Once-proud franchise continues it’s bumbling ways by losing star to free agency after not trading him last season
There was a time more than three decades ago when the New York Islanders exemplified dominance in the NHL.
They won four Stanley Cups from 1979-83 and appeared in five straight, thriving with brilliant players like Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Billy Smith and Brian Trottier.
They turned a modest, aging Nassau Coliseum into the Montreal Forum of its era, the place to be, where the banners flew. Going to an Islanders game was fun, rewarding and instructive of the team-building talents of general manager Bill Torrey and coach Al Arbour.
But things have changed. Since the 2005-06 season, the Islanders have missed the playoffs nine times. During that time, they have won only one playoff series, a first-rounder against the Florida Panthers in in 2015-16.
And then on the first day of free agency last week, they lost their captain, John Taveras, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Taveras, 27, signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, his hometown team and love of his life.
“It was a calculated leap of faith into an opportunity I believe will be special for me and my family,” said Taveras on the day of is signing.
But for the Islanders, it has led to an extended funeral dirge, as the franchise mourns not only for its loss, but how it lost him.
The Athletic’s Arthur Staple laid it out quite perfectly over the weekend, extending blame to the owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky for miscalculating Taveras’ intentions .
Apparently, Taveras, a five-time All-Star, who twice finished third in MVP balloting (the Hart Trophy), recommended the Islanders not trade him last season, even though he knew they could get quality equity back for him. General manager Garth Snow agreed and then watched his star walk out the door with nothing to show for it.
And really, why should have Taveras re-signed, even if the Islanders reportedly offered him $91 million over eight seasons? The Islanders have not made the playoffs for the last two seasons and were 17 points from qualifying in 2017-18, even with Taveras scoring 84 points in 82 games.
In his career, he played in 669 games and scored 621 points, fifth all-time in franchise history. But, according to CapFriendly.com, he was making only $5.5 million. And Snow provided little help to surround him.
So when Taveras checked the horizon, there was a lot already to see, the least of which was the reality that Snow’s last coaching heir, Doug Weight, simply did not work out, further acerbating the situation.
And then there was the specter of where the Islanders should and would play their home games. The team left Long Island in 2014 to move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home of the NBA’s Nets. The Islanders signed a 25-year agreement to play there beginning in the 2015-16 season, following the end of their lease.
They did so to try to capitalize on easier access for more fans, while callously abandoning their established base in process.
The Brooklyn experiment has been a colossal failure. Since the Islanders moved, average attendance had hovered under 13,000, among the bottom five in the league. This season, they were last among the 31 teams (12,002).
And it turned out that sightlines were not conducive to watching hockey, which would have been bad enough had the ice not also been slushy. By 2016, both parties wanted out of the deal.
And while the team waits for its new arena to be built near New York’s Belmont Park, scheduled to be ready by 2021-22, they will be slowly transitioning back to Nassau this season.
Last season, it was announced that the Islanders would play at last a dozen games a season in Long Island through 2020-21. That number has since been increased to 20 for 2018-19 with 44 more planned for the following two campaigns.
There is something quite ironic about all of this, as well. After the season, the Islanders hired Lou Lamoriello, who won multiple Stanley Cups in New Jersey, to be their next president. And they hired him from Toronto.
Lamoriello fired Snow and Weight and hired Barry Trotz, who left the Washington Capitals after he guided them to their first Stanley Cup in history.
They both immediately prioritized Taveras. And it still wasn’t enough.
“In our conversations, it always just felt right,” said Taveras. “There just felt like a comfort level. Some of those feelings, as a kid growing up, and just how much you enjoy being from here … some of those feelings really started coming to fruition. I couldn’t ignore them.”