Jamming The Crease: Islanders sale talk gives hope to fans; more NHL notes
Outside of a miraculous recovery by John Tavares or a change in league rules that allows 14 teams from each conference into the postseason tournament, Islanders fans got the best news possible late on Thursday: team owner Charles Wang is talking to potential buyers about selling his majority stake in the crumbling franchise.
Go ahead. Take a minute to let that sink in.
Now, it's worth noting that there's a significant gap to be bridged between merely talking and actually handing over the keys, but just knowing that this isn't idle gossip, that there's a real chance the league's most incompetent owner could be on the way out, gives hope to the team's long-suffering fans.
And that's ultimately why this matters.
No one knows what new ownership will bring -- the new guy might install his kid as VP of hockey operations or something -- but it's hard to imagine any possible future for New York could be worse than what transpired during Wang's reign of error.
His failure was in placing his faith in the wrong people and then sticking with them long past the time when the wheels had come flying off. Think back to the disasters of the Mike Milbury era (trading Roberto Luongo for pocket lint and then drafting Rick DiPietro; dealing Zdeno Chara and a first round pick -- which became Jason Spezza -- for Alexei Yashin, who was given an absurd 10-year deal). Then contemplate the mess overseen by current GM Garth Snow, who, with two trades involving Thomas Vanek in the past eight months, has sealed his legacy of incompetence.
Between them, Wang and Snow managed to torch the legacy of a once-proud franchise, turning Long Island into a no-man's land at the top of every no-trade list, and a stop of last resort for the most desperate free agents. The place literally repels talent. No wonder the Isles have had so little success, finishing last in their division from 2007 to '12 with just two playoff appearances (and no series wins) in the last 10 years.
That's not the sort of mess that new ownership could clean up overnight. Nor should anyone expect a new steward to quickly discover the path to winning. But what happens on the ice is almost secondary. More than anything, New York's fans need a reason to believe -- an owner who shares their passion, who can chart a smart, long-term course and hire competent, effective management to execute his plan.
It's really not too much to ask.
There's a $75 million loan payment due at the end of this season that Wang would like to get out from under, so it's not just that a sale might happen. It might happen soon. We'll keep an eye on happenings over the weekend.
Back in 2000-01, a journeyman winger named Scott Pellerin scored 11 goals with 28 assists. Not the sort of production that normally would catch anyone's attention, except for one thing: His paltry 39 points led the Wild in scoring and, in the process, set a new mark for the lowest total to top a team scoring chart in NHL history. To be fair, Minnesota was an expansion team that season, a collection of cast-offs charged with playing tight defense to compensate for a lack of firepower. In that context, Pellerin's output was understandable. But what's the excuse for Scottie Upshall and this season's Panthers? Upshall, himself a well-traveled forward, is on the verge of breaking Pellerin's record with a team that's institutionally awful. With just eight games remaining in Florida's season, Upshall leads all Panthers with 35 points while scoring at a .51 point per game clip. If he maintains that average he will equal the old mark, but with just one assist in his last five games, he's ice cold. It would be another dubious mark for a franchise that seems to be constantly discovering new ways to embarrass itself.
Shootout killing Devils
Just four points from a playoff berth with nine games to go, the Devils aren't out of the hunt just yet ... but with three teams standing between them and the final wild card spot in the East, things don't look good. And if New Jersey comes up short in the end, it'll be because it couldn't go long when it mattered. The Devils are the only team in the league that has failed to win a game via a shootout, going 0-9 in the skills competition in 2013-14. Teams currently holding on to playoff spots in the East have averaged just over four shootout wins each, so if New Jersey had been merely average, going 4-5, it would be in playoff position today. Any surprise that Lou Lamoriello was pushing three-on-three OT at the general managers meetings earlier this month?
The bargain Benn
The NHL doesn't have a Most Improved Player Award, but if it did Stars defenseman Jordie Benn would deserve a long look. It's remarkable that the older brother of team captain Jamie Benn made it to the league at all. Jordie couldn't catch on with a major junior team and went undrafted by the NHL, but he nevertheless worked his way up to the big time through the East Coast, Central and American leagues in just four years. He split last season between AHL Texas and Dallas, looking most nights like the beneficiary of some flagrant nepotism, but he put in the work to improve his skating, his timing and his reads. Last fall he won a spot in camp over more highly regarded prospects, and during the course of the season has transformed himself from a player on the 6/7 bubble to a reliable second-pair defenseman capable of soaking up 20-plus minutes a night. He plays within his physical limitations, moving the puck quickly, managing his gaps effectively and using his body. There's nothing fancy about his game, and the lack of glamor ensures he'll continue to labor in anonymity. But it's a testament to his spirit that he's come so far after starting with so little.
• Best news of the week: Canadiens prospect Tim Bozon has been released from hospital after a bout of meningitis so severe that it required a medically-induced coma to combat it. He's done for the season, but should be healthy enough to participate in Montreal's camp next fall.
• I heard a commentator yesterday suggest that the Wild were the team that no one wanted to face in the West. Unless the Oilers are suddenly eligible via some patsy exemption, I'm thinking Minnesota is the team that everyone wants. After a limp showing against the Blues on Thursday night, the Wild have now lost nine of 12 (3-5-4), and have allowed 13 goals on just 59 shots in their last three (0-2-1). Not a lot of push-back in their game right now ... and does anyone else think that Ryan Suter is looking a little frayed around the edges?
• Amazing story out of Russia, where a rebuilt Lokomotiv franchise has emerged from the airplane crash that wiped it out two years ago and advanced to the doorstep of the KHL championship. The new team knocked off Ilya Kovalchuk and St. Petersburg, 2-0 on Friday to take its quarterfinal series 4-2. Loko is now favored to win the West and are just eight wins away from the league title. Amazing.
• I mentioned in a column earlier this week that David Clarkson was a prime candidate to have his contract bought out this summer. Took about five minutes after it hit the web before the first call came in. "The way it's structured, it won't happen," one team exec told me. "Toronto's stuck with him." Now you know.
• Another thought on Clarkson: As bad as he's been, I still feel like there's some value that can be squeezed out of his deal down the road. I can't say the same for the Red Wings and the five-years and $24.5 million they handed to Stephen Weiss last summer.
• I get why Ryan Miller would want to test free agency this summer, with both eyes specifically on the Ducks. Having an actress wife affects your priorities. What I can't figure is why Anaheim would want him. For my money, John Gibson is the best prospect outside of the NHL and he could grab a roster spot next season. And the money Miller would want -- something north of $7 million per year -- would be better spent improving the Ducks' scoring depth.Josh Manson