The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.
As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.
The Islanders of the late 1990’s were very, very bad. But give them credit for one thing: they provided a large number of players with an opportunity to play the most regular NHL minutes they would ever get in their careers.
Two-time 30 goal scorer and NHL All Star Mariusz “The Polish Prince” Czerkawski is the poster boy for this phenomenon, but there were many others who benefitted from the Islanders’ notable lack of top line talent.
Take Mike Watt, for example. Acquired by the Islanders from the Oilers straight-up for “Goalie of the Future” Eric Fichaud in the summer of 1998, Watt had been a 20-goal scorer at both Michigan State and in the AHL. When he got called up to NHL, he even saw some shifts on Edmonton’s top line with future Islanders Doug Weight and Ryan Smyth. But in 14 games, he had only a single goal and a pair of assists.
After the trade and a standout training camp, Watt played 75 games for the Islanders and had eight goals and 17 assists for 23 points. While that doesn’t sound like much, all of those would later represent the highest totals of his NHL career.
This was during the time when I wrote for the Islanders Game Time program. We had access to the players and interviewed them regularly, and in the 1998-99 season alone, we did five (5!) features on Mike Watt. He must have thought we were stalkers or something. We asked him about his youth, his mentors, his thoughts on working along the boards, his friendship with fellow Spartan Bryan Smolinski and a potpourri of personal info for an “Isle File” bio. Some of his favorites includes Tin Roof ice cream, The Shawshank Redemption, Vincent’s Clam Bar and Marine Biology.
Sadly, he couldn’t improve on the modest numbers from his first season on Long Island in Year 2. He went scoreless in 22 games before being sent to the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL in December. He was recalled in February, and score five goals and six assists in the next 24 games.
Here’s one, which showed off the kind of skill he could display on very, very rare occasion:
In May of 2000, with the Islanders season way over, Watt was placed on waivers and picked up by Nashville. He played 18 games for the Predators (under Barry Trotz, obvs), but mostly for Milwaukee of the AHL. The Preds traded him to the Flyers in May 2001, where he played for their AHL squad, too. In 2002-03, he played his final five NHL games for the Hurricanes, who signed him as a free agent. He played until 2008, hopping between the minors, Russia and Sweden.
After retirement, Watt got into coaching and management and has run or worked for several minor league teams in Amarillo, Texas and Bloomington, Illinois.
Mike Watt couldn’t quite make the most of his NHL opportunity when the Islanders were looking for literally anyone that could play a little bit (the fact that he played under three different head coaches and one insane GM on a bargain basement team that was severely undermanned certainly didn’t help his development). But he was a hero to another underpaid employee just looking to keep his head above water while swimming out of his depth. Expect to see some more of Watt’s teammates appearing in this space.
Thanks to Mulligan for the suggestion.