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SportsColumnistsArthur Staple

Oilers and Islanders in same sort of struggle

Matt Moulson of the Islanders and Corey Potter

Matt Moulson of the Islanders and Corey Potter of the Oilers battle for the puck. (Dec. 31, 2011) Photo Credit: David Pokress

A rare visit from the Oilers was a bit of a look in the mirror for the Islanders, who have had similar recent seasons to Edmonton.

The Oilers have missed the playoffs the last five seasons, the Islanders four. The Isles had the 2009 No. 1 pick (John Tavares), the Oilers have had 2010 (Taylor Hall) and 2011 (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). Both teams have had trouble attracting free agents, particularly on defense.

"We're both rebuilding and trying to make an impact," said Travis Hamonic, the top homegrown defenseman on either team. Hamonic and Oilers 2009 first-rounder Jordan Eberle played together as preteens. "We're both young and we've both had some struggles."

Tavares and Sam Gagner are close friends who spend the summers training together. Josh Bailey and Hall played together in juniors. There are many close ties between the franchises, and seeing the Oilers' free fall -- they are 6-16-1 after a 9-3-2 start -- is a reminder that championships are built from the back end out, not from the front backward.

It's why Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald are so valuable to the Islanders, who don't have a ton of defensemen in the prospect pipeline. Calvin de Haan and Aaron Ness are the top prospects, but neither is close to being an impact player. The Oilers have all the talent in the world up front, but a very mediocre crop of defensemen, which explains why they're headed the wrong way in the West.

The projected top two prospects in the June draft are forwards Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk from Sarnia of the OHL. Beyond those two are a group of defensemen that either organization could use.

There was one other similarity between the Islanders and Oilers before this season began: Both franchises were looking for new arenas. The Oilers got theirs approved, but the Islanders didn't.


More from Morrow

Ken Morrow said the search for seasoned help, especially on defense, is a tough one, not just for the Islanders. Morrow, who was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame on Saturday and has served as the pro scouting director since 1993, is on the hunt for veterans to target over the summer as free agents.

"It's almost recruiting now," he said. "You don't just identify who you'd like to sign; you have to try and convince them to come to your team. Everybody loses 5-10 guys in free agency and you have to not just find the pieces that fit, but sign them, as well."


Bridgeport report

The Sound Tigers have fallen on hard times, going 2-9-0 in December heading into Saturday's game with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Because of Islanders injuries, Bridgeport has sent two of its top scorers, Tim Wallace and David Ullstrom, up to the big club, along with either of its goaltenders, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson.

One of the consistent bright spots has been rookie pro Casey Cizikas, who leads Bridgeport with six goals and 13 assists and is a plus-5 in 32 games.


First-half awards

A couple of team accolades to hand out as the first "half" of the season wraps:

Most valuable: Tavares. Who else would it be? A true star who has raised his game.

Most improved: Matt Martin. An essential physical presence and penalty-killer.

Top defenseman: Hamonic. Aside from Tavares, the most important piece for the future.

Biggest disappointment: Mark Streit. Has struggled under the weight of heavy minutes and wearing the ''C.''

New York Sports