As a new millennium dawns on Long Island, the New York Islanders finally begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel. After a decade of decadence that saw the break up of the 1993 Stanley Cup Semi-Finalists, nearly half a dozen ownership changes, and no hint of the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, a new start is just what the doctor ordered.
From absentee owner John Pickett, to fraudulent owner John Spano, to the disenchanted ownership of NYSV, the Islanders have had more than their fair share of owners, each with a different idea of how the franchise should be run. And the team had an ever-changing roster to match the fluctuating ownership. However, the Islanders luck may finally be turning. After slashing the team payroll to a bare bones budget more closely resembling the salary of Mike Piazza or Derek Jeter than the total payroll for a NHL team, NYSV agreed to sell the team to Long Island billionaire computer mogul Charles Wang and his associate, Sanjay Kumar. This just may be the dawn of a new era for this storied franchise.
Mike Milbury has been with the team since 1995, when he was hired as head coach. He went on to replace Don Maloney as Islanders General Manager. With each ownership group having a different plan of action, Milbury has spent most of his tenure in front of a firing squad. This most recent youth movement has panned out for Milbury and earned him the faith of Wang and Kumar for at least the near future.
The final piece of the puzzle for the Islanders Dynasty of the early 1980s has become the first piece of the puzzle going into the year 2000. Islanders' legend Butch Goring has returned to Long Island as the head coach. Goring's feisty style of grinding play and his never say die attitude are considered by many to be the key elements that put the Islanders over the top, and he is back to work his magic again. He has been given a talented core of big young players to try and assemble into a perennial contender. From the top goalie prospect in the world, to the tallest player in the NHL on defense, to the youngest player in the league at center, the Islanders will be looking to settle the score when the 2000-2001 season begins.
Milbury is a student of the philosophy that a hockey team is built from the goal net out. With that in mind, the Islanders have a trio of net-minders to build around. Kevin Weeks, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks for Felix Potvin, has been making a name for himself on Long Island. The Islanders also have the top prospect in the world, goaltender Roberto Luongo, on the brink of making the jump to the big league. They also have the tallest goalie ever to play in the NHL, Stephen Valiquett, who earned a second look after his more than capable play at the end of the 1999-2000 season.
On defense, the Islanders boast one of the biggest blue-lines in the NHL. Zdeno Chara, at 6'9" is the tallest player in NHL history and is often paired with 6'6" heavyweight, Eric Cairns. Islanders' Captain, Kenny Jonsson has Norris Trophy potential. Although he struggled this past season, his presence on the blue line had a settling affect on the inexperienced team, who found wins hard to come by when Jonsson was out of the lineup. Budding youngsters, Mattieu Biron and Jamie Rivers round out the top 5 defensemen.
The Islanders forwards were lead by right-wing Mariusz Czerkowski, who posted career highs of 35 goals, 35 assists and 70 points in the past season. The forward corps is also stocked with formidable young talent. Brad Isbister, the blossoming power-forward, broke the 20-goal mark and also set career highs, despite missing 18 games with injuries. Future Star 18-year old center Tim Connolly was the youngest player in the NHL last season and showed visions of brilliance. He was often stacked up against other teams' top defensive units. A summer in the gym should help this youngster improve remarkably.
The Islanders also feature the gutsy grinding veteran, Claude Lapointe, who set a career high in goals last season as well with 15 tallies. Lapointe is a penalty-killing specialist and along with Dave Scatchard, is one of the league's top 10 face-off men. Big things are expected from Bill Muckalt and Mats Lindgren, who both had their season shortened with shoulder injuries. Josh Green and Olli Jokinen, both acquired in the summer of 1999, for one Ziggy Palffy, have played well and earned their spot on the roster for next season.
Filling some holes on the roster with the hopes of finally returning to the playoffs next year will be the Islanders top priority. Adding a solid veteran defenseman like unrestricted free agent Don Sweeney and possibly a scoring forward on par with Carolina's Gary Roberts could mean the difference between playing in the Stalney Cup Playoffs or watching on television for a seventh consecutive summer.
The Isles have a core of young prospects that include forwards Taylor Pyatt, Juraj Kolnik, Mats Weinhandl, Jason Krog, and Justin Mapletoft. On defense, their system features more hulking young blue-liners, including Eric Brewer, Kristian Kudroc and Branislav Mezei. They also have the number 5 pick in this year's draft, barring any change in the draft lottery to be held in early June. Look for the Islanders to attempt to move up to one of the top-2 picks in the draft or trade the pick in a package for an established NHL player.
While nobody should expect the signing of Tkachuck, Yashin or Lindros, do not be surprised if the Islanders do test the free agent market this off-season. The team promises to continue the exciting brand of hockey that endeared them to many fans during last year's campaign. For those loyally returning to the Nassau Coliseum, they will be rewarded with a pleasant surprise on the ice. And with Wang and Kumar at the helm, anything short of the playoffs would be considered failure.
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