Once a perennial punchline, the New York Islanders offer the best vision for how this city can escape its sports malaise in 2015. Yes, the Islanders.
They are second in the Metropolitan Division and among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. They are looking for their second playoff appearance in the past eight seasons (and the only postseason appearance during that time was during the strike shortened season two years ago). But the Islanders are back, built upon solid draft after solid draft, some savvy moves via trades, an eye for turning the trash heap into gems and the requisite free agents to bolster the roster.
It seems odd to say, but the Islanders are no longer the model in futility. Instead, they are the blueprint for how the losing franchises in New York can turn things around. After a 2014 that was collectively as rough as any for New York sports, the Islanders represent not only our best chance at a winning team but also are the model for the rest of the sorry franchises in how to resurrect their fortunes.
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Yes, that's right. The Islanders.
This is a team that, while having success so far this year, is built and predicated on sustainability. The Islanders are young and aren't just built to win now but for the long-haul. This isn't a team that went out and spent big on a couple free agents (Knicks, we're looking in your direction). It is a team that has a good core in place for the rest of the decade. It took years in the wilderness of the NHL to get here, but for the long suffering fans at the Coliseum, it has been worth it.
With the young talent in place, the Islanders are now able to make moves and bring in big free agents. Or perhaps a trade? Evander Kane's name is being floated around, as a blockbuster could lift this team to an elite level.
On the current Islanders roster, 13 players were draft picks of the organization and from that group, seven came via drafts within the past five years. As for the rest of the roster, it is an intriguing mix. Three players came off waivers and four via trades. That leaves just six players signed via free agency, an incredibly low number in the NHL.
The Islanders' core is homegrown and developed. They've come up through the same system, they understand how the organization does things and they know what it means to be an Islander. And they come to the senior team with the same mentality and goal of changing the recent fortunes of the organization.
This blueprint for success is what made the New York Yankees a dominant team in the mid-to-late 90s and saw the New York Mets rise to prominence a decade before that, highlighted by the 1986 World Series team. It is tried and true, and can work again here in New York.
The philosophy is not that far off from the 2007 New York Giants, whose draft class that year saw all eight players make the 53-man roster and contribute to their run to the Super Bowl.
What the local teams can learn from the Islanders is the patience needed to build a championship in this market. The temptation is to buy the stars now rather than groom them – a tip of the hat to Kei Igawa- to forgo the long road of development that has repeatedly been the foundation of success for championship teams.
New York loves its stars and owners feel the pressure to buy or trade for those stars rather than make them. But the most loved stars are not the mercenaries who come in via big dollar contracts but those drafted and developed by the team. Those are the stars we embrace when they win, stay faithful with when the tough times inevitably come along and cry for when they retire.
They are the stars who start their careers with us and end with us. And whether they bring home a championship during their time here or not, we love them all the more for being one of us. And the teams built this way, with a core they assembled, and not a rented one, are more likely to win over the long haul.
The Islanders went this route when it wasn't popular and it meant that since 2009, this franchise was a cumulative 32 games below .500 before the start of this current season. But those hard times led to fruitful drafts. They stayed the course, they kept to their plan. They didn't compromise their vision and they didn't take shortcuts, even when two years ago they were a playoff team and the temptation to mortgage their future was strong.
Instead, they stuck to it, and right now, they are the best pro team in New York sports. Words that five years ago no one would have ever imagined to be associated with this franchise.