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.
I decided to follow up a player I didn’t remember with one I remembered very well. And by the looks of things, a lot of other people remember Brad Isbister, too.
That’s probably because his arrival was a big deal. Isbister was acquired from the Coyotes at the 1999 trade deadline for Robert Reichel (a bunch of picks changed hands, too. None of the players amounted to anything in the NHL) and was considered a notable prospect at the time.
He was big (6’-4”, about 220 pounds), wasn’t afraid to throw hands (102 PIMs in 66 games in his rookie year) and had been very productive in juniors, particularly during a MONSTER 44-goal, 89-point second season. Drafted in the third round of the ‘95 draft by the then-Winnipeg Jets, Isbister was seen as a quality return for a team trading its first line center and staring a long rebuild in the face.
Things started out just fine. Isbister had 22 goals and 42 points in 1999-2000 for one of the worst teams the Islanders have ever iced. For a team that finished second-to-last in the NHL in goals, only he and 35-goal scorer Mariusz Czerkawski had anything resembling a scoring touch. He made good use of his power play time with 16 goals over two seasons. In 2000-01, Isbister missed an even larger chunk of time with an injury and slipped to just 18 goals and 32 points. Not great, but between being hurt and playing on an absolutely terrible team, he still represented a potential All Star and a hopeful future.
I was actually a big fan of Isbister’s at the time. I contemplated making his name and number my first jersey purchase, but I went with a blank one, which ended up becoming a Peca No. 27 (that I still have).
In the summer of 2001, the Islanders brought in a new coach in Peter Laviolette, as well as actual All Stars Michael Peca, Alexei Yashin and - on the eve of the season - Chris Osgood. Suddenly, this nowhere team was looking like a contender. A winger like Brad Isbister could finally play with a talented center and provide some much-needed depth.
Here’s a cool example of what he could do (with a cameo from Garth Snow, too). It was plays like this that made you think, “Man, this dude could be so good...”
Except, it didn’t work out that way. Despite playing in a career-high 79 games, Isbister couldn’t find any consistency with Yashin, or really anyone else. He finished with 17 goals and 21 assists and never really felt like part of that almost legendary team.
A number of paragraphs in the book Fishsticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders by Alan Hahn and Peter Botte are dedicated to talking about how Isbister, Czerkawski and Oleg Kvasha simply couldn’t find any traction when surrounded by actual good players for the first time in their careers. They weren’t terrible or anything. They just weren’t capable of giving the same performances every night and making the Islanders deeper and more dangerous than they already were. Isbister contributed one goal in three games of that first round playoff series against the Maple Leafs.
Losing an established place on your old team had to be pretty frustrating. Which is probably how something like this happens. I think we can all relate.
Coming into the 2002-03 season at age 25, it was make or break time for Brad Isbister. He was either going to become a regular driver of play or the train was going to leave without him. At training camp of that year, he was... uh, really, focused on... something.
From Dave Anderson in the New York Times:
Brad Isbister enjoys himself when he plays hockey, and he apparently wants to keep it that way. He once compared himself to Beavis, the hapless teenage cartoon character, and he refuses to define maturity, let alone find some.
’’I don’t know if anyone knows what maturity is,’’ Isbister said recently.
That’s an all-time lede by one of the greats right there. Unfortunately, whatever maturity or consistency or drive the Islanders wanted to instill in him didn’t take. He had 10 goals and 13 assists in 53 injury-shortened games and was basically treading water as he had the previous three seasons. And so in March of 2003, nearly four years to the day from which he came to Long Island, Isbister was traded to Edmonton, along with wrecking ball forward Raffi Torres, for defenseman Janne Niinimaa and a pick.
It’s possible that he was looking for a change of scenery, too. But his Oilers stint was more of the same; underwhelming numbers and a lot of woulda-coulda-shoulda. Isbister played 64 games with Edmonton over a season and change and finished with just 13 goals and 10 assists.
He signed in Switzerland for the 04-05 lockout, and was traded to Boston by the Oilers. After 58 games, six goals and 17 assists as a Bruin, he became a true journeyman. Signed with Carolina as a free agent, traded to the Rangers, signed with Ottawa and finally with Vancouver. There were a few AHL teams and European teams and World Championships teams thrown in there, too. He announced his retirement in 2009 and spent that season as the head coach at the University of Calgary.
There were games in which Brad Isbister was the best player on the ice. I know because I saw them. He looked the part, and seemed to have all the skills he needed to be an NHL All Star. Instead, he was a somewhat productive 10-year veteran who dealt with a bunch of injuries. Maybe we should have adjusted our expectations at some point.
But sometimes... man, that dude could be so good...