Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Once proud? Always proud

When the Islanders dropped a 9-0 decision to the Hurricanes a week ago, ESPN featured it on their NHL highlights package and referred to the team that came out on the short end as the "once proud" Islanders.

And when the Isles finished the season Sunday with a loss to the Bruins, the team's fourth straight loss, another media outlet described the Isles as "lowly."

Fine. The Isles finished with the worst record in hockey and had one of the worst records in team history. But as a fan -- at least, as a fan who likes to keep things in perspective -- I wouldn't call this team "lowly." And I'll never not be proud to be an Islanders fan.

We knew going in -- before the season-ending injury to Rick DiPietro and before the other injuries that piled up like so much firewood --- that this could be a rough season. No expectations. We liked a lot of the young players and liked guys like Brendan Witt and Radek Martinek and Doug Weight. But with a new coach, a new system, very little firepower (the team finished with no 20-goal scorers for the first time ever), and with a clear mandate to get the youngsters a lot of playing time, the playoffs weren't likely. But it was a step in a new direction.

Once D.P. and the others went down, the writing was on the wall. The rest of the season would be an experiment. Bill Guerin left for Pittsburgh. We had Joey MacDonald and Jann Danis as our goalies. A lot of players saw time who otherwise wouldn't have made it to the big leagues.

But you know what? The team showed signs of life. Prior to the final four losses, the Isles were 14-14-5 over 33 games. So they basically played .500 hockey in the second half, and STILL secured one of the top 2 draft picks.

That's half-glass full thinking, but I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy. I don't have the time or the energy to be negative.

And whether the Isles get the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, they know they'll either get Tavares or Hedman, a win-in if there ever was one. Of course, almost every fan wants Tavares, who could be the marquee offensive threat this team has been dying for. But if they end up with Hedman, they have a backline anchor for the next decade. Coaches love that.

Was the season a failure? Whenever you don't make the playoffs, it's a failure, and 14 other teams failed. But did we really expect that this season? What we did see was plenty of promise from the likes of Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Sean Bergenheim and even Jesse Joensuu, and a terrific season from Mark Streit.

Getting Tavares or Hedman will be a huge addition to a young team that is trying to build for the future, and literally build a new home.

For me, there are only two disappointments. The continuing mystery over the health of DiPietro, and the politics of Kate Murray and her gaul at sending a mailer to county residents as part of her misguided effort to get stimulus money to renovate the Coliseum and derail the Lighthouse Project.

Hey, Kate! Nassau County wants it. Tom Suozzi wants it. Based on most public feedback, the majority of residents want it. Islanders fans certainly want it. The NHL wants it. Plenty of unemployed and underemployed Long Island residents want it.

Someone needs to vote her off this Island.

Anyway, as far as still being proud to be an Islanders fan, I have a quick story. My son plays deck hockey and for some reason likes playing goalie. When he does, he wears a blue Islanders jersey instead of his team T-shirt because it fits over the pads.

After one recent game, he walked off the court raising his stick and yelling, "Let's Go, Islanders!" To which the opposing coach, wearing his Rangers hat and satin jacket, said something like, "Oh, too bad."

In my younger, pre-parent days I might have fired back with a sharp retort and a promise to back it up with Jack Johnson and Tom O'Leary. Instead, I patted my son on the head and told him to keep it up.

Let's go, Islanders.