Sad Fall Of The Islanders

Of course it is unofficial but the New York Islanders may be the first Eastern Conference team to be eliminated from playoff contention. Unless they go on an unexpected long winning streak, the Islanders are playing for a top draft choice next year.

It is a bitter outcome for a franchise that finally won a playoff round (against Florida) for the first time in eons of years. At the end of last season after the playoff victory, it seemed that if ownership and management made the right moves, the Islanders would finally enter the ranks as true Stanley Cup contenders. Instead the Islanders lost talent and now find themselves near the bottom of the whole league.

It would be tempting to place the blame on the players, coaching, management, and even the ownership. Unfortunately the Islanders problems run deeper than that. The very environment in which the Islanders dwell bears a heavy share of the blame.

This situation is even more sad when one remembers the glorious history of the Islanders. They joined the league in 1972 and immediately set the then record for worst expansion team in NHL history. But the Islanders hired Al Arbour as coach and in only their third NHL season, the Islanders became the fastest expansion team (still a record) to become a true Stanley Cup contender.

There followed a steady path to the top when Islander ownership and management, headed by General Manager Bill Torrey seldom made an error. First Denis Potvin was drafted, then Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy followed. Smart trades filled in the holes. In 1980 the Islanders finally won the Stanley Cup and began four invincible years as champion. Only two previous Montreal Canadiens teams have managed to win four Stanley Cups in a row or better. It took the mighty Edmonton Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky, in their third attempt to stop the Islanders streak. No other American expansion team has done so well. No other NHL team has come close to the Islanders streak since.

But once the glory years ended the Islanders tumbled to the bottom of the league and have mostly stayed there ever since. They seldom had star players on their roster. The current star, John Tavares is probably the Islanders best player since the dynasty.

The two main reasons for this state of affairs are probably the arena and the environment. Once the glory years were over, the Islanders reverted to being the poor cousins of the New York Rangers. They would be joined in this status by the New Jersey Devils across the river. Ironically since joining the league, both teams have done better than the original Manhattan resident Rangers. Both the Islanders and Devils more than merit better status among New York hockey fans than the New York Rangers but they retain the shabby status of being a hockey after-thought to this day. Is the greater New York area of 19 million residents big enough for three NHL teams? All things point to the answer, “no”.

After the glory years, the Islanders more than merited a new, modern, larger arena, but nothing would be done. The Islander tradition, heritage and success would be belittled and forgotten. In 2014, the Islanders moved to the new Barclay arena in Brooklyn which incredibly is even smaller than their old arena which was the second smallest in the NHL, ahead of only Winnipeg. Even more ridiculous is that over 1000 seats are considered “obstructive view”. No wonder attendance this year is so low.

A sports arena is part of a franchise’s team. A too-small arena that cannot generate enough revenue means that ownership and management cannot sign enough star players to build a credible team. If they cannot do that, the franchise will never be able to become a champion and might as well not be in the league. It is shabby treatment for a team with such a glorious heritage.

Incredibly the Islanders still cannot sell out the Barclay’s arena. Currently they have the second worst attendance in the NHL, ahead of only Carolina. They average 12.5 thousand fans a game, which is only 80% capacity of the arena. There is talk of building yet another new arena in Queens. Would that end the image of the Islanders being the poor relation of the Rangers?

In any sports situation where things are going sour, there is usually an answer to the situation. Get rid of the players, fire the coach, replace the incompetent general manager and upper management, make the cancerous owner sell. But many of the Islander problems may be beyond the capacity of even the ownership. Do the New York fans even want the Islanders and Devils (who have the sixth worst attendance record)?

If the New York fans do not want these teams, there are plenty of cities who do, most notably Quebec. One year a large delegation of Quebec fans journeyed down en-masse and bought a large quantity of unsold Islander tickets to show their determination to get back in the NHL. But a new Quebec team would have a Nordiques logo, not an Islander one. Other cities that may be in the hunt for an NHL franchise are Hamilton, Seattle (if it can solve its arena and ownership problem), Portland, Saskatoon, Milwaukee, and possibly Houston, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City.

But after the glorious history of the Islanders it would be a black mark on the NHL if the team left New York. Not to see the Long Island logo in the NHL any more would be a terrible blow to the league. It is one thing for inglorious Atlanta to go to Winnipeg. It is quite another for a team with such a history and heritage to leave. It would be a terrible blow to the status of the NHL in the United States which has been trying since Commissioner Gary Bettman’s appointment to prove to everyone (particularly to American television networks in order to get a rich contract) that the NHL is a “big 4″ American professional sports league.

True that since the dynasty years, the Islanders have iced bad teams, but New York fans have stuck with the Rangers who at times have done far worse. Since the Islanders and Devils have joined the NHL, the score in Stanley Cups reads Islanders 4, Devils 3, Rangers 1. Why the Islanders and Devils are unpopular after such successes is one of the NHL’s mysteries.

As noted above, trading players, firing coaches and management, and getting rid of incompetent owners seem to be easy solutions compared to the situation the Islanders are in. The previous sentence I wrote implies an obvious answer to franchise problems. But the Islander problem is even worse. For them there is no immediate, obvious answer. Is a new, modern, larger, more convenient arena the solution? For the second-status New York Islanders, it had better be.

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