Have the Islanders changed their plans for 2002-03 ?

By Bill Bennett

Going into the season and through the summer, the Islanders staff felt their biggest weakness were grit and how to play a tougher brand of hockey and they addressed those needs by adding Arron Asham and Jason Wiemer.

The thinking was players like Brad Isbister, Oleg Kvasha and Dave Scatchard would have to step up production and replace the offense provided by Czerkawski and Kip Miller last season. In fact, every player on the roster was asked to step up their production, regardless of last seasons numbers.

Final Decisions ?

A week ago the staff made it’s final decisions and anyone who followed the team thru the summer would have expected what was decided.

Trent Hunter, Aaron Asham made the Islanders.

The decisions made sense because they needed a right winger who could score. Hunter had a break-thru season with Bridgeport and stood out when given a chance in the playoffs with the Islanders and it was seemingly his spot to lose. Peter Laviolette made it clear Hunters ability to score was a deciding factor in the decision to keep him, who by most reports did not have a good camp.

Asham had five goals in thirty-plus NHL games last season and was a year older. He was not going to be replaced over what was a short preseason, where he scored a goal, but did not standout.

So what changed in only two games ?

The Islanders played two very different kinds of games, lost both. It was not the final scores, but how they lost. In Buffalo, they scored the first goal on a PP rebound in the opening minutes that was a team record for fastest goal in an opener. Mark Parrish was robbed in front, the Isles hit a few goalposts and a crossbar but outside of that never sustained an offensive attack in the Sabres zone and looked completely lost in a third peirod where Buffalo took a total of one shot against Garth Snow, who replaced a shaky Chris Osgood.

Buffalo did not have to work very hard to defend the Islanders attack at even strength.
In the Home opener, we saw the grit, we saw the hitting, we saw everything advertised all summer about the 2002-03 Islanders as they owned a Caps team in both ends of the ice that has a lot of firepower and was shut-down like nothing seen during the Caps run of dominance over the Islanders, or even in the game that finally broke the streak last year.

The Islander had a huge shot advantage over the Caps that finally ended in a 2-1 loss where the result should have been an easy win.

The common-denominator to both losses: Quality shots and the teams collective inability to create those shots. We looked at the team and saw a third line playing a second line, two fourth lines and the Islanders unable to do more than cycle and put chances from the outside on goal, despite how hard they were working.

The group here now is clearly missing the skills of Czerkawski, Miller and Michael Peca, and most of the forwards are being asked to score are not goal scorers by trade and lack the creativity to do this on the consistent basis that is going to be needed to win some games 5-4 or rally to close a 3-1 deficit and gain points, to say nothing of games when it’s time to back up all the grit with goals when it’s time to play hockey and the fighting is over.

Welcome Back:

Raffi Torres and Justin Mapletoft were recalled by the Islanders on Monday. The questions here are why such a quick change in philosophy, when the coach picked Hunter based on his scoring ability, the lack of quality scoring chances makes Hunter being sent down curious after two games.

Can Torres, a top pick who can score make the skilled plays required to open the ice for struggling forwards under a lot of pressure ?

Can Mapletoft, a fifth rd pick create the kind of offense and two-way game that will help some of these forwards.

Or is a deal coming because all options are being used based on what the staff thinks are problems that are not going away easily.

Last Year vs This Year ?

Clearly the Islanders were not a perfect team last season, but the balance they had was able to provide enough goals so their team defense could close out a lot of very-close games. The Islanders rarely won games going away last season or had that ability. Now they to have to find players who can get them the lead and create offense and it’s not going to be easy.

Questions ?

Why did the Islanders make the changes they have on defense ? Adrian Aucoin somehow, despite the new faceoff rules still was on the ice for forty minutes in the opener, while Tomi Pettinen (sent to Bgpt) and Eric Cairns did not see the ice nearly enough. The plan was to have a solid third pairing even when there are injuries. In Buffalo, Roman Hamrlik was paired with Ray Schultz in an attempt to roll three pairings, but already we are back to a problem that had to be addressed this off-season and by the coaches actions has not been because he does not have confidence in trusting these players with ice time.

Juraj Kolnik traded:

Granted Kolnik is a prospect and not a top pick in his draft class. I do not want to over-rate a prospect but try to understand the thinking. Juraj was exposed too early to the Islanders a few seasons ago, did make a good impression in his camp here a year ago and scored when he was recalled in a seven-game cameo. He was in a few rumors to be moved at the deadline last season but the Isles decided to keep him and had a good playoff in the AHL. Sounds like a good plan considering his scoring skill may be something needed and he was a little older than some prospects. Camp comes, he does not make much of an impression and is among the early cuts. He was quoted in a European publication he did not get much of a look, but was hardly down or ripping anyone in print as Tigers coach Steve Stirling made it clear what he needs to do in the same article.

Next thing, just before the opener he is traded for mid-twenties defender Sven Butenschon, who was a free agent over the summer signed by the Panthers organization who has seen several organizations.

My point on this is what was the rush to make Kolnik, a prospect the Islanders were hyping for years and who’s skills were compared to Ziggy Palffy expendable so easily ? Kolnik may have requested a move, but we do not know and it does not matter. The organizations goal should be to get the best possible return and hold the prospect as long as it takes to get what is equal value.

Butenschon is listed as being a good AHL scoring defender in the AHL from last season and helps a Sound Tigers need for their power-play, but what if they could have done better by waiting ?

Or what if it was simply decided Kolnik was not the answer going into the summer, why not make a deal at the deadline last year. It just seems like there is no plan when things happen like this.

Korolev sent to Russian Team:

Another move that just makes you wonder is the sudden move of Evgeny Korolev loaned to a team in Russia this week. This is a player the Islanders designated for their playoff roster last year and did not include for the Sound-Tigers clear-day roster so he had no Calder Cup Playoffs to play in after the Isles were eliminated.

He had an injury in camp so was not able to play, now he is gone and even though the Isles maintain his rights, why would he want to come back after so much indecision regarding his career and being drafted twice ?

Arron Asham: More than a few publications have written that the Islanders did not want to risk losing Asham to waivers and that was a reason he made the team but did not do much to hold a spot thru camp. Bottom line this team has to play to win and put the best possible chance at that on the ice. If Asham is not part of that he should not be here.

s Next ?

For the Islanders game number three vs Nashville. It should be a lot of fun to see these kids get their first real looks in the NHL, even though Torres saw spot time in fourteen games last season. Hopefully it’s the start of something big for both Torres and Mapletoft. I would not be surprised to see Hunter win back a spot at some point as well, nor should this be considered a failing, it’s very early in his young career.

What’s next for the Isles prospects ?

A complete review on who is playing where and how they are doing so far.