Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wang loses his gamble with DiPietro

I have a friend who is a gambler. In addition to college and pro football and basketball, he's been known to put money on U.S. Open women's semifinal matches. That's hardcore.

Like most gamblers, he'll tell you all about his winnings, the three-team parlays and close covers, and then little or nothing about the bad beats. But that's the gambler's prerogative. You always want to believe you're up more than you really are.

Charles Wang would like to have that luxury now that it is becoming increasingly clear that the Rick DiPietro signing was a bad gamble. The bad beat of all bad beats. A bust.

The Islanders announced this week that D.P. will be shut down for the season because "surgical swelling" in his knee has not subsided. This after taking a particularly conservative approach where he did not play a game until January 10. He made it through only eight games, and has appeared in only 13 in the last two seasons.

Critics of the 15-year contract between DiPietro and the Islanders have been legion, and to their credit, they've been slamming the deal since before the ink was dry. Media, fans, unnamed hockey executives -- they couldn't understand why in God's name Wang would commit himself to a deal so big the player would be immovable.

But Wang does things his way, and at the time he needed a marquee player to build his team (and promotions) around. D.P. fit the bill. He was young, a budding star with matinee-idol looks and a game to match.

Why 15 years? Why not 10? Or even eight? Only Wang knows for sure. And, maybe Mike Milbury, who reportedly put the bug in Wang's ear about inking D.P. long-term. After all, it was Milbury who traded Roberto Luongo and drafted DiPietro with the first overall pick in 2000, instead of Dany Heatley or Marian Gaborik. I know, it's painful to think about. (By the way, Ilya Bryzgalov of the Ducks went No. 44, and the rest of the first three rounds produced almost no one.)

Wang defended the length of the deal by pointing out that the annual salary was just $4.5 million, so if DiPietro turned out to be a top-level goalie, it would actually be a bargain.

Wang, who likes to think he thinks out of the box, rolled the dice. At the time, DiPietro had no injury history to speak of. The year before he signed, he played 63 games. The next season, 2006-07, he played 62, and the following year he played in 63 and made the All-Star team. Had he followed that same trajectory, the deal would have been justified.

But we know what happened. Hip surgery in March 2007. An injured hip at the All-Star skills competition in 2008. Another hip surgery the following month. Knee surgery three months after that, followed by another knee surgery in November. Five games played in 2008-09, a long layoff to recover, and then eight games this season.

That dice roll came up snake eyes.

We assume (and hope) that the contract is insured, because we know it is guaranteed. If DiPietro retires due to injury, he gets paid. If he retires at any point for other reasons, he forfeits the remainder of the deal.

Personally, I wasn't a big critic of the deal. I wouldn't have done it myself, but I understood -- to a degree -- Wang's logic. DiPietro was his best player and he needed someone to focus the marketing on. There was no reason to think that he would get hurt the way he did, except this is ice hockey, and players do get hurt. A lot.

Garth Snow said he expects DiPietro to be ready to go next season. What else is he going to say? DiPietro insists that he is in the best shape of his life -- except, of course, for those darn knees. He said he's just following doctor's orders.

For his part, Wang is learning that when you gamble in sports, you can't hide the bad beats. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and when you lose, everyone knows about it and won't let you forget it.

As a fan, I can only hope that DiPietro comes back healthy, but like most fans I don't expect it. In all likelihood, the D.P. era is over and the contract will go down as one of the worst in NHL history, right alongside the one the Islanders signed with Alexei Yashin.

That's the kind of history we don't need.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Colin Campbell: Asleep at the switch

You know the guy at work who does nothing but convert oxygen to carbon dioxide? We all know a guy like this. The guy who has somehow been able to hold down a job despite little to no evidence of productivity? The guy who displays no aptitude or discernible skills yet continues to collect a paycheck?

Colin Campbell is that guy.

The NHL's chief disciplinarian brings cluelessness to new levels with each ruling he makes, the latest being the two-game suspension levied against Alex Ovechkin. Campbell somehow felt that Ovie deserved a two-game suspension for his hit against Brian Campbell (no relation, I think... maybe he's a distant cousin and that explains it).

Ovechkin was rightly given a five-minute major and a game misconduct, but anyone who saw the play other than dyed-in-the-wool Blackhawks fans knows that a suspension was not warranted.

But Campbell went ahead and gave out a two-game suspension. Where was the suspension for Matt Cooke against Marc Savard? Or for Steve Downie after he took out Sidney Crosby? And yet, Maxim Lapierre did get suspended four games for slamming Scott Nichol into the boards recently.

No rhyme, no reason. You wonder if that phrase is etched into a plaque on Campbell's wall.

Campbell makes Homer Simpson look like Frank Grimes. He makes G.W. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. He makes Larry Storch of "F-Troop" look like Marlon Brando.

We understand how someone like Campbell gets a league job like the one he has. What we don't understand, given his record, is how he actually keeps it.

Are there compromising photos involved? Someone's secret diary? A grainy video? Something's keeping the guy employed.

Scott Burnside has a terrific take on it at ESPN.com, comparing Campbell to the lead character in the film "Memento." Nice.

Burnside goes on to say that the league has no credibility when it comes to discipline. "This will be so until the NHL has the gumption to make meaningful change to the way it does business, until it tears down the Star Chamber and replaces Colin Campbell with a more effective, more transparent form of justice, one the players and coaches and fans can understand and accept."

Until that happens, expect more of the same. When there's an on-ice incident that requires thoughtful consideration and consistency, Campbell will instead spin his wheel of fortune, or shake his magic 8-ball, or whatever he uses to mete out punishments (or free passes).

That's the kind of guy he is.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Islanders' final 20: What do we want?

The Olympics are over, Canada got its gold medal, and the Russian president is about to roll some heads. But there's no time to bask in the Olympic glow (or, if you're Team USA, wallow in the disappointment). The stretch run for the NHL season is here, and the trade deadline is just a day away. Which means teams have decisions to make.

For the Islanders and GM Garth Snow, there will be many phone calls initiated and received. Does Snow trade Andy Sutton? What about Dwyane Roloson and Martin Biron? Or any of the team's other unrestricted free agents like Doug Weight, RIchard Park, or Jon Sim?

UPDATE: Sutton is traded. See below.

The reality is murky. The Islanders -- despite losing 9 of 11 prior to the Olympic break -- are one of seven teams within striking distance of the final two playoff spots in the East. The Isles have 20 games left to play, 11 of those at home, where they have a winning record (unlike, say, the Rangers).

I used to think that if your team was on the bubble, it didn't matter if it made the playoffs or not, because it would probably get bounced in the opening round, with an outside chance of making it to round two. But with this Islanders team, I think making the playoffs -- even if it led to a first-round elimination -- would be huge.

With a core of young players, to reach the post-season now would be a tremendous boost in experience and confidence and would help accelerate the group's development, and would affirm that coach Scott Gordon has the team headed in the right direction.

Can that happen? Seven teams is quite a scrum, but it's possible that the team goes on a run and squeaks in. Possible, but not likely, especially if Snow trades away key pieces. Snow's moves will be made solely on what benefits the club in the long term.

Take the goalies. Snow should deal whoever brings back a higher return, and that's likely to be Roloson. He played great while he was here, but a 40-year-old netminder isn't part of the future.

Sutton's story is a little different. I'd hate to see him go. He's big and mobile, but he's going to be a free agent, and there are plenty of suitors. If the Isles cannot sign him to an extension now (and that's pretty remote at this point), then it makes sense to trade him to a contender willing to rent him and then try and sign him as a free agent this summer. Keep in mind, he'll be 35 in a week.

Dealing Sutton would hurt the team's playoff chances more than anything else, but you've gotta do what you've gotta do.

(UPDATED: Sutton was traded Tuesday afternoon to Ottawa for a 2nd-round pick. MORE)

As a fan of this team, my approach is "whatever happens, happens." Making the playoffs this season was always a remote possibility, so being within hailing distance of the playoffs with 20 games left isn't bad. If Snow can convert some pieces into draft picks or prospects, all the better.

If the team somehow catches lightning in a bottle (and gets some serious help along the way) and makes the playoffs anyway, then that would be icing on the cake, and it would be fun to see how the team performs in that setting.

The endgame begins tonight at home against Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks. Keep your trade trackers on.