Talk about going the distance. The New York Islanders made some news this week by announcing they will hold part of next season's training camp in owner Charles Wang's native China.
Unusual perhaps, just not necessarily surprising from an owner who has been thinking out of the box since he took over the Islanders and gave precedent-setting contracts to Alexei Yashin and Rick DiPietro. This trip will be a first for the NHL as well, and part of Wang's effort to introduce and promote the league back home, where the audience potential is huge and the NBA already has a toehold.
|John Tavares, last June's No. 1 pick, is one of the reasons the Isles are still in the playoff picture. (Getty Images)|
In the meantime though, the Islanders have other things to worry about as they struggle with the challenge of turning into a playoff team.
New York is still in the early stages of a youth-driven rebuilding effort centered around last June's first overall pick, John Tavares, and has only a few veterans to show the way on the league's second-lowest payroll. Yet after finishing dead last a season ago, the Islanders have been one of the league's less obvious surprises, if for no other reason than being just three points out of a playoff spot with one third of the schedule remaining.
That despite a five-game losing streak they'll take into Tampa Bay on Thursday when they end a road trip.
New York had jumped above the playoff cutoff line before leaving home by winning seven of nine games, but hit a tailspin in the past two weeks and dropped back in the pack. The good news is being in the Eastern Conference, where the parity is such that eight teams are in the hunt for the final three spots.
"The way it is now, you can win three games and jump from 13th to sixth" defenseman Mark Streit said. "Fortunately we had a good run a couple of weeks ago when we beat Detroit, New Jersey and Buffalo, so we're still in decent position."
True enough, and much of the reason for that has been the play of Dwayne Roloson. The veteran goalie joined as a free agent last summer, along with backup Martin Biron to help New York get through DiPietro's latest injury recovery period, and has carried the bulk of the load. DiPietro returned to the lineup last month which will cut into Roloson's time, but it leaves Biron as an asset the Islanders hope to trade into some scoring help before the March deadline.
The Islanders could use it. New York's offense was ranked 29th last season and is in the same place now despite showing sparks at times -- though none lately. New York averaged four goals during the run that lifted it into the playoff grouping a few weeks ago, but has managed just five in the four losses since.
"It's a streaky league and sometimes you get into bad habits," veteran Islanders captain Doug Weight said. "I don't know if that's the case now, but we've gone away for small periods of time and we're losing games because of it.
"With a young team if things go well, you feel good and you kind of cruise into that confidence mode. Then things start turning around, pucks aren't going in anymore, you give up power plays and everything kind of adds up. We've come a long way and matured, but a lot of guys haven't experienced enough [to] not get deflated at this time of year. But we'll come out of this because there is some good talent here."
It starts with Tavares, who had a Crosby-like following in Canada as a junior player and had a strong start as a 19-year-old rookie. Tavares has gone cold since the Christmas break, with only one of his 17 goals, but other recent high first-rounders, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, and 26-year-old Matt Moulson, a journeyman signed as a free agent last summer and the team's goal leader with 20, are having strong seasons.
The problem for the Islanders is that all of them have been slumping together in the last couple of weeks, and the team isn't deep enough to overcome that. Second-year coach Scott Gordon says it is part of the growing process for a young team that has a lot of kids playing against men.
"There's a big difference between a man's strength and a guy who is 19 or 20," Gordon said. "You get around the net when you're a little older and more mature physically and then all of a sudden you're not so easy to move out from there, you can outmuscle a guy.
"There's nothing we can do about it. We watch our guys get in shooting positions, and say how they miss that shot or why can't he get it off, but we can't hold it against them. They're working hard and things will come because the reality is that our play really hasn't slipped. We're in a little different spot in the standings now, but a little winning streak and you're right back in it."