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Grading the Islanders: Jeff Tambellini, timeless message board fodder

I do not take on this task happily. If I thought trucking out oft-injured whipping boy Andy Sutton for review was a case of leading a lamb -- albeit a very large one -- to slaughter, I don't know what you call putting Jeff Tambellini up for a grade.

Unlike a guy such as Frans Nielsen, Jeff Tambellini's merits have been debated, rebated, redebated, and driven into the ground over and over and over again on pretty much every forum (online or in-bar) out there. Due to the passage of time without improved results, his supporters camp has gotten smaller. But even today, you will find those who say he never got a chance (ice time, coach's confidence, ample power play time) matching up against those who say his first chance was one too many. In between is a grey area that begs how to seize an opportunity when you get it, no matter how brief.

The killer? By most accounts he's the nicest, most level-headed guy you could meet. Can he serve a role that keeps him in this league? He has one more year to try to prove it.

Jeff Tambellini

#15 / Left Wing / New York Islanders



Apr 13, 1984

(parts of) 4

$587,500 this year, then RFA

Surely this is the last chance...right?

GP G A P +/- PIM PPG TOI PPtoi SHtoi Hits Sh%
2008 - 09 Jeff Tambellini 65 7 8 15 -20 32 0 13:06 0:52 0:07 99 7.1

Random Fact: In 2003's first round, Tambellini was selected (by L.A.) one spot above Anaheim's Corey Perry, and 12 spots behind fellow prodigal prospect Robert Nilsson.

"This is our concern, Dude" Fact: Okay, he's entering Year 5 with the Islanders, and it's been 11 goals (excluding some shootout beauties) in 140 games. Granted, mixed messages and several Bridgeport demotion/callups during that time haven't helped the confidence, but...

The Story: It was another Tambellini year. A slow, rocky start led to a two-week December demotion to get the proverbial scorer's confidence back. But upon his return, he still had a few healthy scratches, and he remained an overlooked option in many offensive situations. That blistering shootout wrist shot is sublime, though; grant him that.

Tambellini's ice time per game was 13th among Islanders forwards (that includes Mike Comrie, who was traded, and Mike Sillinger, who returned for seven games before shutting it down for good). He averaged under a minute of PP time per game -- sometimes he'd get a decent shot, but usually he was on the garbage-time cleanup unit. So that's not a great opportunity nor confidence builder for a guy who's supposed to score goals, but still: He didn't shine when given the (however brief) chance on the featured PP unit. In about an hour of total 5-on-4 PP time last year, he had zero goals, zero assists, and was the worst-rated Islanders 5-on-4 forward to average at least 30 seconds a game.

A Crisis of Roles: The question was brought up to Scott Gordon: When you have a successful AHL scorer who isn't getting it done in the NHL, what then? Gordon mentioned former P-Bruin and Gordon underling Andy Hilbert as a successful convert, a guy who remade himself into a defensive checking forward: "What do you want to be -- a half-million dollar all-around player in the NHL, or maybe a hundred thousand dollar scorer in the American League?" But Tambellini wasn't really used on the penalty kill last year, and you know what else? Andy Hilbert is still an unsigned free agent. That doesn't bode well, though it may slightly open up the chance for Tambellini in that diminished role.

Get this, though: Tambellini was third among Islanders forwards in hits -- behind only regular bruisers Tim Jackman and Trent Hunter. Clearly, one part of Tambellini's attempt to adapt his game for coaches, and to increase the intensity they so desired, was to bang bodies. He did that, and he did it fairly well given his size, without taking a bunch of bad penalties in the process.

But is that his ideal role? Is it achievable? Is it just an unfortunate byproduct of the "tweener" status that has plagued his stunted evolution into an NHL forward? Put it this way: If Jeff Tambellini were given a half-season (some would say another half-season) on an NHL scoring line, could he produce enough to stay there? So far, the indication is a resounding no. He hasn't gotten to the traffic areas enough and he doesn't get his rather lethal shot off quickly enough. Does that mean you right him off now, or could he still do bloom late, at age 25?

Well, we'll find out. He's got one more year on the contract. If he starts this year off well, I can see him sticking around. But what is "well?" If he hasn't bloomed by the third quarter and hasn't taken ownership of an alternative role, I see the Islanders burying him while creating room to evaluate other, younger forwards. It's been mentioned several times before, but this, finally, is his make-or-break moment.

The Poem (haiku this time):

Flowers reaching Fall
Such is Jeff Tambellini
Will there be a Spring?

The Grade: Regulars know the drill. New visitors and frequent lurkers, vote your grade relative to the expectations you had going into last season. That means taking what you expected of him and saying whether he went above or below that. Meanwhile, answer any of the questions above or explain your grade in comments, whether you want to take on what went wrong, what could(?) still go right, and where you see things going this coming season.