clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Do the Islanders Need to Shed a Culture of Losing?

The firing of Scott Gordon has brought about a wide spectrum of views from Islander fans. Usually when a coach is fired it seems to be a relatively popular decision with the fans. For a lot of people though, the problem was never with Gordon. So it's tough to find where the problem is in the organization. You can't fire Garth Snow or see this as a sign that Snow threw Gordon under the bus. Snow's drafts are considered very good around the league and by a lot of commentators. You can't fault his free agency moves either: although he hasn't landed a huge name, his signings have been low cost and high reward.

Instead, the problem with the Islanders might be deeper and go further back than that. Since that June afternoon in 1994 that Al Arbour announced he was retiring once and for all, the Islanders have seemingly cultivated a losing culture. From owners who cared more about the bottom line, to GMs allowed to run roughshod over the roster with little oversight, to the deprecation of team legends [Note: This has nothing to do with Trottier over the summer, and more to do with Islanders legends being trotted out to sell tickets in the late '90s], it's been a volatile combination which probably hasn't been seen before in one franchise over a near 20-year period.

Quite often I use football references, and I believe this is one of those times where it fits perfectly. Bill Parcells keeps going from team to team bringing success to each one. Since his storied stint as head coach of the Giants, he has twice taken over teams with a 1-15 record and led them to over .500 seasons the following year. It's because when Parcells comes in, he changes the culture of the team.

For the Islanders, somewhere in the organization something has to change. If you think the Gordon firing is going to light a fire under these guys, the reverse can also be argued. If Gordon was truly the problem, the Islanders' unwillingness to actually sack Gordon and instead keep him around in whatever "special assistant" role he might wind up in shows that no one has to be responsible. Instead of some of the young guys coming into the building and seeing "Wow, Coach Gordon is really gone and maybe it's our fault," they are going to still see him around and working for whatever capacity the Islanders dream up.

It's not just Gordon's firing or promotion or whatever it ends up being until the contract runs out. Again and again failures in the Islanders organization are kept around. The most blatant and disheartening of them all was that even after he was finally removed as GM, Mike Milbury continued to work with the Islanders (or Wang's sports organization, as he owned the Dragons at the time), proving even the biggest unmitigated failure in Islanders history still had a comfy spot with the team.

Sometimes when I hear about Wang and Milbury jovially talking during Islanders games with the Bruins, it angers me. If Wang is really upset about the amount of money he lost with the team, the reason for losing that money is right there, sharing a laugh with him.

When Loyalty Backfires?

If in the end stuff like Gordon, Milbury and Dunham among others sticking around is a sign of Wang's or Snow's loyalty, then it's a good sign but it might not be sending the right message. You can even see it in a guy like Blake Comeau who seems to magically be able to turn it on in March and April when his job might be on the line. The team seemingly does not fear the consequences, as the organization has shown a complete inability to threaten players. It might be a thin line between keeping around prospects too long and going to the media and saying the player is sniffing glue, but somewhere in that gray area the Islanders have to show that players have to produce or move on.

It's not just about talent either, but winners. Parcells was infamous for bringing a group of veterans and coaches with him from team to team. Guys that knew how to win and had something that was more important than just talent when it came to winning. In the same vein, Steve Yzerman not only had a winning career as a player with a great organization, but also joined that organization and helped to continue and cultivate that culture. It was a no-lose situation in Tampa to bring in Stevie Y, being that even if he fails on the talent side he might plant the changes to make the team winners.

At the same time, when you look at the choices the Islanders have made over the last 20 years, there seems to be a lack of winners. From retreads like Rich Bowness who had failed hugely in both his previous stops, to Steve Stirling who didn't exactly have a huge AHL record, the Islanders have never brought in someone with a long time history of winning. This isn't about just coaches either; there was nothing in Neil Smith's history to show that he would have worked out on Long Island.

Even Snow doesn't escape this criticism. The franchises he was a part of as a player don't exactly serve as good examples: His time with the mid-'90s Flyers, during which Bob Clarke decided to fight with his superstar player in the press. Or his time with the late '90s Canucks, during which Mike Keenan allowed Mark Messier to do everything possible to anger Vancouver fans. Or his time with the Mike Milbury Islanders, during which the Islanders were run by Mike Milbury.

I don't want to see Capuano or Snow ousted. I want the Islanders to bring in a coach that is going to fit in with the overall idea of the rebuild. But it might not be a bad time to maybe bring in a legendary name, even if it's just a figurehead "culture changing" position. Or someone that can work with the organization and point out what's not working. I think it's lurking out there in all our fears that whatever is wrong might be bigger then we think.

The Islanders tried this offseason to bring in guys who were winners. Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau both came from successful franchises, Eaton was even part of a recent Cup winner. But they don't seem to have the same drive, or to be the type of players who can be described as game-changing winners. They were simply spare parts who needed to be replaced for both teams to improve.

They even seem to lack the same desperation with which guys like James Wisniewski, P.A. Parenteau and Matt Martin are playing the game. All three guys are desperate to prove their worth in the NHL, while Eaton and Mottau both seem to take it as a given that they are NHL players. Doug Weight was once that type of player, but it's obvious he can no longer do it by himself anymore.

Connecting with Winning Culture in their History

The disconnect with the history of the Islanders also seems to be a problem. This of course isn't just on the Islanders, as the NHL has decided to ignore the aberration that came between the Montreal Dynasty and Edmonton Dynasty. Even so, the Islanders themselves seem to do very little in the way of promoting the past of the team. The Islanders Youtube channel has a huge collection of videos. It should surprise no one that two of the top six videos involve large amounts of the past, a Mike Bossy tribute video and the 06-07 Tradition video. The 06-07 Tradition video will send chills down your spine, and it's obvious that it's something that needs to be done again and more often. 

Players say the right things about the past when they sign with the team. But then again we aren't in the Kirk Muller and Brendan Shanahan era in which players will flat out sit out rather than play on a bad team. Sure. the players say everything right about the Island, but you have to wonder if it is anything more then lip service. That the players too have a disconnect from the history of the Islanders. That they can't hear the echoes of what used to be inside the arena. The banners fly above the ice, but they cast no shadow on the current players. Even when a Toronto team is bad, players always sound excited to go there and be a part of that history. Even Europeans seem to have an understanding of what it means to play in Toronto or Montreal.

It should come as no surprise then that multiple times in the last 20 years the Islanders have done radical changes to their Jersey. The first change to the Fisherman logo was so hated by fans that the team attempted to change back to the original logo only a year later. Even Buffalo's hideous Buffaslug had a longer lifetime. The many retouches to what is a classic jersey are insulting to every fan and everyone that's been an Islander. Even now there are rumors that the Islanders are gearing up for a new 3rd Jersey.

The Islanders are going to have to do something different to get themselves out of this rut in the long term. The reason the Gordon firing doesn't feel right (even if you wanted Gordon replaced with someone from the coaching carousel) is that the problem doesn't begin and end at the Coach. For the Islanders to take the next step forward in the rebuilding process they are going to have to take a deep internal organizational look and find out where there have been failures. The Culture of Losing now runs deep within the Islanders, because it's been around so long: With no playoff series wins since 1993, they may be one of the worst franchises of any sport in the last two decades.