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Islanders Back & Forth: Rebuild Roulette; Sorokin Show; Tahoe Troubles

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A new weekly look at the Islanders’ most recent - and next few - games. Mostly.

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins
Quit it!
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

I’m not gonna sugarcoat this. A brutal week lay ahead followed by an even more brutal month.

First, let’s look back at the (half good, half brutal) week that was.

Last week for the New York Islanders:

Game 14: 3-1 win over the Sabres

Man, rebuilds can suck. The minute a team looks like its spinning its wheels to nowhere (hello, Predators), the call goes out to burn it all down and start from scratch. And, like, that’s a plan, sure. What nobody tells you is that there are no guarantees that a rebuild will make your team any less shitty than it already is.

When the Sabres drafted Jack Eichel second overall in 2015, after two full seasons of being unspeakably awful, they surely didn’t think they’d still be a non-playoff team (on their third GM and umpteenth coach) six years later. Getting those high picks and stockpiling even more via trades is only one part of the solution. If those picks don’t turn into quality players at or about the same time, aren’t augmented by even more trades for the right guys and aren’t led by the right coaches, a rebuild can stall out in just a handful of seasons.

Islanders fans learned that hard lesson a while ago. The John Tavares Era produced just three playoff appearances in nine seasons. As subpar as that was, it’s infinitely more successful than Eichel’s Sabres have been. We envisioned a first overall pick to be followed by a period of greatness. We got intermittent competence instead.

Building a Stanley Cup winning team is very, very, very, VERY difficult. There’s more than one way to do it. I’m not saying tanking is a bad thing necessarily. Just that it’s only the first step in a journey that might not get very far.

Game 15: 3-0 win over the Sabres

You ever get really hyped for a movie, and then have it meet or even exceed your expectations? It’s one of life’s great joys, I think, but it’s pretty rare. I’ve had it happen only a few times. Captain America: First Avenger and Pacific Rim are the two examples I always go to. Every once in a while, a movie you expect very little from can be surprisingly awesome. I call this The Mummy Rule but it could also be known as the Guardians of the Galaxy Paradigm. More often than not, those high expectations aren’t even close to being met (still looking at you, Godzilla, 1998).

This game was the culmination of all the hype we’ve built up for Ilya Sorokin. Yes, it was his fourth start. Yes, it was against the Sabres. But if you had waited and read and wondered and hoped for this guy to put on a show in net wearing an Islanders jersey, this was the game for you. Finally. It was easily one of the most straight up satisfying Islanders games in recent memory.

I mean, some of these saves are just unreal. Should be just the beginning.

Game 16: 4-1 loss to the Penguins

I, of course, blame the Penguins for the whole Rebuild thing. After three Stanley Cups, it’s easy to say they (or the Blackhawks) are the best case scenario for a Burn It Down operation.

In order to replicate Pittsburgh’s success, all you need is to A. suffer a string of multiple terrible seasons; B. obtain a bunch of Top 3 picks; C. have the absolute insane good fortune to draft Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal in successive years; and D. fill in the rest of the lineup with capable veterans. Seems easy to me! Except, it’s not.

A few years ago, an NHL GM went off on a whole rant about “The Pittsburgh Model” and how it was basically dumb luck and a whole lotta bullshit.

“They got a lottery. They won a god damn lottery and they got the best player in the game. Is that available to me? Should we do that? Should we ask the League to have a lottery this year, and maybe we pick first?” he said.

“The Pittsburgh model? My ass.”

...But I love when people talk about the Pittsburgh model. The simple fact is that they got the best player … we came in second that year in Anaheim. We got Bobby Ryan. Impact player, good player. They got Sidney Crosby in the lottery.”

Obviously, it was a little more than luck that’s made the Penguins so good in the Crosby/Malkin era. Again, it’s about drafting the right players, having them actualize as All Stars or near All Stars at the same time, having the right coaches and finding the right additions to fill in the holes. After those four Top 3 picks, the Penguins took epic bust Angelo Esposito at No. 20 in 2007. A year later, he was a throw-in in a deal for a few months of Marian Hossa, which really ended up being a deal for stalwart Pascal Dupuis. Dumb luck or the right trade at the right time? Who knows?

Wonder what ever happened to that loudmouth GM anyway...

Oh. Right.

Game 17: 3-2 loss to the Penguins

This one hurt. Like, really hurt. I may have lost my head after it was over. I won’t apologize. I woke up on Sunday still mad about it and I’ll probably still be mad about it today.

It’s crazy how a week can start so promisingly and end so crushingly in this sport. Two businesslike wins against a beatable opponent, then two demoralizing losses against a direct rival.

Yeah, the Islanders did some good things against the Penguins in both of these games, maybe even enough to come away with some points. But they didn’t. And they have two more games against them next week. It wouldn’t surprise me if the same fate befell them in those games, too.

We’ve seen this story for two-plus seasons now. The Islanders need to get 5-on-5 offense more consistently from more than one source. That’s how they win; when all four lines are dangerous, especially on the forecheck. Until they get there, either with this roster or with some tweaks, teams like the Penguins, Capitals and Flyers will outpace them.

Record for the week: 2-2-0

Season Record: 8-6-3

Next week for the New York Islanders:

Monday, Feb. 22 vs the Sabres

So what happens with Jack Eichel? Right now, he’s getting the bum’s rush out of Buffalo with everyone and their mother scrambling to pawn all of the players they don’t want on their teams off on the Sabres in exchange for their captain and star. Yeah, that’ll totally work.

Eichel could very well get traded. Once the redoubtable Elliotte Friedman starts talking about it, you know the chances are serious. Eichel’s no-movement clause kicks in after this season and the last time a big ticket star on an underwhelming team with a looming NMC was in the rumor mill, P.K. Subban ended up a Nashville Predator.

I feel bad for Sabres fans that this is their reality but there could ultimately be a brighter future for them on the horizon. We’ve seen that as well. For now...well... at least their uniforms are tight as hell.

Thursday, Feb. 25 vs the Bruins

Nice work by the Lehigh Valley Phantoms hanging in there against the Bruins for a period. They ended up only losing 7-3. Free cold brew coffee for David Pastrnak this week.

It feels like this weekend’s two NHL Outdoor games will be remembered for some time. Probably not for the games themselves, but remembered nonetheless.

As beyond tired as I am of the “This is just like playing on the pond when we were kids, eh?!” storyline that the NHL beats to death at every one of these outdoor games, the Lake Tahoe matches did look spectacular. Even at night (after the sun had played hell with the ice during the day, delaying the Vegas-Colorado game for nine hours or so and pushing Philly-Boston to 7:30 pm), the visuals were cool and unique in a way that a lot of the recent Stadium Series/Winter Classic games have not been.

I just wish the NHL had gone a step further and given us the full pond hockey experience and eschewed broadcasters altogether. That’s probably too much to ask but it would have been amazing.

Saturday, Feb. 27 and Sunday, Feb. 28 vs the Penguins

I’m tired of talking about or thinking about or looking at the Penguins. So let’s talk about Kieffer Bellows.

For Barry Trotz to make pointed comments like this after Thursday’s loss to Pittsburgh is pretty telling. That Bellows has been “in every meeting” and “every practice” and isn’t coming away on the same page as his teammates has to be a concern for the coach. Maybe one game against a talented team was biting off more than the kid could chew. But comparing him directly to Michael Dal Colle and Oliver Wahlstrom was about as barbed as we’ve ever seen Trotz.

So I’m curious to see when Bellows gets back into the lineup and how he fares. On the flipside, Wahlstrom seems to have taken those comments and had an even better game against the Penguins on Saturday night. The Islanders are going to need younger guys like this to step into more prominent roles sooner rather than later. Any separation between them will be affect the team’s plans for them.

Predicted record for the week: 2-2. Man, this week feels BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUTAL.

Canadian Sportswriters Say The Darnedest Things:

Mike and I talked about this on the podcast last week, but it’s worth repeating. This is the kind of investigative reporting you can only get from Sportsnet Insiders like Chris Johnston, who has all 10 of his fingers on the pulse of the Toronto Maple Leafs, The Golden Chosen Ones.

Wow. Spare player talks to assistant coach? More than once? If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes via smart phone camera, I would never have believed such a thing was possible. Will the Leafs ever stop innovating? What other team could possibly take an unprecedented step such as this? Dear reader, the answer is none. None more teams.

Before 2018, Johnston was one of my most trusted NHL reporters. Since then (I wonder what happened that summer...), he’s been basically a one-man Leafs propaganda machine. It stinks to lose a guy to the Big Smoke like that but at least we get breathless gameday updates on the team’s Circle of Leadership.

Incredible. Thanks.

Alternate Programming Options:

Being a parent means watching a lot of kids’ shows. Sometimes, you end up enjoying them yourself. Disney Channel’s delightful Big City Greens is a show my daughter loves and my wife and I find ourselves leaving on even after she’s left the room to do something else.

It centers around the Green family - optimistic dad Bill, barefoot troublemaker son Cricket, oddball daughter Tilly and hair-trigger Gramma Alice - living in the last farm house in Big City (their neighbors are Big Coffee, the show’s stand-in for Starbucks, and a luxury high rise apartment building). The city was built around the family’s property and stubborn Gramma refused to move. So now the family navigates the modern world while still being anchored to their roots.

Every episode has two stories and the structure of each usually involves one family member doing something insane, getting chased by the others, then learning a lesson (it is a kids show, after all). The stories are always sweet but mostly, it’s just hilarious.

The creators, brothers Chris and Shane Haughton, are veterans of Disney’s Gravity Falls and The Simpsons comics, and they’re really good at pacing and packing in as many gags as they can into every scene. Sometimes it’s just a look or a line that, for whatever reason, makes you giggle even hours after seeing it. A few bits have entered into our daily conversations. “Betrayal!”

I highly recommend Big City Greens, but definitely not just for the kids’ sake. Adults will find plenty of relatable gags and situations here, too. We won’t tell your co-workers and buddies that you’re watching Disney Channel at home. Promise.

BONUS: If you’re more nostalgia-minded, Disney XD’s modern and meta DuckTales reboot, which ends sometime this year, is great as well.

Classic Islanders Clip Just For fun:

We’ve seen enough Sabres and Penguins clips. Here’s some mayhem against the Bruins from 1980. Mike Milbury throwing hands at Duane Sutter? Bad idea.