The story of the New York Islanders is a long and complicated one. It’s the story of a team that has experienced both greatness and failure. It has a great beginning; an expansion team in suburban Long Island enters the League, and within ten years rises to the top and wins the Stanley Cup four times in a row. For someone trying to pitch the Islanders to someone who doesn’t know anything about the team, that’s about where they stop telling stories about the past because it wasn’t very pretty afterwards. Yes there were bright spots. The Easter Epic, the ’93 playoff run, the 2002 series against Toronto are among the highlights of the post-dynasty period in Islanders history. But more bad than good has befell the club since the departure of Al Arbour and Bill Torrey in the late 80’s. The infamous John Spano, Rick DiPietro, the 2003 draft, and the late 90’s had negative impacts that lasted years, if not decades. But in the lead-up to 2009, things began to change for the better, and although the team is once again in a transition period now, it was that period 2007-2018 that put the Islanders back on track to becoming a respectable team once again.
Many modern Islanders fans remember “the poke check” from Wade Dublewitz in 2007. It was that save that sent the Islanders to the Playoffs that season. A loss would’ve eliminated them from contention. The team would lose in five games to the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, but its aftermath began a domino effect that led to the 2009 draft. By now the GM was Garth Snow. He had been hired before the season started. After bowing out to Buffalo, the team bought out captain Alexei Yashin. He was the best player on the team at the time and it left the Islanders with little offensive talent. The team also didn’t have a first round pick in the subsequent ’07 draft as Edmonton acquired it in exchange for Ryan Smyth. The team struggled in 2007-2008, missing the Playoffs for the first time in three years. They drafted Josh Bailey 9th overall, who is now the longest tenured player on the Islanders. The Islanders missed the playoffs again in 2009, finishing last in the league. Bailey, as well as Kyle Okposo played that season, both their first in the league.
The Islanders selected John Tavares with the first overall pick in 2009. He scored in his first ever game on his first ever shot against Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The cornerstone forward would quickly develop chemistry with linemates Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson. The Islanders would miss the playoffs in Tavares’ first season with the Islanders but offense was not the reason why. They scored 222 goals that season, 2.7 per game. The issue was defense as the team allowed 3.22 goals per game, third-worst in the league. It led to the team being awarded the 5th overall pick and selecting Nino Niederreiter, who the Isles would later flip for Cal Clutterbuck and a third round pick (Eamon McAdam… Matt Martin). The Isles then took Brock Nelson 30th overall in that draft, a player who has at times underachieved during his tenure with the Isles. The Islanders struggles would continue for a few more years as the team failed to draft or acquire key defensemen. Finding a healthy goalie was also a struggle in this time period as Rick DiPietro would constantly find himself injured, as well as most of his replacements.
The front half of this era saw the Islanders as the doormat of the league. Not only was the team beaten on the scoreboard, but physically as well. John Tavares, Blake Comeau, Kyle Okposo, and Rick DiPietro were common targets. On February 11th 2011, the Islanders had enough. A few weeks prior, Blake Comeau was concussed from a blindsided hit to the head from Max Talbot of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In that same game, goalie Rick DiPietro checked Matt Cooke after the play before a scrum insued. Opposing goalie Brent Johnson then challenged DiPietro to a fight in which he too was injured after taking a punishing blow to the cheek. The broadcast showed the Penguins bench laughing with Johnson as he left the ice after the fight.
The Islanders were embarrassed. On that fateful Friday night in February, the Islanders put on a show, scoring 9 goals as well as a combined 346 penalty minutes. The amount of players who finished the game wouldn’t be enough to sport a midget team. Enforcers Michael Haley and Trevor Gilles led the charge that night, going after Pittsburgh goons Eric Tangradi, Craig Adams, Eric Godard, and Max Talbot. Brent Johnson fought again as well, this time against Michael Haley, who also scored a goal that night. Though the Islanders were fined $100,000, they sent a message that they were to be respected as a team. It was the spark that ignited the era into a successful one as playoffs were right around the corner.
Until 2014, the Islanders lacked a definitive number one starting goalie. Rick DiPietro was always supposed to be that guy, but injuries prevented him from realizing that role completely, and he was waived then bought out by the club in 2013. Al Montoya, Mikko Koskinen, Kevin Poulin, and Dwayne Roloson were some of the goaltenders to man the Islanders crease before and during the 2011-2012 season. None played better than average during their times in New York. But in 2011, the Islanders finally got their starter, Evgeni Nabokov. The veteran goaltender reported to Islanders Training Camp before the 2011-2012 season after holding out the year before and emerged as the starter from among DiPietro and Montoya. It wasn’t a great season, but the Islanders now had a goalie. The team rode Nabokov the following year to their first playoff appearance in six years. They played a great series against Pittsburgh but were defeated in game six in OT, in a series that was heavily favored for the Penguins in terms of officiating.
The following season was a strange one for New York, because the team had something to prove. The Islanders thought they were unfairly eliminated last year due to referees and goaltending blunders, so they were playing hard. Expectations were now high, and when the team started the season 4-4-3, GM Garth Snow felt he had to make a trade. He acquired Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Matt Moulson and a few draft picks. Despite the move and Vanek’s chemistry with John Tavares, the team faced another slew of injuries including one to JT during the Sochi Winter Olympics. The team once again missed the Playoffs and Vanek departed via trade.
The 2014-2015 season was to be the Isles’ last at the Nassau Coliseum. For years owner Charles Wang had been trying to get a new arena on Long Island to replace the outdated Coliseum. In August 2011, he tried one more time to get an arena by opening a vote to Nassau County taxpayers to determine if a new arena would be built. The vote failed and a year later, the Islanders announced that they would move to Brooklyn in 2015. There was a feeling of obligation towards the fans and Long Island to produce in this emotional season. By this time the team looked a lot different from when Tavares was drafted. Kyle Okposo developed incredible chemistry with John Tavares and was a fixture on the first line. Prospects had developed, including Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, and Ryan Strome. The Islanders had also since drafted Ryan Pulock, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang. They took only defensemen in 2013. All these players would have a key role in the coming years with the team. Before the 2014 draft, the Islanders acquired Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals and signed him to a four-year contract. They also brought in forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Finally, the team was starting to look like a contender once again. The only missing piece was defense.
Days before the season started, Garth Snow made the two trades that he is most known for during his tenure in New York. On the same day, Snow acquired both Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk from the Blackhawks and Bruins, respectively. What made the trades so good is how little he had to give up for both players. The most valuable assets were second round picks and prospect Ville Pokka who is yet to become a mainstay in the NHL. The season began incredibly with the Islanders having one of their best starts in franchise history, including an emotional home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes. Halak was a rock in goal for the team, carrying them for the majority of the first half. Despite a slower second half, the team finished with 101 points and third in the Metropolitan Division. They missed out on home ice advantage because they lost their final regular season home game at the Coliseum, 4-3 in a shootout, against the Columbus Blue Jackets, which proved to be costly. Still, they held their heads high as they began one of the greatest playoff series in team history.
The first round series against the Capitals was one for the history books. The Islanders stunned Washington in Game one, silencing the crowd in a 4-1 win. Game Two didn’t go as well as the Islanders blew a 3-1 lead and lost 4-3, even with backup Philipp Grubauer starting in place of a sick Braden Holtby. In game Three, John Tavares scored 15 seconds into OT to give the Isles a 2-1 series lead in one of the most memorable goals during his time in New York. Game Four had the opposite result as Nicklas Backstrom won it for Washington that night. Game Five was all Capitals as they cruised to a 5-1 win. Game Six would be the last at the Coliseum but it was incredible.
Tied 1-1, John Tavares chased after a puck in the corner before being flattened by Alex Ovechkin behind the net. Still, the puck found its way to the slot where it was deposited into the goal by Nikolai Kulemin. The anger directed at Ovechkin and the referee for not calling a penalty was gone in a flash. Speaking of questionable hits, Tom Wilson became public enemy number one of Islanders fans back in game four when he leveled Lubomir Visnovsky, removing him from the game, the series, and ultimately his career. Despite this, the Islanders forced Game Seven in Washington. It was a disappointing night as the team failed to get going offensively and lost 2-1. Halak kept the Isles in it but his efforts weren’t enough and the Coliseum doors slammed shut for renovations. The Islanders were Brooklyn bound not having won a playoff series in 22 years.
The Islanders made few changes heading into 2015-2016. Thomas Greiss swapped places with backup goalie Michal Neuvirth, and Lubomir Visnovsky was replaced by Marek Zidlicky. The team played similarly as well. They succeeded in their first year in Brooklyn and qualified for the playoffs as the first wild card team, setting up a date with the Florida Panthers. Jaroslav Halak was injured late that season in a game against the Penguins so Thomas Greiss assumed the starting role coming into the Playoffs and did so admirably from the start.
Game One was a back and forth affair and the Islanders came out on top 5-4. Tavares led the way that night with 3 points. The team lost Game Two 3-1 as the series shifted to Brooklyn. In the first playoff game at Barclays, Game Three, the Islanders went down 3-0 on an Aaron Ekblad goal early in the second period, but the goal was called back on a succesful offsides challenge by the Isles. As soon as the referee waved the goal off before the crowd, momentum shifted in the Islanders favor. Ryan Pulock unloaded a one timer on the power play to cut the deficit to 2-1 before he slid a pass to Shane Prince who tied the game a few minutes later. The Panthers would score again but Frans Nielsen would tie the game at 3 for the Islanders. The game went to OT when a centering pass from behind the net found Thomas Hickey who wristed one past Roberto Loungo, giving the Islanders the win and the series lead. Game Four was close but the Isles dropped it 2-1. The next game was in Sunrise Florida, and like the one a few nights before, it went to OT. In the first extra frame, Calvin de Haan swiped the puck out of the crease with his hand, resulting in a penalty shot. Thomas Greiss stood tall and kept the game tied. Then in the second OT period, Alan Quine fired an Ovechkin-like one-timer from the top of the right circle passed Loungo giving the Isles a chance to move on in Game Six.
The sixth game between the Islanders and Panthers will go down as one of the better games in franchise history along with the first Stanley Cup game, the Easter Epic, the defeat of the Penguins in ’93, and Shawn Bates’ penalty shot in 2002. The Panthers scored first midway through the second period on a Jonathan Huberdeau shot from the point. The Islanders were buzzing the entire night but couldn’t beat Loungo. As the third period winded down and with the goalie pulled, the Panthers entered the Islanders zone but couldn’t score as the attacking player for Florida (Vincent Trochek) was stripped “controversially” of the puck by Matt Martin, a non-tripping call that eventually cost the Panthers the game. Nick Leddy then did what he does best and transported the puck from behind his own net all the way down the ice before throwing it to the pads of Loungo. Somehow, it trickled underneath him and sat unnoticed on his right side. Flying off the bench came John Tavares and while everyone else on the ice was searching for the puck, Tavares saw it and shoved it home, tying the game at one with less than a minute to play. Overtime saw anxious moments for both teams with players hitting posts both goalies making great saves. Then, eleven minutes into the second overtime, John Tavares took a relay pass from Kyle Okposo which he then fired on goal. Loungo kicked it aside but right into Tavares’ skates. The Islanders superstar guided it around the net and all the fallen and exhausted Loungo could do was watch as Tavares wrapped the puck around and into the net, sending the team to the second round for the first time in 23 seasons. It was truly “Bedlam in Brooklyn.” The fans partied like it was 1980, but the celebration didn’t last past game one of the second round as the Islanders lost a tough series to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was the apex of the era, as things have gone quite south since this point.
In the 2016 offseason, the Islanders lost homegrown players Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin to free agency. Gone was Tavares’ linemate, the second line center, and the source of the team’s physicality. Their replacements, Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera, simply did not replace their production, and the team fell towards the bottom of the standings. After the emergence of Thomas Greiss in the Playoffs, the goalie situation was an issue once again. Halak struggled at times during the 16-17 season, as did Greiss, but what made the situation really bad was the presence of J.F Berube as the third goalie. Both Griess and Halak were injured at parts of season, but when they weren’t, Berube stayed with the team as he would have to clear waivers to reach Bridgeport. Halak expressed his displeasure of the situation. It led to the team struggling during the first half of the season and the firing of longtime coach Jack Capuano. That seemed to be the spark the team needed because from their win against Dallas on, they were the best team in the NHL. Unfortunately though, the hole they dug in the beginning of the year was too deep to emerge from and the team missed the playoffs by a point, despite winning the final six games of the season without John Tavares and behind a re-energized Jaroslav Halak.
Coming into 2017-2018, expectations were sky-high for the Islanders. The team looked about the same as it did a year prior, if not better. Prospects Josh Ho-Sang, Michael Dal Colle, Ryan Pulock, and Mathew Barzal seemed ready to make the jump to the NHL. On paper, the defense looked like it could compete in the Metropolitan division. The team also had to show both John Tavares, and Barclays Center that we were capable of winning, as the center was entering the final year of a five-year contract, and attendance in Brooklyn was down as the team failed to make the Playoffs. Despite an incredible year offensively and the emergence of Mathew Barzal as a young star, injuries and underachievement plagued both the defense and goaltending positions as the Islanders had one of the worst defensive years in NHL history, allowing 296 goals against, over three per game. The team missed the Playoffs for the second straight year.
Now we’re here. Weight and Snow were fired, and Trotz and Lou were hired. Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson (tune into our interview with Dobson right here) are the newest Islanders prospects, but John Tavares is no longer part of the equation. An era is over. It was one where we started at the bottom, climbed back to relevance and respectability, but ultimately failed to achieve the ultimate goal of winning hockey’s most coveted prize. On July 1st, we were at rock bottom, distressed at the departure of our captain, but we’ve already improved. Lou got to work and acquired depth, but more importantly acquired character. The Islanders are not great on paper, and who knows how they’ll play next year. Nevertheless, this team has a clean slate, a fresh start. Maybe one day, fans will look back on this era as a prelude to whatever greatness may be in store for this franchise. We had to be bad in 2008 in order to be good in 2013, and it may take being bad in 2017-2018 for being better somewhere down the road. For now, we turn a page and continue to write our story.