Friday, October 10, 2008

And We're Back...

After about a month's layoff I'm back. Coincidentally enough so is the hockey season. I would've kept up the blog over the last month or so, but I became so bogged down in the dog days of summer/the beginning of fall/the start of training camp/everything else that updates just didn't happen. Also, until the beginning of training camp, nothing really happened on many of the message boards. Oh sure, there were a few posts here and there, a few predictions about the up coming season, and a few stories shared by the masses on the internet; but there wasn't really too much substance. This spot is driven by the content provided to me by others. So, my fellow fans, if I am to have content, then you all need to be talking. 

In any case, the Islanders season has begun. Now that hockey has arrived I have content again. Which is good. 

Now, I love to make predictions, but I realize that I am just no good at it. I stick by my "boom" and "bust" predictions, but I am going to try and limit looking into my crystal ball to addressing the web comments that I find. For instance Kilden60 from IslanderMania wrote:

"...lets see how it all plays out over the first 10 games, i bet there is gonna be some rotation on the lines." 

My swirling crystal ball see the same thing. The only difference is that instead of the first 10 games, I foresee almost the entire season. I say this for a few reasons. First, as I heard on the Devils radio broadcast tonight the Islanders used 40 different players last season. The team was struck by the injury bug. It was bad. This season will see much of the same. The system that Scott Gordon has implemented is one that is high speed and high energy and there are a number of players that will not be able to play 82 games in this system. I am referring to the 9 players on the team that are 30 or older. Of them, only Streit, Martinek, and Sim look to me as if they will be in every game (barring a puck to the face, dirty hit, etc.). Of the reast, Andy Sutton and Mike Sillinger are already down, and while Doug Weight and Bill Guerin look pretty spry now, those 37 year olds may very well need a break at one or more points during the season. 

The real reason why there will be much line shuffling is because you can only have so many players on the roster at any given time. The team gave some long hard looks at a few young guys that likely were not expected to show up as well as they did during training camp. I tend to agree with the speculation that has been floated around by Chris Botta and B.D. Gallof, among others, that the team's roster was set sometime between mid July or early August. When the kids showed up in camp there were only so many spots to go around, and when and if Mike Sillinger can go again there will be one less roster spot. While the team has manifested a desire to play the young guys, no veteran will lose his job to a rookie. Period. 

The only answer then is to shuffle the kids through the lines that are populated by younguns. This can be both beneficial and detrimental to the team. It is beneficial because it gives a number of the young players currently at Bridgeport a taste of the NHL life. This will give them a chance to see if they can stick with the big club and if they can even proper there. After all, there were not high expectations for players like Trevor Smith, Kurtis McLean, or Brett Skinner, but they managed to stick around until the end of camp, and Skinner was supposed to be on the open night roster. These three guys, along with players like Mike Iggulden will be the first called up in the event of injuries and, if this season has the same injuries as last season, may even get the chance to play for the Isles at the same time. The line shuffling, of course, can also be very detrimental to the team because it does not allow the lines to settle. The cohesion that would usually be allowed to form between players likely would not be there. At least, no in the same way. The experience is arguably more important to the players at this point, and with this roster, but that cohesion would really up the team's entertainment value a ton. At least, that's what the crystal ball says. 

Random Though:

Scott Gordon seems to still be a relatively unknown commodity for most Islanders fans. However, he does seem to focus on preparation and hockey I.Q. as much as having heart and pure skill. I for one remain a little bit skeptical about him. I have no doubt that he will give it his all, but I would not be surprised to see friction between him and one or two players by the end of the season. I found it interesting that he opted to start Nate Thompson over Blake Comeau. I know it likely means nothing, but there was already a question of Comeau's relationship with Gordon, and how much the coach really valued Blake's contributions to the team. While I know that if anyone could come of the waiver wire and start a game in Gordon's new system it would be a former P-Bruin like Thompson, but Comeau was one of the young players that seemed assured of a spot on the roster. This could be something, it could be nothing. I know some people have suggested Comeau has not been giving it his all, or has succumbed to the sophomore slump, but when the decision was made to start Thompson, he had had one practice with the team, and the team hadn't even played game #1 of the season. In any case, if anything is emblematic of the aforementioned roster shuffling it would be this. 

Until next time, keep the chatter up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Boom and Bust

CrossbarSniper, an HFboards member came up with this simple, but interesting topic: Which one  player will surprise us as fans with his performance, and which will be a complete disappointment? In response to this topic most people have been sitting on guys like Streit, Geurin, Weight, Neilsen, Okposo, Gervais, and Tambellini as the busts. On the other hand, more than a few people have said that they see Bergenheim, Sim, and Hilbert as what they see as pleasant surprises. 
I don't really agree with any of these suggestions. Actually, that's a lie. I think that Okposo and Comeau are both due for 20-25 point seasons. They will provide a little bit of jump to this team and could easily run well over 25 points. Jeff Tambellini, also, should likely be a pleasant surprise for Islander fans. One HFboards contributor suggested that he will do enough to get traded; that could be true, but he should show a little bit of flash that was missing in the past few seasons. Basically, we should see his confidence grow progressively during the season. I foresee 15+ points for him, but I will say that I see 10 of those points being goals. I also see Tamby being the difference maker in more than a few shootouts. The young guys on the team are going to be under some scrutiny during this rebuild, but it should be said that not all of them will break out at the same time. If one or two of them breaks out this season will have been successful. 
The people taking aim at the veterans to be disappointing will be surprised a little as well. But just a little. Reading the board it becomes clear that any production from the vets will be a little bit of a surprise. So, let me drop this truth bomb on everyone: Bill Guerin's production will be nearly the same as it was last season. While the team again looks a different, the roster is not so changed that Guerin cannot keep up his 40 point pace. Doug Weight, on the other hand is totally up in the air. In 06-07 Weight notched 59 points playing along side his good friend Bill Guerin; in 07-08 Weight was traded after 29 games and was taken from a first/second line position to a third/fourth line role with the Ducks. He was scratched for a number of games and ended the season with only 25 points. Clearly, he will not reach 59 points with the Isles. But, he should be able to get to the 35 point range without too much trouble, and at the same time he will be teaching the kids how to actually play the game. 
None of these players that I have talked about, though, would be my choice for a potential surprise player. In the format chosen by HFBoards posters my choice is:

Surprise: Freddy Meyer

Meyer at the start of last season was just a utility player. He was on the roster to take up space and fill in if someone did not play that well. That was unfortunate, because when he was acquired Meyer was at a point where, with the right coaching, he could become a successful every day defenseman. During his first real season in the NHL in 05-06 Meyer scored 27 points in 57 games. He was also a +10. He was able to contribute both offensively and defensively and was on his way to becoming a complete player. The next season, however, Meyer did not keep up his performance and was traded to the Islanders. In 35 games in 06-07 he put up three points, but had an even +/- rating. This past season Meyer ended up being surplus. He only made a few appearances with the Islanders before being waived and picked up by the Coyotes. However, after 5 games in Phoenix he was again waived and brought bak to the Island. After Meyer's return the plague of injuries started and Ted Nolan was forced to play him. Meyer did not disappoint. However, the most telling period during last season was when Brendan Witt was injured. The defense needed someone to step up and be any kind of force and, as it turns out, Meyer was that man. Over 52 games for the Islanders Meyer only notched 12 points, 3 goals 9 assists, but was also a +10 on what finished the season as a somewhat terrible team. His defensive game evolved last season and he very much fill Witt's shoes. Granted Scott Gordon gives him any kind of appreciable playing time this season Freddy Meyer should be even more of a success. 
Picking a bust on this team is actually harder than picking someone to break out. The reason why is that the expectations for the Islanders are already so low. I could talk about a guy like Andy Hilbert, but he's obvious. I love the optimism showed by those people that think that Hilbert is due for an offensive explosion, but it just does not seem to be in the cards. He had a great 05-06 when he played with the Penguins and notched 18 points in 19 games, but in the two seasons since, he has not showed any kind of promise. He scored fewer points last season than he did the season before, but had at least the same ice time, and possibly even more. Not to mention, that since he was a "Nolan" player he played in almost every situation. If he was going to start scoring left and right it would have been then. Hilbert, however, would be an obvious choice as a bust, and an even more obvious choice as a surprise. I mean, I think it would be down right shocking if Hilbert turned into a 30 goal scorer. Instead, I will go for another person that seems to be trying as hard as possible to become a very successful bust:

Bust: Rick DiPietro

DP has become the poster boy for almost all of the Islanders' problems. He may even have been one of the deciding factors in Ted Nolan losing his job. He has an attitude and is probably, as some have suggested, becoming a clubhouse cancer. Like many cancers, he has shown that he is nearly uncoachable and this represents a real problem for the team moving forward. As I said in my previous post, the team, especially Scott Gordon, needs to find a way to make DP accountable for his actions. If they do this, he should become more of a team player and will check some of his attitude at the door. As a side note, DP's attitude stems a bit from his team pride. I feel as if no one has more desire to see him team succeed than Rick DiPietro, but I also see that because of that, he won't call it a season when he has hip problems that require surgery. To this point we have seen Rick go from young prospect to everyday starting goalie. In the last three seasons we have seen his games played total plateau at about 63. We have seen him compete. However, this season is a make or break season for Rick DiPietro. He is coming off of another hip surgery and he has a new coach. Add to that the intention of management to limit his play time a little more and we have the makings of a problem. If Scott Gordon misses out on connecting with Rick then it is easy to envision bad blood forming between the two. We shall see how that pans out. 
The big reason why DP will be a bust is that people are still expecting him to become a superstar goalie. Deny it all you want, but every Islander fan wishes that DP would step up and start channeling some combination of Billy Smith and Patrick Roy. This probably isn't going to happen. Rick looked like he was going to get back into form early this season when he was playing on a level with his 03-04 performance when he put up a 2.36 GAA, .911 Save Percentage, and 5 shutouts. In fact, he played this way nearly until the All Star break. DP was also an All Star. But after the break, when he messed up his hip again, DiPietro's play fell off in a remarkable fashion. 
I foresee something like that happening again this season. He may not get hurt, but in the end DP's numbers will be more or less normal. That is what will be so disappointing about his play. His normal may be that of a goalie that is on his best days a top 10 or even a top 7 goalie in the NHL, but it will probably not ever exceed that. In fact, if you think about it, DP may never even have a chance to become that top 5 goaltender because his injuries are going to limit the length of his career and the next few seasons will be lost to a rebuild. You never know though, I could end up being wrong in the future. DP could very well achieve, but for this season we will all be somewhat disappointed with the way that he plays.
I also have some honorable mentions. First, I want to finally put in a good word for Joey MacDonald. While I dislike him as the choice for backup goalie on this team, he should be a bit of a pleasant surprise. I make this assertion based on not so much, more of a feeling than anything else, but I had a chance to see Joey Mac play for the Bruins two seasons ago and over the (only) seven games that he played for them he proved to be very capable. His ceiling really is as a backup, but that doesn't mean that he can't play at least a little bit well. I still hope that Snow comes to his senses and pulls someone like Robert Esche out of his hat, but MacDonald should be able to hold down the fort a little bit. 
As a dishonorable mention as a bust I would go for Andy Sutton. Someone on HFBoards said that Doug Weight would be the slowest skater on our team, but they obviously forgot that Andy Sutton is still on the roster. Sutton is still a little bit of a physical force, but he probably should end up platooning through the last paring with Bruno Gervais, another honorable mention as a possible bust. Its not that Sutton's defense is so bad, but he isn't that fast and at 33 he is one of those players that trend against the youth movement. 
As always, here's to hoping that this season is somewhat less disappointing than we all think it will. 

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wherein Rick DiPietro is a character...

Mexico, apparently, was a little bit of an underdog coming into the International Championship Game for the Little League World Series. Their opponents, Japan, have been in this game, or sniffing around it for a while now. The Mexicans have been less consistent. By the middle of the third inning Mexico was down by two and trying to think of how to get into the game. Then, in the bottom of the third, the Mexicans turned it on. They batted around and, as I sit here watching, now possess a 5-2 lead. The Mexicans have been persistent in their approach towards Japan. They stayed patient, swung at the pitches they could hit, got on base, and now they have their opponents right where they want them. 

Such is the approach that Scott Gordon is going to have to take with Rick DiPietro. As we have seen and heard, Ricky has been growing a little bit, eh, uncoachable. That isn't to say that the right coach could not get through to him, but Rick has begun to realize that, not only has he become a star in the NHL, but that he has job security that you just cannot find anywhere else. 

His contract as it stands right now will allow him to outlast any coach that the Islanders hire. That is important because, at least to some extent coaches can be seen as members of management. I say this because on pro sports teams, the coach has an allegiance to his players, but reports to the GM, and at times works directly with him. It is all part of the synergy needed to create a winning team. 

At various points during the off season the GM, coach, and scouts will sit down and decide where the team is going and which players fit with that direction. These meetings will decide whether a player is traded, demoted, bought out, or just let go. Thus, it behooves a player to keep a relatively good rapport with the coach and the rest of the team, and generally to give it his all night in and night out. DP just does not fit into that mold. 

Rick is going to be with the team for so long that he likely will see two, or maybe three coaches before his contract is up. He is the team's star goaltender and the state of the roster is such that he cannot be replaced. Add to it that Rick is Garth Snow's good friend and that the team's all too hands-on owner Charlie Wang likes DP's style and we see that he won't be replaced. 

Without the fear that his play will impact his contract status Rick is somewhat impervious to the usual leverage a coach has. So, all this explanation leads up to the fact that Gordon is likely not ever going to be able to simply bench DP; that he just won't be able to be the typical coach, involved, but detached. Gordon is going to have to get into DiPietro's head, become his friend, and be able to actually speak to him. This is an area where, if you believe the reports, Ted Nolan failed.

Why this is necessary is something that tons of people take issue with, i.e. DP's personality. He is cocky. He is a little rude. He is super duper full of himself. At least that is what everyone says, though, they are probably right. Sorry, Rick, but people don't always like it when you act like you know how good you are. On the other hand, I have to say, lots of people say that Rick is a whiner. I'm pretty sure that that isn't true. Rick is a competitor and he wants to play. He is the type of guy that wants to be in the net during the second overtime in game seven of the Cup finals. He will play hurt and he will continually give it his all because to do less would bother him. That is why Gordon needs to handle him delicately. 

DiPietro's competitiveness and his ego will not permit him to recognize him limits. We all saw last season where DP injured his hip during the Allstar game. After that DP's play was garbage. He was trying, but he was too hurt to actually give it his all. That was Nolan's fault. 

When Rick began to falter the Isles were contending for a playoff spot. If Nolan had recognized that Rick was ailing the team could have shut DP down and tried to pick up a rental goalie like Cristobal Huet who was available for a 2nd round pick. Had that happened the Islanders may or may not have made the playoffs, but Nolan may very well still have a job. 

Now, however, we have Scott Gordon, and the youth movement is probably much better for it and DP should be better for it too. So long as Gordon can get into DiPietro's head, issues like play time and health should work themselves out. Gordon can approach DP and tell him that he is playing 55 or 60 games per season until he sees that Rick's hips still work, and that if Rick is hurt that he'll tell Gordon instead of slowly dropping into mediocrity. They can work out boundaries for Rick's exuberance. They can get past DP throwing pies into his teammates' faces and acting like a rockstar and get him to be a member of this team. 

Gordon needs to get the team to buy into his system and notions of accountability. But he needs to get DP to buy into it individually. If he can it will only be a short time until the Isles grow into a solid team with a topflight goalie; if not, Gordon's tenure may be just as rocky as Ted Nolan's.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Coaches, etc. pt. 2

After a brief respite I am back with a further break down of Bob Hartley and John Tortorella. I'm also going to throw in a few comments on one or two of the other coaching prospects and let you know who I want to coach the team. 

An sooo...

Bob Heartly:

I was going to offer a more in depth view of Bob Hartley and his stats and accolades, but Bob Hartley is a well enough known commodity that I could pick the sexy part of his bio and go from there. So here it is:

In the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Hartley became the first NHL coach since 1967 (Billy Reay) to lead his team to the Conference Finals in his first four seasons with the same team. In 16 seasons as a head coach at the amateur and professional levels, Hartley's teams have qualified for the playoffs 14 times while capturing five league championships and have been a part of winning at least 40 games eight times and 30 or more contests on 14 occasions. His Avalanche teams won at least 42 games in four consecutive seasons from 1998-2002, including a 45-29-8 mark in 2001-02.

Hartley was also the coach that allowed the Thrashers to beat out the Columbus Blue Jackets for the honor of not being the last expansion team to make the playoffs. That being said, though, the Thrashers did not even put up a fight during those playoffs. That is the first negative point. The reason why this is such a negative is that the Thrashers had put up 97 points and won their division. They were nearly guaranteed a spot during that 06-07 season so its not as if they were so burned out. In fact, if any team should have appeared haggard during that series it was the Rangers, the Thrashers first playoff opponents. That is not how it all played out. Rather, the Thrashers played the most uninspired playoff hockey I have ever seen. They were not out gunned or over matched, just lazy and witless. If anyone is to blame for that it has to be the coach. As Hartley's bio makes clear, he has never lost a team's confidence, but somewhere along the line it happened.

This brings me to my next negative point; Hartley could not overcome his differences with the team and started 0-7 and was then canned. Most coaches will be fired for one reason or another during their coaching careers. Many times the coach will be the fall guy for a team that is short on success while also being short on talent, many people think this was Ted Nolan's plight. Bob Hartley's Thrashers last season had line up that was both different and similar to this coming season's Islanders. It was not youth centric, but there were players such as Tobias Enstrom, Chris Thorburn, Bryan Little, Garnet Exelby, and Jim Slater either playing for Hartley or who saw time with the Thrashers over the course of the season. 

These players represent the same type of youth the Islanders are going to be starting the season with. My point is that some of these youngsters were on the team this season when Hartley lost control. It likely does not behoove the Islanders to put him right back into the same position he was in with the Thrashers. Surely, he would try to do better, but the players talk and while Nolan was able to make the Islanders overachieve without a player like Ilya Kovalchuk, Hartley managed to launch the team into the aforementioned abomination of a start. If any of the Islanders speak to any of the Thrashers, like say Jon Sim, a former Thrasher, they may find out why Hartley lost control and he would be walking into a loaded locker room. On the other hand, Hartley managed to make the Avalanche work with a team that had many, many superstars. So, it could be a bit of a crap shoot with Harltey. Though, let's be real, these Islanders are going to perform similarly to last year's Thrashers, and last year's Islanders for that matter. Hartley took a team that could have continued an up tread and helped put them into the #3 draft pick. 

John Tortorella:

So, you basically can take the argument I made against Hartley and apply it to Tortorella. Only, here, management did not want to cause an upheaval in the team or disrespect a man that won the team a cup and so they left him in place. That's not the entire story though. Tortorella did not lose the team in the same way that Hartley lost the Thrashers. See, the thing is that Tortorella's lightning were already in upheaval. The team's sale was pending and a lot of players were the subjects of trade rumors and the team had no true stability. 

That being said, it is incumbent on the coach to make some changes to make the team more stable. Tortorella is known for having his teams play a wide open offensive style and, perhaps, he should have pulled that back a little bit. As they say defense wins games. Last year's Lightning possessed a great deal of fire power, but they only had four players that had an even +/- or better and one of them, Jeff Halpern, had been playing for another team where he was a -2. In short, Tortorella's up hill battle did not involve the team's loss of confidence in him, but rather a general loss of confidence in the state of the team by the players. Even if Tortorella had made defensive changes the team would not have fared much better. Eliminating some of the goals against would probably have put them in the same place as the Isles or Thrashers. So, they still would not have been a playoff team. 

As for coaching history, Tortorella's coaching bio says this:

Tortorella got his first major break in 1988-89 when he was hired as an assistant coach with the New Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League. He became an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres the following season, and remained with the Sabres organization through the 1996-97 season. The Sabres recognized Tortorella's teaching abilities and named him the head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, prior to the 1995-96 season. His Rochester team won the Calder Cup in 1996 and followed that up with the best record in the AHL's Northern Conference during the 1996-97 regular season.

Tortorella returned to the NHL in 1997 as an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes, where he spent two seasons before joining the New York Rangers for 1999-2000. He served as the Rangers' interim head coach for the final four games of the ?99-00 season before joining the Lightning staff.

Herein lies the reason why Tortorella is probably a better bet for the coaching position. Tortorella has experience coaching young and losing teams. The Coyotes and the 99-00 Rangers were both teams that were not so hot. It turned out to be great experience. After Tortorella took over the Lightning in 2001 he managed to turn the team around. When he was an assistant the team was second to last in the league, with 59 points. When Tortorella took over, the team finished with ten more points. The season after that, the Lightning finished with 95 points winning the South East Division. That season coincided with the maturation of Vinnie Lecavalier, Marty St. louis, and Brad Richards. Since 2003-2004 those three have been seen as legitimate stars in this league. 

Tortorella's ability as a teacher has been overshadowed by his fiery personality. Many people believe that Tortorella would dominate the Islanders. They say that he would limit the play time of the young kids and ruin them with locker room tantrums and tirades. If that were the case Lecavalier, et al, would not be the players they are today. People tend to ignore the plain fact that those players were also young at one time as well. Many people though Lecavalier was not coachable. They though he was a prima-donna and that he would waste his talent. In short he was a project. Yet, two seasons after Tortorella took over Vinnie put up 78 points, way up from 37 the season before. Add to that Tortorella's success at the AHL level and it becomes apparent that he may actually know how to handle young kids. Many people also say that his personality is the type that would conflict with Garth Snow. That is Garth's decision alone, but that probably is not the case. During the seven or so years that Tortorella was with the Lightning I can't remember any of the conflicts that he had with Jay Feaster. That isn't to say they didn't happen I'm just saying that they were so not very memorable. I also do not remember any rumblings that his job was in trouble because of his personality. Winning, though, is the cure to all ills in professional sports so, perhaps when Tortorella was winning games for the Lightning his personality was a non-issue. 

It must be said, though, that as much as Tortorella might criticize management, who really could believe that he would go to the lengths that Ted Nolan did? Like people said, the things Nolan was saying seemed like his attempts to get fired. Tortorella certainly is outspoken, but he is generally constructive with his comments. He also would not be above working with Snow or collaborating on a plan for the two to follow. Any coach would land right there, though. In the end Tortorella has come out unharmed from his team's collapse, whereas Hartley seems to be damaged goods. 

Wrap up:

In my time in hockey, about 15 years or so, I have learned that the best coaches are not one type of personality or another. They can deliver the soft touch when they need to tell a player what they need, and they know when to yell at or bench their players as way of teaching lessons. From what I've seen of the available coaches Tortorella has the best mix of these two traits and he knows how to deal with superstars who have strong personalities, i.e. Rick DiPietro. The last thing the team would need is a soft touch coach who is afraid to stand up to Rick, or who is afraid to stand up for himself when, as so many say, Rick calls up Charles Wang. Bob Hartley actually may have a leg up in that area. With his relationship with Garth Snow, Hartley might have the GM's vote over that of the start goalie. 

You never know what can happen, though. The team may very well go with a relatively unknown coach. Going with the recentish Newsday article Scott Gordon and Mike Sullivan both seem to be at least decent coaching prospects. In a toss up between them I would go with Gordon. The only reason why is that I would be hoping for the Bruce Boudreau factor. Gordon has had success at the AHL with the Providence Bruins but has yet to coach at the NHL level. If the team really wants a coach to play the role of teacher then Gordon probably would be best. On the other hand, Sullivan, just like a good prospect, may be primed for a breakout season. He has had his initial head coaching job with minimal success. But he has had success at the AHL level. It stands to reason, that he could follow in his former boss's footsteps and develop a young team into his own success story. 

So, really, while I come out greatly in favor of John Tortorella here, it is only because he is a known commodity. It may actually be very wise for the team to pick one of the AHL or other coaches that are available. That coach could develop as the team does and could stay a while. 

In any case, the Islanders should continue with "the plan" and develop the team as it should be developed.