When Rick DiPietro entered the league, it was with a bang. The Islanders were again one of the worst teams in the league, but finally owned the first overall pick in the 2000 draft too. For years the luckless Islanders would find themselves bounced down due to the draft lotto; this time the lottery bounced in their favor. The choice seemed to come down to two extremely talented wingers, Dany Healtey and Marian Gaborik.
But these were the Mike Milbury Islanders, so nothing could ever be that simple. With new owners on board, he convinced them to make a splash and draft Rick DiPietro as the first goaltender to go first overall in the modern draft. That he also happened to be a Massachusetts kid who was going to Boston University probably had no weight on the decision-making of career Bruin Mike Milbury.
This being Milbury, the decision to draft DiPietro had some odd repercussions for the Islanders roster. The current promising goaltending duo of Roberto Luongo and Kevin Weekes were swiftly dealt. Luongo was packaged with Olli Jokinen for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish, in what is arguably one of the worst deals in NHL history. Weekes was packaged with the rights to Kristian Kudroc (a first-round pick the previous year) for the pick that became Raffi Torres.
The 37-year-old John Vanbiesbrouck was brought in to start, while DiPietro was invited to camp to challenge Wade Flaherty for the backup spot. Despite Vanbiesbrouck flaming out the previous two years while playing on a very talented Flyers team, Milbury had the gall to claim, "We will be in the playoffs or it will be my head." This despite a roster that looked worse then anything that has played on Coliseum ice in the last 5 years.
Beezer struggled, Wade Flathery was Wade Flathery, and on Jan 27, 2001, Islanders fans got their first look at the future of the franchise. Despite stopping 29 of 31 shots, the Islanders just couldn't muster the goal support for DiPietro, in what would become a trend in his career. DiPietro would finish his first season on the Island with just three wins, looking more like a 19-year-old that should have still been in school than a regular NHL player.
The Islanders were not in the playoffs. Milbury's head remained.
DiPietro though would appear at the World Junior Championship for USA, starting six games and going 5-1 and posting a 1.33 GAA. He also played in the IIHF World Championships at age 19, starting three games and posting a .919 SV%.
Meanwhile, the Islanders re-tooled at the goaltender position the following summer, bringing in Garth Snow and claiming Chris Osgood off waivers before the season. Despite Milbury's tendency to give up on every first rounder he had, it was decided to send DiPietro down to the newly born Islanders AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
That first Sound Tiger team had a lot of promising youngsters, but today for most Islander fans two names jump off the sheet: Rick DiPietro, obviously, and Trent Hunter, who led the team in points. These two along with Radek Martinek would spend the decade together, through the good times and the bad. In their inaugural season they led the AHL in points and made it to the finals, losing to the Rob Brown- and Norm Maracle-led Chicago Wolves.
2002-03 was another solid season in Bridgeport for DiPietro as he improved his save percentage. He was called up to the big club and got a smattering of starts until the team felt comfortable trading Chris Osgood (a trade that brought Justin Papineau as well as the draft pick that became Jeremy Colliton to the Island). DiPietro even got in a playoff game, playing 15 minutes against the Senators during Game 2.
As Garth Snow returned to his career norm in 2003-04, DiPietro took over the starter's role and played 50 games. That year the Islanders finished 8th in the conference by 6 points. According to Hockey Reference's GPS (Goalie Point Shares), DiPietro was worth 7.8 points, the difference between making and not making the playoffs that year. DiPietro was solid in the playoffs, but the team only managed 5 goals in the 5-game series.
2005-06 saw DiPietro raise his game another level. Despite the team finishing under NHL .500, he managed to finish the season at 30-24-5. This would be the first of three consecutive 60-game seasons for DiPietro, and his second of four straight 50+ game seasons. Despite the team having Miroslav Satan, Alexei Yashin and Jason Blake, it was obvious the team was only going to go as far as DiPietro could carry them.
For the 2006-07 season, the season after he signed the infamous 15-year contract, DiPietro actually posted one of the top seasons for an Islanders goalie. Among Islander goalies who played 40+ games in a season (there are 39 of them) it is tied for 1st in wins (32), 1st in Shots Against (1917), 1st in Saves (1761), 1st in SV% (.919), 9th in GAA (2.58) and tied for 2nd in Shutouts (5). Along with Tommy Salo he's the only Islanders goaltender to have 5+ shutouts in 2 seasons.
Unfortunately, in the playoffs the Islanders lost 3 of 4 games by just a goal. Little did we know then that it would be their last playoff appearance for 5 seasons and counting. Quite possibly it will go down as DiPietro's last appearance in a playoff game too.
DiPietro started out strong in the 2007-08 season, going 19-17-6 with a .911 SV% and 2.58 GAA, keeping the team in the playoff hunt. Following the All Star break though, he went 7-11-1 with a .881 and a 3.36 GAA. What happened at the All-Star break has grown into legend, and infamously DP had an open mic during that moment.
From there, we don't need to rehash everything that's happened. The multiple injuries, the inability to play at an NHL level, the walking punchline that DiPietro and his contract have come. We've lived through it roughly once a week for the last 4 or 5 years. Now he's toiling back in Bridgeport, getting reps and trying to see if his body will let his game return.
For a few seasons before the injuries hit, DiPietro was good enough to take some mediocre teams at best to the playoffs. He might have even won a playoff series if the team had managed to score the occasional goal with him in net.
There will always be the questions of what could have been.
In the end, the swirl around him was never exactly about DiPietro. It was the laundry list of names that could have been on the Island without his drafting. It was about mocking an owner who was an outsider to hockey. Name a single athlete that has turned down a contract because it was too long? Hell, people are still giving out long contracts to players with a scarier injury history than DiPietro had when he signed. Sidney Crosby anyone?
Rick DiPietro turned into everyone's favorite scapegoat. But there is very little that DiPietro could have done. For those that hate Milbury, he's a reminder of that era. For those railing about the ridiculously long NHL contracts, he was one of the first and a harbinger of what could go wrong. Among Islander fans I've heard it all, from him being a puppet master behind the scenes with Wang, to him being a locker room cancer.
Time heals all wounds. Very few players stick around for 12 seasons on Long Island. Especially when it comes to goalies. While he isn't Hall of Fame material, DiPietro is 2nd in most categories among Islanders goalies behind only Billy Smith. Even today there are plenty of people in the Coliseum with their old DiPietro jerseys still on. In time it won't be about the hip injuries or the contract. If the team ever recaptures success that eluded it in the decade during and before his tenure, maybe fans will even separate those frustrations from the player who had little control over many of them.
For Rick DiPietro, the end might be the best new beginning for him in a long time.