Coliseum a hothouse where young Islanders are growing
Sweep away the tumbleweed; Nassau Coliseum isn't wasteland anymore. It finally is fertile ground again, a space where careers can blossom.
Not to get hasty or anything. The Islanders still are not guaranteed a spot in the playoffs and they still have not won a postseason series since 1993. But they have succeeded in allowing players at least to get a foothold. Becoming an Islander no longer is career quicksand.
There are no better examples than Matt Moulson and Rob Schremp, who scored the two shootout goals in a home win Thursday night. Neither of those guys had done much to prove he was an NHL player anywhere else, but each has looked solid here. We've seen this scenario to varying degrees with others in the past few years, such as Viktor Kozlov and Mark Streit.
To be fair, unlikely figures have flourished here in the not-so-distant past. Jason Blake comes to mind. Still, the franchise's trademark for years was that it was the last place a hockey player would want to go to find his game. Trevor Linden looked as if he had never played the sport before, or that he could not have cared less about it. The Coliseum itself was a symbol and handy scapegoat, but the answer was deeper than that.
It was especially troublesome for young talent. Some players found their stride somewhere else, or they never did at all. Consider Todd Bertuzzi, Zdeno Chara, Bryan Berard, Roberto Luongo, Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden, Tim Connolly, Eric Brewer. The Island was no place to grow.
The pivotal word there being "was." This is a new day, witness the forceful game Kyle Okposo played in the 4-2 loss to the Devils on Saturday night. He was a borderline U.S. Olympian this year and is on his way to becoming an all-star.
Finding one reason for this climate change is impossible because there are several:
John Tavares. As recently as last season, the Coliseum wasn't exactly a greenhouse for greatness. Aside from Streit, there weren't a lot of major strides. But the No. 1 overall pick is so solid that he has raised the tide and lifted all the boats. Despite his recent nine-game drought, he is such a legitimate prospect that the Islanders are relevant and credible again.
Garth Snow, the general manager, has made it known that he does not have an itchy trigger finger. If you're a young player, you are going to get your chance to play, make some mistakes and keep playing. Look at the list of former Islanders teens above and recall that previous regimes did not have the same patience. Snow is patient, at least in part because he has no choice.
A tight budget actually has helped the Islanders' youth movement. There are no options. It is clear that team owner Charles Wang is not going to go on a spending spree until he receives approval to build his Lighthouse (anyone remember that?), so there is no chance the team is going to trade a low-priced draftee for a high-salaried veteran. That promotes stability and security.
On the other hand, the NHL salary floor also has helped. Like every other team, the Islanders have to spend at least a certain amount, meaning they can't totally tank it. This has allowed Snow to invest in proven major-league goaltending. Many Islanders were optimistic that they were going to be better than expected because of Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. The latter hasn't worked out, but the former, now in tandem with Rick DiPietro, has given the team an honest shot to win every night.
Coach Scott Gordon, who was valued for his ability to work with young players, is more comfortable with the environment, and vice versa. He said during preseason that Year 2 was dramatically different and calmer than his first season. Last season, Gordon had to deal with a serious injury to DiPietro, his best player. This year, Gordon has a team that fits him, his players listen and he has DiPietro back.
All of this doesn't mean they should start clearing space for a fifth Stanley Cup display. But it does explain why, for a change, there is hope at the Coliseum.