As a third straight season without playoffs winds down for the Islanders, the team's problems are evident: They're still a bit too young, still not deep enough, but the prospect of another lottery pick in the June draft is encouraging.
There is one problem, though, that Garth Snow and Scott Gordon might not be able to solve right away. That's the Rick DiPietro problem.
The goaltender was the face of the franchise when he arrived in the fall of 2000 after Mike Milbury selected him first overall. As the decade has wound down, DiPietro has gone from franchise player to Islander for life (with his 15-year, $67.5-million contract) to a goaltender who's played 13 games in the last two seasons and was perceived by at least a few teammates as a distraction this past season.
So what can the Islanders do with DiPietro? Here are their options:
DiPietro's lengthy contract does not come with a no-trade clause, but the contract itself is essentially a no-trade clause. No team would even dream of trading for DiPietro, who turns 29 in September and hasn't been physically able to finish a season since 2007. The Islanders could waive him, but that would only be to get the $4.5-million salary-cap hit per year off the books, and the team already is well under the salary cap. As for a buyout, the Isles would be paying DiPietro $33 million to walk away if that move were made this offseason. And the cap hit would be $1.5 million . . . through the 2031-32 season.
FORCE HIM TO RETIRE
DiPietro's surgically repaired right knee is swollen, but he's not coming off surgery, as he was last spring. The team is optimistic that he can train and skate this summer rather than just rehabilitate the knee. According to two sources, there is insurance on DiPietro's contract, so if he's unable to play, no one loses out financially. But he's only 28 and a fierce competitor, so his desire is clearly to play hockey. And with owner Charles Wang strongly in DiPietro's corner, the team doesn't seem prepared to go down this road.
DiPietro could very well pronounce himself fit and ready to go for next season's training camp - though, truthfully, the thought of hopping on planes and bouncing around China for two weeks can't thrill DiPietro or the team - but Snow, Gordon and the Islanders could simply forge ahead without their goaltender, going with Dwayne Roloson and a free-agent backup as their goaltenders for 2010-11. DiPietro could stay in Bridgeport all season so as not to disrupt any chemistry among the big club's players, as was said this season.
WAIT AND SEE
This is what the Islanders have done for three years running now, though with Roloson in the fold and Mikko Koskinen in the system - the second-round draft pick lost this past season to a hip injury but should be Bridgeport's No. 1 goaltender next season - Snow has properly compensated for DiPietro's inability to be reliable anymore. But when DiPietro is healthy, he plays for the Islanders, as occurred this season.
It's wrong to say the Islanders are stuck with DiPietro; they could very well take the massive financial hit and buy him out, or simply leave him in Bridgeport until he begs for something different. But Wang and Snow are loyal to DiPietro and still believe he can be an elite goaltender again, so it seems the wait-and-see approach will prevail for another year. Will that hold the Islanders back from success or fracture the room? Like his playing status, that's very much up in the air.