Friday, June 26, 2009

Start selling those Tavares sweaters... now!

John Tavares is an Islander. Let the merchandising begin.

And, yeah, some goals would be nice. And some wins. And another Stanley Cup at some point wouldn't be too much to ask.

Islanders GM Garth Snow kept 'em guessing until the very end, but let's face it -- this was a no-brainer.

Snow got tricky last year, trading down twice and acquiring a quality player in Josh Bailey while stockpiling picks.

This time around, he had the No. 1 pick in a draft with two -- and many argued, three -- players who could legitimately be taken first overall. But Snow played it cool and wouldn't tip his hand, and that was the smartest move someone at the helm of a struggling franchise could make.

Why not keep it a secret? It created drama. It built up interest. Lo and behold, the Isles had 10,000 fans at the Nassau Coliseum, ready to either celebrate like crazy or tear the place apart if Victor Hedman or Matt Duchene was announced, which would have been nuts since both are outstanding players.

So the fans who wanted Tavares went wild, and the fans who feared Snow would screw up are maybe giving him some props tonight. The Tavares pick also sets into motion the marketing machine that will sell tickets, jerseys, T-shirts and luxury boxes.

Fans, however, only care about the on-ice benefit, and Tavares brings plenty to the table. Four years as the top player in junior hockey yielded scoring records and a world junior championships. In a tournament with the best players in the world, he was the MVP, the best of the best, and he helped his team win it all.

Most importantly, he has a nose for the net that his new club sorely lacks. So now, assuming Rick DiPietro is healthy and comes back with something to prove, and if the defense can be shored up a bit via free agency, and maybe a veteran winger can be brought in -- suddenly this Islanders team is interesting.

Tavares, Bailey, Okposo, Comeau, Nielsen, Bergenheim -- you've got some nice young players in that group. Throw in vets like Streit, Witt, Sutton, Park, Hunter and Weight, and maybe they've got something going, not just for the future, but now.

Last season, with a backup and minor leaguer tending goal instead of DiPietro, the Islanders went 11-26 in one-goal games, with 9 losses in OT or shootouts (31 points). By contrast, the Rangers, with Henrik Lundqvist in the net, went 24-19 in one-goal games, also with 9 OT/SO losses, for 57 points.

How many points would a healthy DiPietro have been worth? Then again, if he's healthy, the Isles probably don't get Tavares.

Everything happens for a reason.

Maybe someday Snow will get his due, but he's still relatively new at this GM business, and we all know you can't truly judge a draft until a few seasons have passed, but the guy should start getting some credit.

Nice work, Garth. Even if it was a no-brainer.

UPDATE: Snow traded up twice to get the 12th overall pick and selected Calvin de Haan, a puck-moving defenseman from the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.

A curious move in that Snow first traded up to the 16th pick and de Haan, based on his rating, probably could have lasted to that point. But you target players you like, and Snow obviously liked de Haan and felt he needed to move up to ensure he'd get his man.

Unlike Tavares, de Haan is 3-4 years away, and he could stand to gain another 30 pounds or so on his wiry frame. But he's a well-regarded and intelligent player, so file him away for a couple of seasons.

Isles have the 31st overall pick, first in the second round, and still have No. 56 and No. 91 (the final pick of the third round).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Isles draft preview, and a wish list

Tempting as it may be with the prospect of an anticipated packed house on hand at the Coliseum, I won't be at the Islanders draft party Friday night to see the No. 1 selection announced in person.

My softball team has a doubleheader that night, and with guys missing because of graduation parties (and the Subway series), we're a little short on players, and I'm a team guy all the way. So I'll be digging in at third base when Garth Snow makes an announcement that will either send the crowd into raucous celebration, or start a riot.

I'm betting on the former.

You can certainly make an argument for taking Victor Hedman at No. 1, since blueliners with his combination of size and speed come around as often as a waitress when you're ready for the check. And you can argue that Matt Duchene is the most "complete" forward available and deserves to be considered with Hedman and John Tavares at the top tier of the draft.

But while Snow has smartly played it coy, inviting all sorts of speculation, Tavares will be the pick here, and he should be. In his mock draft at, John Muir puts it best when he notes that Tavares has been picked apart by scouts and critics two seasons now and is still considered by most to be the best player available.

Yes, the Islanders could stand to shore up their defense, but the most glaring needs are up front. The team that scores the most goals wins, and the Isles are desperate for a scorer, never mind a marquee player that can sell tickets. Tavares fits the bill on both fronts.

So if you're going to the draft party and you want Tavares, plan on celebrating. But bring a flak jacket just in case.

What's more interesting is what the Islanders do at No. 26 in the first round, and at that point perhaps a d-man can be taken. But best player available is the way to play it.

The draft is just the beginning of the offseason, and there will be other roster decisions to be made, including free agent signings.

Here's where I get greedy and the wishful thinking runs wild.

We know that the Lighthouse Project is finally getting some real political traction. Things are looking up for a change. The salary cap will likely remain at around $56 million, with a floor of $40 million. The Isles have a cap number of around $33 million with some holes to fill.

Steven Stamkos' cap number is just under $4 million, so let's use that for Taveras for argument's sake. And let's say resigning RFAs Blake Comeau, Nate Thompson and Jack Hillen add another $3 million to the payroll (we're rounding up). That puts the Isles at the floor.

But why stop there?

You want to help the defense? Sign Mike Komisarek. The West Islip native is a hard hitter who would strengthen the back line, and think of all those family and friends who won't have to trek up to Montreal to see him play. Figure $6 million a year.

There's a tremendous need on the left wing, and while I'm spending Charles Wang's money, how about Mike Cammaleri? Are you kidding? With a name like that he'd be a huge fan favorite. Oh, yeah, he's also 27 and scored 39 goals last season.

Dream on? OK, what about Maxim Afinogenov? He's regressed the last two seasons and he turns 30 in September, but if you're bargain hunting, why not roll the dice?

Of course, if the Isles did sign Komisarek it would make players like Radek Martinek and Bruno Gervais expendable, and Jeff Tambellini could also be dealt, so they could trade for a left winger.

Will any of this happen? Probably not. But Snow has some options and there are some interesting players available, and maybe Wang is willing to throw a bit more cash around. After all, when you're used to losing $20 million a season, what's a few mil more, right?

Enjoy the draft, buy your Tavares sweaters and get ready for what should be an interesting summer off the ice.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Lighthouse at the end of the tunnel?

One of the many reasons I stuck with sportswriting in my bygone days of journalism and resisted any attempt to make the shift to hard news was politics. I can't stand them.

The Lighthouse Project is, of course, all about politics. If it was just about a new building for Long Island's only major professional sports franchise, we'd be enjoying a New Coliseum already, with triple the luxury boxes and all the sushi and barbeque and gourmet pizza you could eat.

So what a shock it was that soon after Charles Wang announced his October deadline to say go or no-go on the Lighthouse -- and not long after Garden City attorney Kristen McElroy announced that she would run against Kate Murray for the Town of Hempstead supervisor's seat -- did Murray extract her head from the sand and agree to meet in person with Wang and Nassau County supervisor Tom Suozzi about the Lighthouse.

And lo and behold, what a surprise that the three emerged from that meeting holding hands and agreeing, according to Newsday, "to work as a team to expedite approvals" for the project, and creating a draft timetable for the project.

Nothing like a deadline and political reality to get something moving forward.

Suozzi has wanted a "hub" at the Coliseum site for years, and now it is finally looking like the wheels are in motion. Suozzi trumpeted the need for the project at a county planning commission meeting on June 11, where several other officials spoke out in favor of the Lighthouse.

Greg Logan's blog also noted that, "On July 7, the Town of Hempstead is expected to vote on the draft EIS and then hold public hearings within 30 days. But one of the most important signs of progress, Wang said, came when Gov. Paterson assigned his two top aides, Tim Gilchrist and Larry Schwartz, to monitor the project. Gilchrist is a transportation expert in charge of infrastructure and stimulus funds for the administration."

So can Islanders fans finally breathe easy? Is the Lighthouse more than a 50-50 proposition?

And if all goes well on July 7 -- and particularly if the Islanders draft John Tavares with the No. 1 pick on June 26 -- will Wang finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and be willing to spend a little more money than the bare minimum to add some talent to the roster, knowing that in a few short years he will have everything he wants off the ice?

We can only hope. But after the way things have been the past 9 months, at least we have some reason to believe.

Penguins reward the fans who had faith

I remember watching the Penguins play the Islanders at the Coliseum earlier this season and thinking, these guys don't look that good at all. The Pens were the defending Eastern Conference champions, and had two all-world players in Sidney Crosby and Yvgeni Malkin, and yet there was something missing.

Well, they found it. They fired their coach in mid-February after four months of uninspired play and replaced him with Dan Bylsma of Wilkes-Barre (I know, "Who?!"), then added Bill Guerin for a conditional draft pick, and the march was on. They rallied to beat the Capitals and Alexander Ovetchkin in seven games, got a vacation with a four-game sweep of Carolina, then resurrected themselves from a 2-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup Finals to beat the Red Wings in seven, winning the final game on the road.


So congratulations to Guerin, who was given a shot to win another Cup and got it, along with ex-Islanders teammates Miro Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko.

Like the Blackhawks and the Bruins, the Penguins also provide Islanders fans with hope. Another team that was dismal a couple of seasons ago, now winning games and giving their fans plenty to get excited about. The Pens also were in danger of leaving Pittsburgh if they didn't get a new arena.

They got their building -- it's going up right across the street from the Igloo, in fact -- and now they have the Stanley Cup.

Coincidence? Charles Wang probably doesn't think so.