(Long Island, N.Y.) As if it wouldn’t be hard enough, now there is a big elephant in the room – or arena – that wasn’t previously. The New York Islanders have been trying to keep their faithful followers happy with a second-rate roster playing in a second-rate facility and the fanbase is shrinking every year. The older ones that experienced the dynasty from the early 1980s are slowly giving way to the younger crowd, one that isn’t as passionate about their team.
NHL hockey as a whole has had its own difficulties with public relations and keeping the fans interested and the Islanders were no exception. But all of these may be small change compared to the impending move of the team to Brooklyn in two years.
So with nearly half a season lost due to the lockout, it seems like a stretch to say that the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum will be packed and rocking come Saturday evening when the New Jersey Devils come to town to open the 48-game shortened season.
The last time that the Islanders qualified for the playoffs was 2006-07 and they have been a perennial doormat of the league basically since then. They have finished in last place of the Atlantic Division in each of the last five seasons and do not figure to show much improvement this time around.
It is not as if there isn’t some talent here. Center John Tavares scored 31 goals and had 50 assists in 2011-12 and is the marquee name, but left wing Matt Moulson actually led the team with 36 goals. Right wing Kyle Okposo added 24 goals and 21 assists.
In goal, veteran Evengi Nabokov returns after a stellar season (19-18-3, 2.55 goals against average) filling in for the oft-injured Rick DiPietro, who played in only eight games. Since signing an unprecedented 15-year, $67.5 million contract in 2006, he has suffered a myriad of injuries including two concussions, a torn labrum in his hip, torn meniscus in his knee, facial fractures following an on-ice fight and a groin/hernia combo.
Perhaps a name for the future, albeit if it may occur in Brooklyn, is Griffin Reinhart, who was chosen fourth overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The 18-year-old Canadian defenseman played last season in the WHL and scored 12 goals and had 24 assists. He also had a plus-23 +/- ratio. There is no telling how long the organization will wait until bringing him up to the big club.
So it comes down to a lame duck team playing one and a half seasons in an antiquated building and hoping that a rich history can carry them through until the big move. Being in Brooklyn has seemed to do wonders for the Nets, who played in virtual anonymity in New Jersey for decades. But basketball is a much more popular sport than hockey – in Brooklyn and overall.
Will the present fans take advantage of the ease of public transportation and follow the Isles into the city? And how about attracting new fans? Owner Charles Wang has already announced that the team will continue to be called the New York Islanders, so there will be no re-branding of a franchise as was the case with the Nets.
All of these questions will eventually be answered, just not yet. The first one will be addressed this weekend.