LaFontaine to Okposo: 20 Years of Context for the Coliseum Rally

That's the hope.

Note: The referendum rally takes place beginning at 4 p.m. today, with Blue Oyster Cult performing. Ty Wishart and Matt Moulson are expected, along with other Islanders names. If you went, feel free to share experiences in this thread. Meanwhile, check this thread for information on the Rock the Referendum contest, a way for residents and non-residents alike to engage.

It's almost impossible to overstate the gravity of next Monday, and the arena referendum is naturally dominating discussion and topics. That said, we still want to provide non-political hockey content for everyone who turns to this site for a diversion.

The latest Q&A with superagent Don Meehan (who represents Moulson) got me thinking about the Islanders past and present, their condition now versus their condition in 1991 when Pat LaFontaine was holding out. For 20 years a variety of factors have held this franchise back, leading to the departure of star after star. But so far in 2011, the Islanders have locked up key players like Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Moulson. A change is afoot...one that can finally pay off, if outside variables finally go the Islanders' way.

"Does he want to stay? What are his thoughts on term? Now we finally get to the comps (comparables). What’s the internal salary structure? Who’s he comparable to on the team?"

>>Agent Don Meehan, on the negotiating process. Toronto Star

That key phrase, "internal salary structure" caught my eye, because you know it's something teams try to exercise but it's rare to see agents discuss it publicly, as it overtly implies accepting less money than that available on the open market. Whether you're a cap ceiling team or an internal budget team, it's in your interest to operate this way for one simple reason: Maintaining flexibility, so that you can more easily adapt to changing needs.

This spring Okposo and Grabner signed five-year contracts that carried over into what would be their first year of unrestricted free agency. But just as importantly, they reflected player and team buying into an internal salary structure.

Of course, despite their promise and career trajectory, Okposo and Grabner are hardly established stars, so it's not like they left a ton of money on the table. (And further, they were restricted, so their immediate leverage was quite limited.) But in return for the term commitment the team showed them, they accepted total compensation figures that -- should they continue to improve -- would be short of what they could command two and four summers from now. You could argue Moulson also took a deal that fit the "internal salary structure," though his case is a little different thanks to his breakout at age 26 and 27.

There is only one way players will do this: If they believe in the direction the team is headed. Contrast this to 20 years ago this fall, when Pat LaFontaine (represented by Meehan) had his firm break with the organization.

John Pickett was trying to sell the Islanders at the time, and LaFontaine said he would not stay with the team as long as Pickett remained owner. He demanded a trade, held out of training camp, and didn't play another game. In the PR battle, the Times at the time reported that "Meehan charged that Pickett gets $12 million a season in cable television revenue but puts only $4 million of it back into the team":

The dispute between LaFontaine and the Islanders began as a salary negotiation but has evolved into a personality conflict between LaFontaine and the owner. Pickett has said that the Islanders have offered LaFontaine $6 million for four seasons, a considerable raise from LaFontaine's current salary of $400,000. Neither LaFontaine nor Meehan will comment on the Islanders' offer.

[...]

Meehan said that teams interested in trading for LaFontaine have told him that no trade can be made because the Islanders are for sale and LaFontaine is a primary asset.

"Every team I have spoken to has indicated that in conversations with Bill Torrey, they have been told that a trade is not possible because all the assets are frozen," Meehan said.

Many fans remember, this situation tore at our souls. I was Patty LaFontaine when I played on roller skates in my basement, but that month I was lost, an Islander with a blank on my back. What began as the unthinkable the previous season descended into a nightmare, as Pat LaFontaine, the still-young star and brightest bridge from the extinguished flames of the Dynasty, would never play another game as an Islander. Worse, an owner's decisions -- some would say neglect -- were at least partly to blame. (Brent Sutter also was demanding a trade that fall -- it's only through luck and the genius of Bill Torrey that both malcontents brought back players as important as Pierre Turgeon and Steve Thomas.)

This, of course, was not quite the beginning, but far from the end of serial ownership and management madness that is chiefly responsible for hits the franchise still takes today. (To be clear, the first half of Charles Wang's tenure as owner also fed this rap, but at least many of his mistakes were genuine attempts to break the Islanders out of the cycle he inherited, rather than attempts to cut and run.)

Slowly, carefully, patiently the Islanders' current management has gone about building the roster in a way that prepares it for long-term success. Players speak highly not just of the area they live in, but the way they are treated by management and ownership. It's taken a long time, it's been an agonizing wait, but the Islanders appear to have many of their ducks aligned in a way fans can again see promise, hope and a source of pride. The old narrative is changing. Even outsiders look at the Islanders' stable of prospects and young pros and think, "At last. That club is doing things right."

There is but one massive shackle from the Old Narrative still left: That building. That arena you both love and hate. The site of good times, great sight lines, loud crowds -- and leaks, cramped conditions, limited amenities, a concrete punchline.

It'd be a shame if, after all these years, and after their best course correction in decades, Nassau County's "compromise and accident that became obsolete minutes after the ribbon was cut" held them back yet again.

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