Friday, July 25, 2008

Sullivan intrigues as Islanders head coach candidate

I'll be up front about it: I went to Boston University and have a bias toward Terriers. But that isn't the only reason I think former Bruins coach Mike Sullivan may be a good choice as the Islanders head coach.

First off, I have a feeling that none of the so-called "big three" candidates -- John Tortorella, Paul Maurice or Bob Hartley -- will be a match for this club, although it seems that of the three, Hartley has the best chance, and not just for his relationship with Garth Snow. The guy won a Cup with Colorado and had great success there.

So, putting them aside, let's look at the other four candidates that have been confirmed by Newsday.

Sullivan was outstanding the one year he coached the Providence Bruins and he was 41-19-15-7 in his first year behind the Boston bench, when the Bruins were booted in round one of the playoffs. The team regressed the next year and didn't make the playoffs, and Sullivan was then fired by incoming GM Peter Chiarelli. He spent last season as Tortorella's assistant in Tampa Bay.

With so much youth on the Islanders, Sullivan - who is 40 - looks like a good fit. He's had success working with young players and has worked or played alongside some pretty good coaches, including BU legend Jack Parker.

Side note: Sullivan played four seasons for the Terriers, finishing in 1990. I covered the Terriers for the Daily Free Press, the daily student-run newspaper at BU, his sophomore and junior seasons before graduating in 1989. He was one of the top players back then and everyone thought highly of him, as I recall (my memory is a little hazy - it was college, after all).

Joel Quenneveille is not as attractive; he is a retread who isn't the guy who should be leading this squad. Islanders assistant coach Gerard Gallant is a possibility but one would think as an internal candidate, if he was a strong possibility he would have either been hired already or you would hear much more buzz around him.

The other interesting candidate is current Providence Bruins coach Scott Gordon, a former goaltender who has had terrific success the last five-plus years in the AHL. Gordon, who played at Boston College (boooooo) was named the AHL's top coach last season, when Providence won the regular-season points title.

Boston coach Claude Julien, who coaches a defensive style, led the Bruins to a winning record in his debut last season and isn't going anywhere. Gordon has paid his dues and coaches a wide-open, offensive style that has been described as entertaining; it's also been pretty successful at the minor league level, at least.

So Sullivan and Gordon look like the most interesting possibilities, at lease from my point of view. If I had to pick, I'd go with Sullivan. After all, he is a Terrier.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bailey, please lose that number

So it seems that Josh Bailey has a number — 27.

Bailey is wearing the number at the Islanders prospect camp in Syosset.

You know how we feel about No. 27. It should be hanging in the rafters of the Coliseum with TONELLI over it.

Was J.T. a Hall of Fame player? No, but other than the names currently hovering above the ice in Hempstead, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beloved, harder working, more dynasty-critical player than John Tonelli. He worked the corners, he could score goals, he was a character guy - he was the whole package.

Quick story -- I was working in Manhattan a few years back and our company was relocated down to 28th and Park from Times Square. The first day there, my buddy and I went to a deli across the street for lunch, a real popular place where people lined up for chopped salads (I had a hero, of course).

So we're sitting at a table and in the middle of the line is Tonelli himself. I mention it to my friend, who is about six years younger than me and not a hockey fan at all. He has no clue who Tonelli is. I explain that the guy is my favorite player of all time, and he says I should go up and talk to him.

I've never been one to seek autographs or approach celebrities in public -- I figure they're people leading their lives like the rest of us, so why bother them? My friend says Tonelli is one of those people who is famous only to a select group of fans and is probably not accosted as much as one would think, and that he would probably appreciate someone telling him how much he was admired.

Just as I resolve to head over, Tonelli pays for his lunch and walks out. I figured that maybe he worked in the area and perhaps I would bump into him at lunch again, but I never did, and in my first year in the Blog Box I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting him. But you can be sure that if he's in the house when I am, I'll make a point of saying hello.

And telling him that No. 27 should be on a banner and not anyone else's back (sorry, Josh).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nolan-Snow fallout continues

I've said before that it boggles my mind that there are Islanders fans old enough to have their own children who cannot remember when the Isles last won a Stanley Cup. Some of that is just the cyclical nature of sports -- even the Yankees have had their down years. Much of that has to do with the ownership struggles the team had to endure prior to Charles Wang purchasing the club, trying times that set the organization back at least a decade.

John Spano, the Gang of Four, the fishsticks logo, Mike Milbury, years of losing -- all conspired to drag down the once-sterling Islanders image. And while Wang has brought stability to the owner's box, he has been criticized for the "team approach" he favors and for giving Rick DiPietro a 15-year deal. So when the news broke that Ted Nolan was fired by Garth Snow -- in what both sides claim was a mutual parting of the ways -- you knew that it would be labeled as yet another example of how bad things are on Long Island.

And sure enough, Scott Burnside of ESPN has weighed in, calling the team a "laughingstock."
Newsday columnist Wallace Matthews -- who probably wouldn't recognize Bill Guerin if he bumped into him -- slapped together some nameless quotes from former employees and player agents to paint the picture of Wang as clueless, and that his hobby "happens to be the systematic screwing-up of a once-great hockey team."

Never mind that Wang more or less saved the team from leaving the Island, that he has been fighting tooth and nail to upgrade the Islanders' arena -- which besides being hopelessly outdated is saddled with the worst lease agreement known to man -- and has put a good deal of focus on community events to strengthen the ties between the team and its fans.

That DiPietro contract? Call it a trend, as NHL teams are locking up their top, young (amd most marketable) players long-term. Wang has also embraced new media in a way no one else has, from Islanders TV to my personal favorite, the Blog Box.

And yet you wonder if the Nolan news is received by players around the league the way Burnside portrayed it - another reason why not to play for the Islanders. Another example of instability from a team that plays in a dump.

But look closer at the move and you see that, given the direction the team is headed, it was inevitable and probably best for everyone, including Nolan. Snow did a terrific job of compiling extra picks at the draft and generally got good reviews (although not from many fans who wanted Nikita Filatov). The Islanders have a number of promising young players on its roster who need playing time to develop. So it's all about the future, and that's fine -- pick a plan and stick with it.

Nolan, with one year left on his deal, felt the team was close enough to win now with the addition of better, more experienced talent. Hence the philosophical differences. You can't blame him, he's a coach. Now he'll get a chance to coach somewhere else.

As a fan, you hate to see a quality coach leave, but there are plenty of candidates out there -- we'll see who Snow selects. The Nolan move also seems to indicate that this really is Snow's team and not so much directed by committee, which would be a step in the right direction; a team needs its GM to be the one to make the final call.

Hopefully, the rebuilding process won't be painfully long -- there's precious little juice in the arena these days and the on-ice product hasn't been terribly exciting. But when you talk to fans you know that they are genuinely excitied about players like Okposo and Campoli and Tambellini and Comeau and Gervais and want to see them play and succeed.

Maybe this is the core of a team that will contend on an annual basis. The team that will one day play in the Lighthouse, a state-of-the-art arena. The team that will bring a Stanley Cup back to Long Island.

Nolan's firing was a step forward. We'll see if it's a step on the right path.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Snow job: Nolan is fired

There were signs and whispers throughout last season, and into the draft, and today the Islanders made it official when it was announced that Ted Nolan will no longer coach the team.

Both GM Garth Snow and Nolan himself described the ending of the relationship as a matter of "philosophical differences." Snow wants to rebuild the team with youth. Nolan, who has one year and $600,000 left on his contract, wanted to be more competitive now.

As a blogger who has watched the team closely, especially this past season, I'm not surprised, but all along I held out hope that Snow and Charles Wang would make more of an effort to compete now (read: spend some more money on talent) while not abandoning the younger players, in the hopes that Nolan would stick around. That's not happening, and Nolan is now free to find employment elsewhere.

Nolan is a terrific coach, a class act and a good guy from all accounts. I think back to the ESPN fan satisfaction rankings that were published in April, which I wrote about here. Basically, fans of all of the 'big four' pro sports leagues ranked their teams in a number of categories, and in the coaching category -- described as 'strong on-field leadership' -- the Islanders finished FIFTH out of all of the pro sports teams.

In other words, Islanders fans who participated in the rankings had tremendous respect for the job Nolan was doing, ranking him ahead of the likes of Bobby Cox of the Braves and Phil Jackson of the Lakers. The only coaches ranked higher were Bill Belichick, Jim Leyland, Gregg Popovich and Mike Scioscia.

Presumably, the next Islanders coach will be on board with Snow and his desire to see the team's young talent develop and perform. The obvious names out there are Paul Maurice, John Tortorella (who is Dee's favorite, I'm sure) and Bob Hartley, all fired after last season. We'll throw Brian Sutter's name into the mix. The brother of Duane and Devils coach Brent took over as the coach of the Red Deer Rebels last summer; the team is owned by Brent.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Isles are gonna carry that Weight

So many different ways to go for a headline here. "The Weight is over." "Isles make Weight-y acquisition." "Dead Weight?"

We'll go with the Beatles reference and hope that Weight still has what it takes to actually carry the Isles now and again, now that he's here on a one-year deal and reunited with his buddy Bill Guerin.

Weight has been an All-Star in this league and has been one of the top players in the NHL, but is nearing the end of a solid career. He didn't do much last season, but the Isles figure he could regain some spark with Guerin and at the very least provide leadership and role model material for the younger players. He can start by coming to camp in shape.

Weight and Streit weren't the free agents I expected the Isles to get, but they make sense in their own way. With the eventual new contracts for Bergenheim, Gervais, Tambellini, et al, the Isles payroll will end up a couple million over the salary floor, and I'm on record saying the Isles owed it to their extremely patient and loyal fans to make more of an effort to be competitive.

But the situation is what it is. If patience is a virtue, Isles fans should have no worries about getting into heaven. Hopefully, they'll enjoy another championship before that happens.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Streit Stuff

The Islanders got their puck-moving defenseman after all, signing Mark Streit, formerly of the Canadiens, to a five-year deal worth a reported $20.5 million.

It's a nice deal for the Isles, getting a talented backliner in his prime who isn't one of the big names, certainly, but a quality player who can only help what was a horrible power play last season, one ranked 29th in the league. Yeesh.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to give new coach Barry Melrose toys to play with, dealing conditional picks for the rights to Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Vaclav Prospal and signing all three, then signing 27-year-old Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals last season.

We'll see if the Isles can pick up a center and a left winger, perhaps players who could be considered first-liners? Maybe? Please?