29 August 2010
Once upon a time, the Islanders were a young team in the process of rebuilding, sound familiar? The 1996-1997 Islanders were a team in transition, but a team that was starting to put the pieces together. Despite their failure to make the playoffs, and the organizations failure to build around the young core, it was this season that I was pulled into Islander Country and would never leave.
The islanders tried to start their 25th anniversary season with a bang. Chicago Blackhawks star center Jeremy Roenick was up for grabs, and islanders General Manager Mike Milbury was salivating at the chance to add the 26 year old to his roster. Roenick was a restricted free agent, so the Blackhawks could match any offer-sheet that was tendered to him. The islanders and the star center quickly agreed to a deal, but Chicago insisted that the only way Roenick was going anywhere was through a trade. Trade talks between the Isles and hawks never got off the ground, and the center was shipped to the Phoenix Coyotes. This meant that the Islanders offense would continue to fall squarely on the shoulders of 24 year old Zigmund(Ziggy) Palffy.
Palffy was coming off a season in which he scored 43 goals and 44 assists for 87 points. Impressive numbers for a player who’s best center was Travis Green, a nice player better suited as a second or third line role. Ziggy was far and away the Isles best player, and aside from the overachieving Travis Green and second year power forward Todd Bertuzzi, didn’t have much help. Adding Roenick would have given the Islanders a true number one center entering the prime of his career. It didn’t wok out, so if you stopped Palffy, you stopped the Islanders.
In goal, The Isles had high hopes for Youngster Eric Fichaud from the Patrick Roy School of butterfly goalies. However, as the season wore on, it was Tommy Salo who would grow into the starters role. In front of Salo and Fichaud was the one area where the islanders seemed to be well stocked, the defense. With young defenseman Bryan McCabe, Kenny Jonsson and Bryan Berard, teamed with veterans such as Scott Lachance, Richard Pilon and Dennis Vaske, GM Mike Milbury was able to trade Darious Kasparaitis for scoring help with winger Bryan Smolinski. At the trade deadline, center Robert Reichel was added to Smolinski and Palffy, and suddenly the islanders had a top line that was hard to stop.
The season of celebration almost became a memorable one when the Isles made a late season push for the 8th and final playoff spot. The Reichel, Smolinski and Palffy line was the catalyst, along with solid goaltending by Tommy Salo in his first full NHL season. Rookie Bryan Berard was also drawing rave reviews, being compared to a young Bryan Leetch. For the first time in three seasons, there were meaningful games in front of large and excited crowds in the coliseum. Ziggy Palffy was also on his own quest for 50 goals as the season was drawing to a close.
Ultimately both Palffy and the team would fall short. Palffy finished with 48 goals and 90 points (numbers no Islander has approached since this season) while the Islanders finished 8 points out of the playoffs. After the season, Berard would win the Calder trophy as the leagues top rookie, but that was as exciting as the offseason got. Milbury was never able to secure a top line center in the prime of their career (Reichel was solid, but was on the downside of his career by this point). Within two years McCabe, Bertuzzi and Berard would be playing well for other teams. After the 1997 Draft, the Isles featured several top prospects in Zdeno Chara and Eric Brewer on defense, J.P. Dumont a scoring forward and Roberto Luongo in Goal, but impatience and shaky ownership would lead to constant turnover of the roster. Instead of building round the core, it was shipped out for quick fixes like Trevor Linden and Felix Potvin.
The season ultimately ended in disappointment, the ride was a fun one that cemented the islanders forever in my heart. It would also prove a good lesson in patience with a young team with a bunch of young players and prospects. Had the islanders built around Palffy, Bertuzzi, Berard, McCabe, Chara and Luongo who knows what could have been? Now the Islanders find themselves building around Tavares, Okposo, Bailey, De Haan, Hamonic and a score of young prospects. If the isles continue to show patience and add the right pieces to the puzzle, the islanders have the chance to redeem themselves from years of futility.
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