The Islanders: New York’s Forgotten Franchise

Depending on where you live in New York, hockey is either synonymous with the New York Rangers or the Buffalo Sabres. Yet, in between political pundit shows on CSPAN-2, you may catch a game being played by New York’s other hockey team. The New York Islanders were established in 1972 as an expansion franchise. They made their home in Nas­sau County on Long Island in the shadows of the long established New York Rangers. The New York Islanders, to those famil­iar with hockey, are best known for their dominance in the 1980s. Between 1979 and 1983, they won four straight Stan­ley Cups. In fact, the Islanders went on to lose in the 1984 Stanley Cup finals in search of their fifth consecutive champi­onship. During this run, the Islanders set the professional sports record for most consecutive playoff series victories with 19. Led by Hall of Fame players Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith, the Islanders established the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum as “Fort Neverlose” and far surpassed their cross-town rivals.

How did this once storied franchise drift into professional sports obscurity? How did “Fort Neverlose” become the “Nassau Mausoleum”? For one, playing in the same market as the New York Rangers has meant that the Islanders receive little attention unless they are atop the NHL standings. Unfortunately, the Islanders have had little success on the ice since the 1980’s. They have suffered several man­agement issues, made some questionable trade transactions and encountered great difficulty in securing a new stadium. The Islanders last won a playoff series in 1993 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Some fans point to the injury of Islanders super­star Pierre Turgeon at the hands of Dale Hunter on a late hit as the catalyst for disaster. Since 1993, the Islanders most impressive playoff showing was in 2002 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which they ultimately lost in seven games.

The Islanders descent to the bottom of the NHL reached its low point during the 2008-2009 season. The Islanders fin­ished in last place with only 26 wins and a shocking 47 losses. In an NHL era where teams build success out of failure through the entry draft, finishing in dead last no longer carries a stigma. This becomes clear when one looks at the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby or the Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin. By fin­ishing in last place, the Islanders secured the rights to pick first at the NHL Entry Draft. With that selection they chose John Tavares, a highly touted Canadian hockey player who reinvigorated the Islanders fanbase and brought media attention back to the New York Islanders.

Under General Manager Garth Snow, the Islanders have rebuilt a team that can be a playoff contender. Though the Is­landers finished three games under .500 last season, they have seen vast improve­ments in talent and depth. Young forwards Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Blake Comeau and Tavares form the core of New York’s goal scorers. The Islanders also added Nino Niederreiter, a powerful 18-year-old forward from Switzerland, with the fifth pick in the 2010 Draft. He is sure to contribute on offense both this season and into the distant future. De­fense has undoubtedly been a major weak­ness for the Islanders in recent years. Dur­ing free agency, Garth Snow was able to add talented but overlooked defensemen, Mark Eaton, James Wisniewski and Mark Streit. So far this season, the Islanders’ de­fense has showed an improved measure of toughness and reliability.

In goal, the oft-injured Rick DiPi­etro has returned to share ice time with 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson. Roloson, who won 23 games behind a weak defense last season, has undoubtedly been the most impressive player on the Islanders for the past two seasons.

As of the publication of this article, the New York Islanders have four wins and only two regulation losses. Their two losses were heart-breaker one-goal de­feats that could have been victories on a different night. In front of a largely pro-Rangers crowd at their own arena, the Is­landers defeated their more-famous rival, in an exciting 6-4 comeback win. Despite injuries to All-Star and Olympian Mark Streit and playmakers Kyle Okposo and Rob Schremp, the Islanders have been physical and competitive in every game. Though you may not be able to see them on TV, watch for the Islanders to make the playoffs this season as the number eight seed, playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in a national broadcast.