In the Islanders’ 30th-place season of 2008-09 there were fractures in the locker room created, in large part, by breakdowns in relationships with captain Bill Guerin, Chris Campoli, Mike Comrie and Jon Sim. The first three were traded, two of them later than they should have. Sim later humbly admitted to Point Blank that he struggled after a season sidelined by a serious knee injury and was happy to heal any miscommunication with Scott Gordon. The grinder and the head coach continue to work together well now, and Sim was recalled today for the West Coast trip.
Last season, a dedicated and happy lineup may have been short on talent, but for the most part worked together and battled all the way through a season-ending, comeback, overtime loss at home to Pittsburgh. Only the strange and unfortunate ending to the career of Brendan Witt – publicly critical of the team’s style of play, while struggling so much himself on the ice that he is retired today – marred a professional atmosphere.
Needless to say, it’s way too early to know if this year’s squad – already challenged with the adversity of a bizarre training camp schedule and injuries to frontmen Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo – will make it through the season Gong Show-free. But as someone who personally witnessed about a half-dozen team breakdowns over the years, including the Whinefest of 2008-09, it’s worth noting that this coaching staff and this lineup may have headed south in the standings the last seven games, but at least they are all pushing in the same direction.
“We would go through a wall for each other and the coaching staff,” veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson told Point Blank after practice today. “There are peaks and valleys in every season when you have such a young team, but nobody should think we’re anything other than completely focused on the task at hand. We’re going to come out of it and be better for it. The team I was on in Edmonton that made it to the Stanley Cup Final – this team has the same comraderie, the same positive attitude, the same belief in the coaches. We just have to learn from this and put some wins together.”
The last two weeks have been challenging. Josh Bailey hasn’t registered a point in seven games. After a hot start, Blake Comeau has not played well. Jack Hillen was buried on the defensive depth chart, only revived when the injuries piled up on the blue line. Bruno Gervais was scratched for the first month of the season, making his debut for a game against Montreal as a fourth-line forward. The goaltending rotation has been questioned by fans and writers. They have lost some important players to injuries.
And yet I haven’t witnessed any excuse-making, in-fighting or disrespect towards the coaching staff, like 2008-09. I haven’t detected any tension, like Steve Stirling’s shortened second season when a handful of so-called “leaders” pouted their way on to other teams, to the minors or out of hockey. (As a veteran NHL head coach said to me recently, “It’s always the players who can’t get a contract the next year that try to send a coach out on his ass.”)
For the faithful who pour their hearts and wallets into the hockey team, there is little consolation in knowing the Islanders’ locker room has not become the Titanic. But it is important to know that the players and coaches are torn up, not torn apart, by the pain of a seven-game losing streak. There’s a huge difference.
“When things aren’t going well, your true character comes out,” defenseman Mike Mottau said at Iceworks after practice today. “You find out how good of a teammate guys are. You learn a lot about yourself. This is a young team that is impressionable. The players take direction and appreciate all the work Scott and the coaching staff puts in. There is a lot of frustration these last seven games, but not with each other. The last game against the Flyers, there was enough to give us something to build on. We have to go out West and start winning hockey games.”
It has to start Wednesday in Anaheim. The Islanders may be flying across the country today, but the medicore Ducks are playing in San Jose tonight. We may know by the end of the first period on Wednesday if the Islanders are ready to turn the corner. After what he witnessed in his rookie NHL season, the third-year head coach has a deeper belief in his current squad.
Said Gordon, “The difference between my first year and this year is that now, everyone is playing for the team.”
Notes: Jon Sim has been recalled for the West Coast trip because he played well in Bridgeport (five goals), the status of Zenon Konopka (foot injury) is still up in the air and Sim will give the coaches some lineup options for the three games. Konopka practiced today. The lines stayed the same.
Stay tuned for details on the debut of our Islanders Point Blank fan call-in show, scheduled to shoot Wednesday at 11:30 am at the SNY studio.