Adieu: Top Islanders Stories of 2010

The longest Islanders win streak in 2010 was all the way back in January, featuring four consecutive wins (two via shootout) in the middle of a deceptive 10-3-1 run aided by five shootout wins. (Despite Frans Nielsen's well-documented shaman powers, shootouts overall are still, generally, a crapshoot.) That run overlapped the New Year, tracing back to Dec. 23, 2009.

It's been a long, strange trip since then, bookended by the current 6-1-1 streak. On the ice and off the ice, what follows are some reflections on what LHH editors saw as the biggest Islanders stories of the year that was.

(Note: This post would have appeared earlier, like during that Christmas-to-New Year's time when everyone takes vacation or sleeps at the office, but there were games, and trades, and family events, and...well I've had a lovely lazy holiday, let's just leave it at that. That "First 48 Hours" marathon wasn't going to watch itself, you know?)

WebBard suggested this idea, and David Hanssen, myself and Webby each weighed in with votes and thoughts on the Top Five Stories. However, like the People's Front of Judea we didn't have a consensus, exactly. Some of our picks overlapped, some didn't. Why limit it to five?

So here are our reflections on the year that was. In comments, weigh in on the synopsis or add any you think we missed:

The Losing Streak that Changed Everything

The Islanders lost 8 in a row, then lost a shootout in San Jose to make it a 9-game winless streak. That streak reached 10 at the end of the Western trip with a thumping in L.A., and Scott Gordon was fired relieved of duties and retained as adviser. The winless streak reached 14 under Jack Capuano -- one short of the franchise record -- before he got his first win over New Jersey. Cap's team promptly followed that with six consecutive regulation losses, including an ugly 5-0 thrashing in Nashville. The streak not only sunk the season, it sunk a coach and started his successor off on shaky footing. It also set a record for number of times the comment, "Surely it can't get any worse?" was left on this blog.

And as usual, it got national and Canadian media to pile on, because doggone it that fine Ontario boy John Tavares is really supposed to be playing north of the border where there are no Stanley Cups since 1993 blah blah blah. Or something.

Dominik: I see streaks -- whether winning or losing -- as a bounce here or there from being something else. We tend to organize things in patterns for easier digestion, but sometimes those patterns are deceptive. With the right bounce, a 10-game winless streak is instead 2-7-1: Ugly, but far from the downward psychological spiral that a losing streak ferments. Still, that doesn't matter when the fluctuating psyche of human athletes are concerned. It's like a butterfly effect, with a couple of close losses, followed by two blowouts, followed by hard luck where "nothing's going in!" in Anaheim. For the Isles, a perfect storm of injuries, dead offense, and vanishing confidence had this team in the dumps. It got a coach fired, and here's the kicker: Maybe that will prove for the better in the end. But since they went 1-8-2 immediately afterward, it wasn't enough or in time to get the team back into the playoff chase. We're still dealing with the fallout.

WebBard: It's not just the losing streak either, but the inability of the Islanders to even be competitive during most of it. Nine games during the streak in which they only scored a single goal. A complete inability to hold onto a lead for more then a few fleeting seconds when they did have it.

 

Scott Gordon Fired; Jack Capuano his 'Interim' Replacement

It was both shocking and yet not shocking at all, really: Coaches rarely live to tell about 10-game winless streaks and Gordon was no different. Some figured Gordon would last to the end of his deal. Some thought Garth Snow would stick with his long-term goal for an unwavering GM-coach relationship. It's possible he saw more wrong internally -- a young roster lacking any confidence? -- than a bad streak can capture. Early returns on Capuano, promoted from the AHL, are guardedly positive.

Snow hoped for an immediate impact, but the wins would still take a little longer to arrive. It's Jan. 3, and this season has had exactly two positive stretches -- one in the opening weeks, and one that we're experiencing right now.

David Hanssen: There were rumors of this happening but it really did blindside everyone and probably elicited the most discussion of any story this year.

WebBard: You can't fire the players, but someone had to be held responsible for the teams failings. The seeds of his fall had been planted in the past though. The team seemed to always have one horrible period. The inability to score on five on five. As much as the team might not have had the talent, Gordon didn't seem to have the answers.

Dominik: I was shocked by how many people complained that an "NHL coach" wasn't brought in. I'm not sure what an NHL coach is, other than a guy who's been fired by an NHL team before (So: Ed Olczyk, Pierre McGuire, come on down!) Mid-season, there aren't many desirable candidates available anyway. As a result, I bought the argument that Capuano knows a lot of these players and could make a more seamless entry. The club will need his input (and maybe Gordon's too) when making decisions on some of these young players.

Meanwhile, as for the clamor to promote one of Gordon's assistants for the job? Looking around the league, when assistants make that awkward transition from player confidante to head bad cop within the same team, it doesn't always go so hot. (Dave Lewis, Mike Kitchen, Tony Granato, John MacLean...Pierre McGuire...)

 

Off-Ice Drama: LHP, Trots, Jankowski, Jaffe, Botta, Isles Fan Bipolarity...

Hard to capture all of this in one item, but that's sort of how it feels from the analysis perspective: General fan angst about the future, about departures, about the team's image.

The Lighthouse Project appears stillborn, and the news void has people speculating on Queens, Brooklyn, and casino dreams. Bryan Trottier was relieved of a position of unknown significance, and has expressed no hard feelings, but it's a sore spot with some fans and thus matters. Ryan Jankowski, the public face of recent drafts, was not renewed as assistant GM and scouting director. Billy Jaffe wasn't retained to do color for Isles games on MSG, with conflicting and unconfirmed reports about why (Money? Criticism? Giving Butch Goring a new role?). Popular blogger, AOL columnist and former team PR head Chris Botta -- one of two external writers to basically be on the scene almost every day -- had his credentials revoked.

Per team policy, the Isles don't discuss those personnel decisions -- even with the coach's firing, you won't see the team air a man's failings (or their issue with someone) in public. And the departees, with rare exception, won't spout off even if they are upset because it's a tight league. The Botta decision, for "making himself the news," surely has more behind the scenes on perhaps a personal level that we'll never know. But the upshot of all of these was a predictable media narrative that filled the info vacuum -- and may have ultimately led to more media outreach from Snow and even Charles Wang, who appeared together on Gary Bettman's NHL radio show in late December.

Hanssen: On Botta: That the revoking of his credentials turned into a national media fiasco for the Isles has to make it a top story even if it isn't rink related, and Botta's subsequent going off the deep end makes it noteworthy as well. On Jaffe/Trottier: Hey hey, what more can I say?

Dominik: Like draft picks themselves, we won't know the impact of Jankowski's departure for several years -- and even then cause and effect will be impossible to sort out. Trots's role was never clear to me, but like most fans I just thought it was fun knowing he's around. Jaffe's departure left a void for each broadcast, but ironically it's like a gift to the rest of the NHL, where other fans can finally see what an insightful analyst he is. On Botta, as I said in the murky aftermath, I respect a team's right to revoke credentials from anyone. But I'd only use it as an extreme last resort preceded by closed-door shouting matches. Is whatever issue between them really beyond the point of repair?

With all of these, declining to discuss personnel moves in detail is in keeping with the NHL's buttoned-up, don't-kick-them-on-their-way-out culture. I've seen that with several teams. But the consequence is people will fill the void with their own theories, and when you're a last-place team, those theories are rarely flattering. Comes with the territory.

 

Youth, Part I: Drafting Nino, Reverend Brock, Kirill Kabanov

If 2008's draft was a banner example of how to begin restocking a barren cupboard, 2009 and 2010 were examples of new luxuries when you've been swapping UFAs for extra picks. As with 2009's trade up for Calvin De Haan, June 2010's trade to grab Brock Nelson at the end of the first round and the third-round selection of "first-round talent" Kirill Kabanov were the fruit of having extra picks to play with. Whether it pays off depends on the scouting then, fortune now, and player development later on. The Isles may have an asset or two in their other three 2010 picks, but that draft's success rides on the fate of these three (Nelson, Kabanov, and fifth overall pick Nino Niederreiter) -- and all three are both enticing and works in progress.

Nelson's photo shoot, standard poses for all of the picks, earned him "The Reverend" nickname around this site, and now he's drawing our curious eyes at the WJC. That's just what happens: We get new names to watch, we make up narratives to entertain ourselves, and one day some of these picks should pay off, and we'll remember when they were just teenagers propped in front of silly curtains.

Dominik: Draft day was wild -- I learned in retrospect, being in a news blackout in the Dominican Republic. I wanted Gudbranson but knew it probably couldn't happen at #5. To hear Fowler drop so low, to see Skinner picked and immediately score in the NHL: I just underlines for me that the draft is a crapshoot even in the #4 - #15 range. You just never know from December to Draft Day, much less from Draft Day to October and years beyond. I liked the Nino and Nelson picks -- size, character, mix of skills -- but can't pretend to know how well it will work out.

WebBard: Although it seems like a million years ago now, Garth quietly put together another highly regarded draft. Not just in getting first rounders Nino Niederreiter and Brock Nelson, but once again getting a first rounder who had fallen from glory in the third round. Kirill Kabanov appears to have all the skill in the world, now it's a matter of proving he's not another Volchinator.

 

Youth, Part II: Emergence of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic

For MacDonald, it was how he came up as an emergency injury replacement and then grabbed a regular role he never relinquished. His emergence was affirmed when Snow locked him up with "The Nielsen" -- a multi-year deal at an inexpensive rate for an underrated player. Hamonic shined in juniors, became a key player for Canada at the 2010 WJC (only to suffer injury and miss the final), was acquired by the Memorial Cup hosts, and likewise jumped up as an injury replacement from the AHL to the NHL this fall, never to give up his spot.

The result is two defensemen you can pencil in as fixtures now, who were uncertain factors as recently as last December.

Dominik: With MacDonald, 24-year-old 6th round picks aren't supposed to be this important to your team. Yet he has hit IR twice with broken bones, and both times the Islanders sorely missed his presence. He's not only a keeper, his game is still getting better.

Hanssen: I would also add something: The emergence of Andy MacDonald and the recognition of Frans Nielsen league wide. Starting with the second half of last year, people really started to notice Frans' abilities and he should be a Selke contender the rest of his productive years. MacDonald? What more can I say, I bought the guy's jersey after he'd been playing with the Isles for less than 20 games.

WebBard: There were people predicting that MacDonald would start the season in the AHL due to the defensive additions in the offseason. Hamonic did start in the AHL and was only called up in complete desperation. At this point in the season both players have outplayed everyone else on the Islanders D, and are probably two of the most valuable players on the team, period.

 

Josh Bailey: Slow Finish, Hot Start, Scoring Drought, Demotion, Resurrection

Bailey didn't finish 2009-10 on any sort of high note, but he scored enough in February and March to make people stop fretting about that 7-game December streak without a shot on goal. He started 2010-11 on fire -- people were shouting "NEXT CAPTAIN!" in game threads here -- and then suffered a hip injury, probably rushed back, and got stuck in the offensive drought that took down the whole team for 20 games.

One game before he'd require waivers to be sent down, the Isles put him in AHL Bridgeport for confidence reconditioning. The result was a point outburst that amusingly makes him one of the highest point-per-game players in Sound Tigers history. Despite the limited production, he never stopped being one of the Isles' best two-way forwards. But now he's had a chance to decompress away from the Island, put up points, and return to the club on a high note to form its best line with Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner.

Dominik: In my perfect world, every prospect would get some time in the AHL, but first-round picks from Canadian juniors exist in that limbo world where it often isn't practical. I'm glad Bailey got that chance, even if it was late and brief and largely symbolic.

Hanssen: Not necessarily the demotion but more his positive response to it, his positive effect on Bridgeport and Rhett Rakhshani while down there and his renewed confidence since he's returned. Sure there were some criticisms of it, but both Bailey and the Isles needed it lest he turn into Gilbert Brule.

 

John Tavares: No Calder, But Steady Improvement and a Level Head

After a hot start to his NHL career (19 points in 21 games), pucks stopped going in for Tavares and it was a long winter that raised alarms and even saw brief in-game moments on the wing. But after the Olympic break Tavares came back strong, started collecting points, and finished just one point behind fellow rookie Matt Duchene, who received all the fawning press on a playoff team.

2010-11 has seen more ups and downs for Tavares, but the dedicated (and too serious?) youth continues to work on all aspects of his game and is on pace to lead the team in scoring yet again. It's unclear how good each aspect of his game will get, but there's little doubt he'll be an important scorer for years to come.

WebBard: There have been a lot of first rounders to come and go for the Islanders. Although he fell short of being nominated for the Calder, his play was a breath of fresh air. There hasn't been a rookie this good for the Islanders since Trent Hunter's rookie year of 03-04 or Bryan Berard's Calder-winning year of 96-97.

 

The Sell-Offs: Sutton, Wisniewski, Roloson

Dwayne Roloson's departure technically came in the first 24 hours of 2011, but it fits with a big story from the year just ended: Cashing in pending UFA's who don't fit The Plan for futures. Andy Sutton went for a second from Ottawa -- a top deadline prize, it turned out -- while Garth Snow accelerated things in 2010-11 by selling Wiz and Roloson early, the latter bringing big blueline prospect Ty Wishart.

Last spring, there were no takers for Sean Bergenheim, Martin Biron, Freddy Meyer or Richard Park. Will this spring be different for Isles pending UFAs like Matt Moulson, Milan Jurcina, Radek Martinek and P.A. Parenteau? Or will they be kept as part of the future? Guess those questions are left for 2011 to answer.

*  *  *

2010: We'll remember you next time there's a happy post-series handshake, but you sure had some warts. A necessary step in the process, perhaps, yet...good riddance?

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