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State of the Island: Injuries and system collapse

The Islanders sit at last place in the league at 4-8-1, after blowing another late lead to fellow cellar-dweller Atlanta, who were all to happy to provide the emphatic kick.

Rebuild or no rebuild, new system or old, one fact is indicative of why: Backup goaltender Joey MacDonald has appeared in 10 out of 13 games. Last season at this stage, the Isles were 9-4, and backup Wade Dubielewicz had appeared in exactly three games -- starting in a blowout in Toronto, coming in for mop-up against Carolina, and replacing an injured Rick DiPietro in the middle of the Al Arbour Night win over the Pens.

Last season, Ted Nolan rode a hot DiPietro and a healthy lineup to the fast start (remember, the Isles only faded once the gruesome injury list reached critical mass). This season, while trying to install a very different system, coach Scott Gordon has had none of those basic tools at his disposal.

DiPietro has not been healthy since mid-way through last season. After summer surgery, the four games he appeared in this season before another surgery were four too many, too soon. He's out just 4-6 weeks, but after they rushed him back the first time, whether they should ask anything of him at all this season is an open question. There's another decade on his deal (and physical health) to think about.

But keeping DiPietro company on the injured list are none other than:

  • faceoff-winner and secondary scorer Mike Sillinger;
  • last year's top D-men in steady Radek Martinek and shut-down Brendan Witt;
  •  2008 first-round pick Josh Bailey, yet to play his first NHL game;
  • third-pair D-man Freddy Meyer

In addition to that list -- a few of them at least started the season healthy -- this year began with second-pair D-men Chris Campoli (first 5 games) and Andy Sutton (first 8 games) on the injury shelf.

Add to this sick bin one significant disappointment: Last season's leading scorer Mike Comrie (21-28-49p) appears lost (2-6-8p) in Gordon's system. So the World Cup '96 Reunion Tour of Doug Weight and Bill Guerin has carried the scoring load, with a major assist from free-agent steal Mark Streit on the blueline.

Simply, the rebuilding Islanders to not have the depth to withstand this kind of carnage. While it has provided valuable (over?)exposure to their developing youngsters, it's meant constant lineup discontinuity and a nightly challenge for the first-year coach to keep them on task.

“The forecheck we’ve practiced does not come close to resembling the way we played in the third period last night.” The coach added, “They’re playing safe at times, and we all see what happens when we play safe.”

But it's not all bad news. Bailey, Martinek and Sillinger are nearing returns. And despite blowing leads lately, the Islanders have shown increasing glimpses of what Gordon's system can look like when they skate. The fact that they even manged to create leads in the first place in consecutive games against Montreal, Columbus, New York, and Atlanta tells us something.

After the loss to the Thrashers botched a potential (albeit modest) three-game win streak, Gordon's frustration both illustrated what's wrong and how close they are to forward progress:

"The biggest thing is we stopped skating," Gordon said. "I told them, 'If you can't figure out what gives us success, it's skating.' ... The fact we play with caution when they've got the green light to go is frustrating. It's very frustrating to throw away 40 solid minutes of hockey and have it happen again. It's more a failure to do our system than anything else."

In recent games, the Islanders' "good 40 minutes" have by no means been perfect. But they've been good enough to build protectable leads. Maybe it's the old habits of the old clutch-and-grab defensive NHL these players can't shake. But If the Islanders get some semblance of a healthy skating lineup back (never mind DiPietro for now), we may just get a chance to see what kind of chaos Gordon's system can create, what kind of players the Islanders' youngsters can become.

Absolutely no one expected the Isles to be even imitation contenders this year. Few outside their roster thought a playoff spot was even in reach. But there are good reasons to think they should be better than this.