Vets grumble, youths shine in Islanders 2-0 win over Sabres

Obviously, before even the first puck dropped, last night's otherwise meaningless game with the Sabres was consumed by the speculation -- lingering still as of this posting -- about the destination for Islanders captain Bill Guerin.

Game Summary | Event Summary | nhl.com Recap (AP)

Yet lost in the trade scuttlebutt was a great two-goal performance by Sean Bergenheim -- one assisted by young Kyle Okposo, the other by young Frans Nielsen -- which served as almost a direct refutation of veterans' (anonymous) criticism of the club's direction and how Scott Gordon has handled this squad's inevitable transition.

Is Bergenheim turning the corner in recent weeks? Gordon certainly thought so, and Bergenheim's last three games have certainly given any Isles fan something to chew on while waiting for youth to rise. [Update: I now see blogging friend Ken Rosenblatt was in a similar Bergey-appreciating frame of mind -- and it was his question that prompted Gordon's post-game mention of future captains. Synergy, baby.].

The Veterans' Myopic Lament

But that's what's hilarious about the anonymous critiques of Gordon "rushing" young players into prominent roles too soon. Umm, hello? Reality check? This is a 30th-place squad -- in last place by a country mile. In case anyone missed the memo, this season was always about the transition to youth.

While an incredible run of injuries has exposed the Islanders' shallow depth and hastened their drop in the standings, this team has ranked so low because the on-their-way-out veterans who apparently should be carrying the "prominent roles" are only fit for such roles on a bottom-tier team. On an important, Cup-contending team, they would be secondary scorers, valued for their veteran presence but taking a very clear back seat to the young stars who now rule the NHL.

Which is why "contenders" are circling the Islanders right now to poach them for the mere price of unknown NHL futures.

According to Newsday beat reporter Greg Logan, who has collected players' opinion throughout this season for his pre-trade deadline summary and inevitable Gordon Experiment recaps, select veterans' displeasure comes down to:

... three main issues: Gordon's decision to hold meetings with a group of young forwards separate from the rest of the team, what one player termed the coach's decision to "exile" Guerin, and Gordon's insistence that players not blame his system in the media for losses.

Gordon plausibly(?) explains the young-forwards meetings in that article (Essentially: he wanted to correct mistakes those young forwards were making, while sparing the vets the rehash video session.). One vocal-yet-anonymous player saying the captain is "exiled" sounds like loaded connotation at best. "Exiled"? Communication failure, maybe.

And as for the system: When a coach is brought in specifically to install his system at the NHL level and develop the young players who will still be around to use it, it's no leap to think he wouldn't want veterans to undermine that system in the media, which would set a cop-out example for the youth he's been hired to develop. Gordon denies telling players not to blame the system, but I wouldn't mind if he did.

Meanwhile, other players on record have given the coach credit for his adjustments -- even Brendan Witt, who gave the first, and still only, on-record critique back in December, but praised Gordon's subtle adjustments in January:

"In defense of Scott, he had such success with the way he played in Providence. But he tweaked it. You can see everyone has gone positive with that and has played better as a team."

As Islesblogger Mike suggested when we discussed this article, this probably comes down to communication issues with a young coach. All told, for a lost season there have been remarkably few locker room flare-ups -- which may be a job well done by both the captain and coach, and may be helped by the lack of blanket competitive media coverage seeking to turn any internal dissent into a Montreal-sized soap opera.

Now, I empathize with the plight of these veterans -- even the ones letting off steam, albeit anonymously. It's a short career, and it has to be frustrating to spend the post-peak of that career essentially passing the torch during a season that has zero Cup hope. To be caddies to the young punks' development (yet thankfully the frustration is directed at the coach rather than at their own teammates).

But every player coming into this season had to know the writing was on the wall: At the very least, they had to know that everything had to go absolutely perfect for this squad to earn a surprise playoff appearance. That chance at perfection ended the moment the franchise goalie wasn't ready for the season. But it was in their power to take control, if their aging bodies (and whatever else describes Mike Comrie's up-and-down form) could supply it. But they couldn't.

As Gordon said today:

"That's the plus of being where we are in the standings. We've given the opportunity to guys in big roles, and they're running with it and doing a great job."

Now, credit to Guerin, the now-outgoing captain, for not taking the bait Logan offered him from these anonymous voices. From the beginning, Guerin sounded ready for the challenge this season posed, or at least said the right things. No one's saying this isn't a difficult time for everyone on the squad. But if any anonymous veterans are pretending this year, once lost, wasn't wholly about putting guys like Nielsen, Okposo and Bergenheim into big roles to grow and test their mettle, then those veterans in question can't see the forest for the trees.

But about that Game

As for the Sabres game (wait, there was a game?), kudos as mentioned to Bergenheim and the other young forwards, but also to Yann Danis for his second shutout and defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who held up in limited minutes (7:14) for his NHL debut. He pinched like he knew the system as installed down in Bridgeport, and he busted his tail to break up speedy Jason Pominville's rush after MacDonald whiffed at the point.

I was am still hammered by the flu, so I only caught the game and the Guerin insanity on replay after 18 hours of sleep and alternating bodily evacuation. But what I saw, against a Sabres team that desperately needed this win, was another sign of hope for the future.

Wake me up when the latest deal for the future is confirmed.

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