Islanders Mission: A 'rebuild' by any other name...

Since summer 2008, I've taken to referring to what the Islanders are doing as a "rebuild" -- from the ground up, no less, given the free agents who were allowed to walk that summer and the strategically restrained additions made since. So you bet I was bemused to hear the man I consider to be the architect of this rebuild tell James Mirtle (for the Globe and Mail) that's not what's happening:

"I don’t use that word rebuild. We’re trying to make the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup like every other team. We don’t go in with the mindset that losing is acceptable, and when that word is used, sometimes winning doesn’t matter. [snip] ... We’re trying to win every hockey game we play in. The group that we have in that locker room, it may be young, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have success."

(Note that impartial James was surprised at the parsing, too.)

Maybe losing isn't "acceptable," but, well, it's inevitable because ... we're in a rebuild! To parse here sounds a bit absurd. I understand Garth Snow doesn't want to officially decree a built-in excuse for losing. That, along with "trying to win" is part of his role as franchise director -- which I think he takes too seriously whenever speaking on record, leaving us always with carefully guarded quotes such as this one.

[After the jump: More on the Islanders rebu-- uh, hmm, "program," plus some questions for you.]

But let's not let the world of PC and hockey cliches 101 ("anything can happen ... one game at a time") muddy the big picture here, which is a familiar tale: The Islanders' prospect cupboard was thin, their veterans aging and their ability to attract free agents severely hindered by 1) reputation, 2) facilities/future uncertainty, and 3) lack of funds. Regardless of what Snow texts to Larry Brooks about the permission to add a salary should a playoff push warrant it [Note: discuss that in Chickendirt's FanPost here], the Islanders are basically at the salary cap floor.

They're saving their dry powder for a more promising season, or for when the Lighthouse Project is a go, or whatever reason you buy or suggest -- but the clearest hockey reason why their payroll is at a relative level where no team has ever won a Cup is because they are rebuilding. If losing isn't acceptable now, it's a whole lot closer to acceptable than it will be next year or the year after that.

"...almost two years ago, we set a direction, a course where we would build through the draft and develop our talent and sprinkle in free agents when it made sense."

The above is what is commonly referred to as "rebuilding." Suffering through last year's injury-per-day growing pains without adding in-season replacements was done not because that's how you "try to win every game" but because the Islanders were rebuilding. That sort of losing was -- if not acceptable -- at least tolerated because ... yeah, you get the picture. You got it more than a year ago.

I Guess It's Not a 'Rebuild' if Milbury Sold All the Bricks

I'm not harping on Snow's strategy -- I fully endorse it, whatever he calls it. I just shake my head at his tendency to play everything in public comments like a buttoned-up CEO rather than a guy who spent his career in hockey locker rooms and whose job is to build -- and sell, mind you -- a package for fans. Countless accounts say he's a funny, witty, let's-be-real guy in conversation and when off the record; but on the record we get the equivalent of, "We continue to shepherd fiduciary interests and work to build shareholder value." Yawn.

As far as rebuilding goes, I've always maintained the beginning is the easy part, in terms of decision-making. It hurts to lose like last year, but once that pill is swallowed, not much tough decision-making goes into sticking with the prospects you have and seeing how they pan out, as veteran injuries pile up. The truly tough decisions are down the road, when these youngsters have developed into NHLers, and fans have fallen in love with them, and you need to make brutally honest evaluations and painful decisions about which ones to part with in order to leap to the next level. That's when it gets tricky -- and really fun. (And for me, an unabashed Frans Nielsen fan, that's when it will get uncomfortable.)

We're not at that point yet and won't get there this season. But if the team stays in the vicinity of a playoff bubble, and if cap-squeezed teams are forced to make real assets available in the summer, and if a flat or lowered cap means the Isles have a good shot at claiming those assets, then some time in the next year or two the subjects of those tough decisions will come into focus.

When Do You Flip the Switch?

Which brings me to today's question(s): I'm a fan of this rebuild operation, and I'm also accepting of the Islanders not spending assets to add help now. (Though Andy Sutton is out 2-4 weeks, Nielsen is being evaluated, Doug Weight is still a ways off, Radek Martinek is gone for the year. At some point ...). But sports fans are entitled to expect fast results, or at least progress. Are you one who thinks the time to beef up begins sometime this season? If not -- if you're in my camp, essentially -- when do you think the time to spend wildly above the cap floor will come?

In a way, this becomes a sketch of how you think the Islanders depth chart will look when they one day can consider themselves contenders. That's a discussion we've had here before but one that's always evolving as we learn more about current players (and as new commenters chime in, having only lurked before). But standing here at the end of November 2009, knowing what you know now, how do you see the, uh, rebuild playing out? When do we shed the "rebuild" tag, how do we get to that point, and who are your current-roster casualties? Obviously there are a thousand variables, some which rhyme with "Slick FeeBe-eightro," but this is an open-ended off-day topic to run in whichever direction you like.

And first-timers and lurkers: Don't be shy. Now's a fine time to state your philosophy and expectations for the Islanders, or if you like, project an elaborate version of their future in a FanPost to stir a separate discussion.

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