Saturday, June 13, 2009
This hit me the other night. I can't believe how no one has seen this. I can't believe how a parallel so obvious has slipped so far under the radar. and no, I don't just mean the obvious observation of the two teams being at complete opposites of the NHL spectrum. The parallel goes deeper. The New York Islanders now are the pre-Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penquins.
In 2004, the Penquins were at the bottom of the barell, literally and figuratively. Not only were they the worst team in the league by a large margin, they were in the belly of a financial beast. This once proud franchise was struggling to stay afloat. The team was bad. The arena was worse, and the support of fans and local government was virtually non existent. Ironically, this was towards the end of the Islanders "reign of respectability." Time was growing short on the Islanders relatively short string of playoff appearances, but they were still, at the very least, watchable. I remember watching games when the Islanders would visit Pittsburgh and seeing an empty Igloo. So empty that it challenged the "row to yourself" days at the Nassau Coliseum that occurred nightly from 1996 to 2001.
A story always stuck out in my mind from those Penquin dark days. Pittsburgh was so desperate for money to fund a new stadium that it attempted to raise it themselves with various gimmicks inside the arena. I guess the thought process was, "well, the citizens and government doesn't care, lets see if our small fan base could help us out"...not surprisingly, it didn't work out to well. Gone were the cup days. Gone was Mario Lemioux, the player. Gone was any semblance of respectability. Their once promising goaltender (ironically a very young Marc Andre-Flury) looked like he may never pan out. Things were down in the steel city. The strike was actually a welcome commodity because it took the individual embarrassment away for once and heaped it on the entire NHL.
Then, a funny thing happened. Sidney Crosby came to town. Billed as "The Next One", Sid the Kid infused new life into a dead organization. Suddenly, the arena was filling. People were talking in positive terms. Not three years after the Penquins were almost forced to skip town, they were playing for a Stanly Cup. One year after that (last night), they erased a 2-0 deficit to the most historically dominant team in Hockey since the Canadians and finally hoisted Lord Stanley's giant jug. And it all started with one player. One superstar. The term "savior" is often thrown around in sports. It has become one of those terms that has lost it's meaning. But not with Sidney Crosby. Sure, you could argue about the value of an Evgenni Malkin, but the fact remains that Sidney Crosby was "The Next One". He, quite literally, saved a dieing franchise.
Now another dieing franchise must take the cue. The Islanders are in virtually the same boat that the Penguins were in before the strike. No one comes. No one watches. No one really cares. The arena's old. The franchise lacks star power and shows absolutely no signs of a winning future. The face of the franchise hasn't played in forever (Rick Dipietro) and the owner, Charlie "I really hate this" Wang is loosing money hand over fist. If any team is in need of a savior, its the Islanders.
If they Isles play their cards correctly, they could have that savior in a mater of days. The Islanders hold the first pick in this month's NHL entry draft and sitting their for the taking is 18 year old John Tavares. Tavares has already been coined "The Next Next One" by many draft experts. He has drawn comparisons to Gordie Howe and Mike Bossy. In 2007, Tavares broke Wayne Gretzky's OHL scoring record for 16 year olds. He is, at the very least, the best prospect since Crosby.
The Islander, who have a history of doing super dumb things, are about the only team in the league who could mess this up. I've heard rumors that they will trade the pick. Dumb move. I've heard that they may take highly touted defensman Viktor Headman. This, while not as dumb as trading down, would also be ill-advised. I'm a firm believer that you build around a scorer, not a defensman.
If anything, last night's Pittsburgh Penquin victory should serve as a rallying cry for all in the organization. The seemingly impossible is, in fact, far from it. Success can be achieved in even the most dire of situations. But it doesn't come without individual greatness. It doesn't come without a truly special player. That player is out their. His name is John Tavares. Now, its up to the Islanders to take him.
phot credit: ap