darius Kasparaitis, Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden and Eric Brewer, plus forwards like Travis Green and Todd Bertuzzi. In return the Islanders mostly received high draft choices—which augurs well for the future but explains why the team has continued to struggle this season.
“Our core players—Brad Isbister, Tim Connolly, Taylor Pyatt, Dave Scatchard—they’re kids,” says Cronin. “There’s no other team in the league that’s got a core group that young. You come to me in five years and tell me they’re not going to be good—a real tough team to play against. San Jose and Ottawa both went through the same thing we’re going through, but they stayed with their picks. They rode those guys and they lost with them and now they’re winning with them,” he says.
Wins and losses aside, the team hit rock bottom last season when Milstein and Gluckstern paid out a league-low payroll and treated the players as second-class citizens. “There were moments last year when it was almost laughable,” says Cronin. “We were taking commercial airlines—Southwest Airlines—with guys waiting at the airport, and 6’4", 6’5" guys wedged between people [on the plane].” At that point, winning was almost a secondary goal for the team. “The assistant coaches were charged with creating an environment that was enjoyable for the players,” says Cronin. “When you have that environment the expectation is not to win the Stanley Cup or make the playoffs, it’s to keep people happy.”
All the while, the Islanders have continued to stock their roster with young talent, led by the aforementioned Isbister (age 23), Connolly (19), and Pyatt (19), plus Mark Parrish (23) and Oleg Kvasha (22), and defensemen Zdeno Chara (23), Roman Hamrlik (26), and Branislav Mezei (20).
Watching the Islanders practice it’s evident how green the team is as a whole. The youngest players need to learn how to practice, how to prepare for an opponent, how to treat people around the arena, even the fundamentals of the game. “[Head coach] Butch [Goring] said the other day he’s never spent so much time as a coach actually teaching,” notes Cerny.
The big X factor in the Islanders future is goalie Rick DiPietro (the #1 overall pick in the 2000 draft), who the team earned the right to select via a blockbuster draft day deal that sent prize goaltending prospect Roberto Luongo to the Florida Panthers. “I think Milbury believes that DiPietro is going to be the goalie for the next 10-12 years,” says Cerny. And what if he isn’t the answer? “Big trouble for the organization and personally for Mike Milbury. He has staked his entire future on Rick,” continues Cerny.
Certainly, Mike Milbury’s future has been a continued source of speculation in the media. Even if he hasn’t been given a fair shake, it may be difficult for the new owners to keep him on from a public relations standpoint. However, it’s unlikely he will be dismissed until at least the end of the season (if at all), for no other reason than Kumar and Wang are hockey novices. “I don’t think they feel confident in coming up with a replacement,” says Cerny.“The [new] owners know it’s tough to ask the fans for more patience, but they need a little more time too. They’re not going to just come and in and up the payroll by $20 million and throw all this money at one player.”
Kumar and Wang are also moving slowly towards obtaining a new arena—in sharp contrast to other recent owners. The plan is to re-establish the Islanders as a successful franchise on the ice first, then go to Nassau County and New York State for a new building. And despite the fact that the Nassau Coliseum lacks luxury boxes, restaurants and other amenities—it’s been dubbed the “Nassau Mausoleum” by one Rangers-loving New York sports radio personality—the venue is still a purists dream. “Certainly, for hockey and for sight lines as a fan, I don’t know that there’s a better building in the league than the Coliseum . . . and the acoustics are terrific,” says Cerny. (In music circles, the Coliseum is often mentioned as the best-sounding sports arena in the world.)
Meanwhile, the team soldiers on through what has been another difficult campaign, despite pre-season predictions that this would be a turnaround year. “The first excuse that comes out is injuries,” says Marius Czerkawski, the team’s leading scorer so far this season. “We haven’t had a chance to play many games together with the same team and rhythm,” he says. Cronin concurs, noting, “No team in the league is going to lose eight regular players—particularly in our organization, where it’s really vulnerable and young—and not struggle.”
As far as expectations for the remainder of 2001, Czerkawski says, “the goal is to do the best we can. We know we don’t have the most talented team in the league but we still hope that a miracle can happen and that we can be in the hunt for the playoffs.”
“What we’re going through right now is painful," says Cronin, “but like anything in life, it takes a certain degree of pain to have success.” Cronin and Co. hope they are still around to reap the rewards of this long developmental period. “The reality is that we could all get fired and somebody will inherit a pretty damn good hockey team.”