It may be sacrilege, but it's the truth: For the New York Islanders, this season's success will be determined not as much by wins and losses as it will on "The System."
While Islanders fans have entered most recent seasons shouting into the winds of conventional wisdom (12th or 13th in the East), pleading to skeptics that their club can grab a consolation playoff spot ("achieving" that four out of the last six seasons), the approach to 2008-09 was a little different. This time around, expectations were lowered from management on down. Fans were ready for an earnest rebuild and, to its credit, the club (essentially GM Garth Snow, who rose above the ashes of Charles Wang's rule-by-committee to get the master key to this ship) finally made a clear decision to hold and develop young assets.
So for once, scraping by into the 8th seed is not the end-game. Instead, laying a foundation for the future is. That foundation includes determining whether the Islanders' young assets can play effectively at all -- but also whether they can do it in Scott Gordon's high-pressure forechecking system. That variable, in turn, depends on whether the Isles veterans can keep the locker room steady through tough times, keep the rookies (and themselves) focused on learning and executing the system.
It's been fascinating to watch, and it should only get more so as this season carries on. It's a laboratory on ice: We're watching a distressed, media-ignored franchise, whose new building -- and thus its future on Long Island -- is still up in the air, hitting the reset button on the old stop-gap ways and committing, finally, to developing prospects and hanging on to a promising young coach.
But despite Snow's commitment to that young coach -- the first coach Snow has picked -- Gordon's fortunes largely depend on whether his somewhat unique system can work. But that system's success is based, naturally, on the players who play it. At forward those players are a mixed bag of prospects, plus a collection of skilled, solid-character veterans whose best on-ice days are nonetheless undeniably behind them. If any of these factors fails in a big way, the franchise reset may be delayed again -- because conceivably they'd end up needing yet another new coach.
The first five games of this season show the laboratory is now in session. In the Islanders' wins, they have looked dynamic and fun to watch: Opposing puck carriers have coughed the puck up, as they dodge one Islander checker only to find another one bearing down and creating chaos. In the Isles' losses, however, things have looked uncoordinated and, worse, unthreatening. There was the 7-1 massacre by the Sabres, of course, but even mild scores in losses at Florida (2-0) and New Jersey (2-1) obscured the fact that the system just wasn't clicking on those nights. Part of the risk in Gordon's all-in systems is that, once one of the five skaters on the ice fails to do his part, the other four's effectiveness collapses.
With four days in between games this week, Gordon has gone back to drilling the system into players heads -- which is what consumed much of training camp. The veterans, thus far, remain on board. Guys like captain Bill Guerin acknowledge and preach that it takes time. Each game provides a new lab test, a new evaluation of both a) Can this system work? and b) Can it work with this roster?
In the end, it may not be a playoff spot on the line this year. But the fate of the franchise's next three years (and beyond, if on-ice performance jeopardizes the new building) is, you know, no small potatoes.