Category archive: New York Islanders

Much of our focus will be on the playoffs during the next two months, but let's take a look at the teams that were eliminated from postseason play (as of Friday) and the work that lies ahead of them.

We'll catch up with them again at the NHL draft in June, when there could be fireworks involving these very teams. Here are the Eastern Conference nonplayoff teams. I'll be back with the West later today.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Let's get the ugly stuff out of the way so we can move on to more interesting matters. Yes, a 29th-place finish is a PR nightmare; this year's first-round pick was one of two shipped to the Boston Bruins for dynamic winger Phil Kessel this past September. The Bruins have a 67 percent chance of ending up with either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin depending on Tuesday's draft lottery.

"I would do it [the trade] again tomorrow," Leafs general manager Brian Burke told ESPN.com on Thursday.

In the meantime, Burke's rebuilding squad took some strides this season despite its finish. The massive turnover, which is far from over, has revealed some promising young building blocks in the likes of center Tyler Bozak, forward Nikolai Kulemin, forward Christian Hanson, goalie Jonas Gustavsson, forward Viktor Stalberg and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Sophomore blueliner Luke Schenn recovered from a shaky first half with a solid ending, and highly touted junior forward Nazem Kadri is on the way next season.

The trade for Dion Phaneuf remains a coup for Burke, who solidified his blue line moving forward. But the offense remains a major issue. Kessel needs help, and that's the priority this offseason.

"Our draft is July 1. We're going to go after a free agent, we're going to try and land a top-six forward," Burke said. "We might also do it in advance of July 1 through a trade."

That trade would no doubt involve veteran blueliner Tomas Kaberle, who has one year left on his deal at $4.25 million, a cheap salary for a player of his caliber. Kaberle's no-trade clause will drop this summer, so although Burke says he's not shopping him, the fact that he'll once again have a window with the no-trade clause gone compels him to at least see what is out there.

"We're going to listen," Burke said. "He's a good guy, a good player, and he's at a good number. Those are three good reasons to keep him. But I have to listen [to offers]. We're not going to shop him, but we're going to listen."

The Leafs have about 16 players returning for next season, so there's not actually that much cap room to play with. But just like that, a guy like Jeff Finger (two more years at $3.5 million per) could be dumped in the minors to create cap space. Burke understandably is taking heat for the Kessel deal, but I don't think you can say his team isn't headed in the right direction. Leafs fans certainly hope so. This is Toronto's fifth straight season without a trip to the postseason.

Florida Panthers: Nine straight seasons out of the playoffs. Believe me when I say GM Randy Sexton is on a mission. There will be changes this summer.

Although Sexton would not comment when I asked him about goalie Tomas Vokoun, other league sources believe the Czech goalie will not be back in Florida next season. Vokoun has one year left on his deal at a $5.7 million cap hit. He also has a no-movement clause, but it's expected he will waive it for a chance to win elsewhere. His trade this summer will open up room for highly touted Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom, the 31st overall pick in the 2008 draft. If he's not ready for the NHL next season, my guess is the Panthers will have Scott Clemmensen share the net with a veteran stopgap like Manny Legace or someone of that nature while they await Markstrom's debut.

Although Sexton didn't want to speculate on his goaltending situation, he did address his problems up front; as of Friday, the team was ranked 28th overall in goals per game.

"We need more consistent scoring," Sexton told ESPN.com on Thursday. "[Stephen] Weiss could end up with 30 goals this year, [Nathan] Horton has scored 30 in the past and [David] Booth has scored 30, so we think all things being equal, those guys come back and give us a solid first line. But we need to add some scoring on our second line. We don't score goals easily."

Booth has been hit hard by two concussions this season, and that has to be a question mark moving forward. Let's hope he can fully recover.

My take? The goal in Florida is to get younger, bigger, more physical and faster. Easier said than done, but that's the goal.

Carolina Hurricanes: The season was lost in a hurry by a brutal start, but the second half of the season revealed what most of us suspected: This was a much better squad than what it showed in October and November.

All it did was make GM Jim Rutherford begin the youth movement a few months earlier, and that will remain the goal during the offseason.

"We'll continue our transition into a younger team," Rutherford told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We have a lot of good young players, and we had planned on doing it this fall regardless of how this season ended up. We started the transition a little earlier than we expected halfway through the year, but in some ways, it's been good for us because we've gotten a look at some of the young players, and they've done real well."

Rutherford moved out several veteran faces before the trade deadline but retained winger Ray Whitney, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"He's been a great player for us for a long time," Rutherford said. "We'll have to take a good look at that in the offseason and see what he wants to do. I still feel he's a good player, so we'll have that meeting sometime in the next few weeks."

In the meantime, the Hurricanes will hope for some luck in Tuesday's draft lottery.

"I'm pretty comfortable anywhere in the top eight," Rutherford said. "We'll get a good player whether we pick anywhere from one to eight."

This team is going young but with good players. Be excited if you're a Hurricanes fan.

Atlanta Thrashers: One playoff berth in 10 seasons is a tough sell on even the most loyal fan. But I truly believe the Thrashers are on the right track with the young players they are building this version of the team around, most notably Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec, Niclas Bergfors, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little.

"The one thing we really like is the direction we're going with the youth of our team, and we're going to continue that," Thrashers GM Don Waddell told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've got six guys under the age of 24 and another seven guys under the age of 29. We have other young guys who are close and who will compete for jobs next year. We're going to hang in there with those guys and let them grow together here."

Waddell did the best he could with a brutal situation: star winger Ilya Kovalchuk refusing to sign an extension that could have afforded him enough money to buy a small island. So, Waddell got the best possible deal out of New Jersey, and Atlanta actually rallied after Kovalchuk's departure to fall just short of a playoff spot.

Waddell also has four key UFAs to address: defenseman Pavel Kubina and forwards Maxim Afinogenov, Colby Armstrong and Jim Slater.

"The hope would be to sit down and talk with them over the next few weeks," Waddell said. "If there's something that makes some sense, we'd like to bring them back."

Tampa Bay Lightning: I didn't think it was wise to reach out to Bolts GM Brian Lawton because who knows whether he'll be back next season under new owner Jeff Vinik.

This team is enigmatic. Despite having big-time offensive contributors in Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Downie, the Bolts ranked 23rd in NHL offense as of Friday. Bizarre. What's not surprising is where they ranked defensively: 28th in goals against per game. The blue line and goaltending aren't up to snuff, and no matter who is the GM, that's where you start.

But first, Lawton's future.

"Speculation has been rampant since new owner Jeff Vinik took over that general manager Brian Lawton will not be back next season," Tampa Tribune hockey writer Erik Erlendsson wrote to me via e-mail Friday. "Lawton's contract expires on June 1, and by virtue of the fact he has not been given a contract extension, at this point it's not a question of if, but when he will officially be let go. In his two years at the helm of the Lightning, Lawton has found some success with the likes of Downie, Antero Niittymaki and Kurtis Foster.

"But when he's missed, it's been a Reggie Jackson-esque spinning whiff with the acquisition of Andrej Meszaros for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and the first-round pick previously acquired from San Jose for Dan Boyle. And it's difficult not to point at the oustings of Jussi Jokinen (30 goals for Carolina this season), Radim Vrbata (20-goal scorer for Phoenix) and the buyout of Vinny Prospal, who will count against the Lightning salary cap for five more years following a season in which a lack of secondary scoring was a season-long issue."

Coach Rick Tocchet has one year left on his deal and would be in limbo if Lawton is gone. A new GM usually wants his own man.

Downie has had a breakout season and is the key restricted free agent who needs a new deal along with Foster. Niittymaki, who outplayed Mike Smith in net this season, will be a UFA. Meanwhile, my colleague Erlendsson believes that whoever is in charge of the Lightning needs to also look ahead to two players who are one year away from free agency.

"Tampa Bay would be wise to begin extension talks for both Marty St. Louis (unrestricted) and Steven Stamkos (restricted) and not let either of those players go through the season without a contract beyond next season," he said. "St. Louis, in particular, while still productive at age 34 with the third 90-point season of his career, continues to be the heart and soul of the team and a real driving force, not only on the ice but in the locker room."

No shortage of work this offseason in Tampa.

New York Islanders: For the fourth time in five postlockout seasons, the Islanders failed to reach the postseason. It wasn't a surprise this season, as the team focused on a youth movement that has showed signs of promise.

Star rookie John Tavares had a solid first campaign, and his supporting cast is building in strength, led by Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, Josh Bailey, Jack Hillen, Trevor Gillies and more to come up from the farm system. This on top of a possible good draft pick in June depending on Tuesday's draft lottery.

The key question for the Isles is in goal. Martin Biron will be an unrestricted free agent, Dwayne Roloson has another year left but will be 41 in October and Rick DiPietro played just eight games this season, once again felled by injury (knee). This is GM Garth Snow's biggest offseason decision: who plays goal for him next season and beyond. (Snow did not immediately return a call from ESPN.com.)

Otherwise, believe it or not, Isles fans, the future looks bright (wherever the team ends up playing).

I have the strangest memory of Michael Peca.

It was the 2001 world championships in Hannover, Germany, and Peca was sitting on a hotel bed looking as though the world had crashed down on him. It was pretty close to that. Nearing the end of a yearlong contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres, Peca had come overseas to salvage his season by playing for Canada at the worlds. He was the team's captain.

But halfway through the tournament, he fractured his cheekbone. Tournament over. I was the only Canadian reporter covering the event and was summoned to his room to interview the poor soul. Imagine seeing someone after his dog was run over by a car, and that was the picture that night.

"It was unfortunate I fractured my cheekbone," Peca recalled to me Tuesday, the day he announced his retirement from the NHL. "But you know what? I was extremely thankful to [GM] Lanny McDonald and everyone at Hockey Canada for giving me an opportunity to play some meaningful hockey that year. I guess I did enough before I got hurt to earn an invite to the Olympic camp in September that year, so despite the injury at the worlds, it was well worth it from that standpoint.

"And besides," Peca added with a chuckle, "me being knocked out elevated Ryan Smyth to captain of the team, and that was the birth of Captain Canada."

There's always a silver lining, right? The real payoff for Peca came less than a year later, when he was an associate captain for Team Canada as it ended a 50-year gold-medal drought at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"For me, the gold medal was almost just to be part of that team," Peca said. "I had to get over the way I felt about being selected for the team and playing with Steve Yzerman, a guy that I idolized growing up. Mario Lemieux was on the team, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Al MacInnis, the list went on and on; and Wayne Gretzky was at the head of the management team. It was amazing.

"And really, when it was actually happening, the schedule was so compact that you really didn't enjoy it fully at the time. But looking back, you enjoy and embrace it more. Winning an Olympic gold medal is a great achievement in sport."

Peca last played with Columbus during the 2008-09 season, and although he kept his options open through agent Don Meehan this past fall, he said he called it quits a while back.

"I really came to this decision months back, but it's been a case where I've been so busy with other things and enjoying myself that I didn't realize I had to come out and formally announce anything to consider myself retired," Peca said. "But I guess people will stop asking me now when they see me after reading about it."

Peca made it official in a release put out by the NHL Players' Association. No news conference or conference call. The two-time Selke Trophy winner and one of the game's premier two-way centers during his heyday, Peca didn't want to make a big deal of it. "I've never been a guy for big bells and whistles," he said.

No, but he's a guy who used every inch of his body to block shots, win faceoffs and earn room on the ice.

For me, he'll forever be remembered as a Buffalo Sabre, the leader of a young, blue-collar team in the late 1990s with superstar Dominik Hasek in net. That's when Peca was at his best, a force at both ends of the ice with clutch goals and key blocks. One night, he'd shut down the opposing team's top offensive threat; the next, he'd score a big goal.

"Nothing but great memories in Buffalo, even despite the way I ended up moving to the Islanders [after the yearlong contract dispute]," Peca said. "It's a place that really gave me the opportunity to get my career going and establish myself as a player. A lot of that is Ted Nolan and Lindy Ruff, and of course John Muckler bringing me in."

His heart always stayed in Buffalo, even if his skates didn't. Today, he lives there with his wife and two kids.

"Buffalo is the kind of town a person like me loves to live in because it's a great people-loving community," said Peca, who will turn 36 in March. "It's a city with small-town values, and it's a great place to live."

I met Peca when he was a junior star with the OHL's Ottawa 67's in the early 1990s. The Vancouver Canucks chose him in the second round (40th overall) of the 1992 draft.

His stay in Vancouver would last but one full NHL season, as the Canucks moved him to Buffalo in a blockbuster deal. The July 1995 trade saw the great Alexander Mogilny and a fifth-round draft choice (Todd Norman) go to Vancouver in exchange for Peca, Mike Wilson and Vancouver's first-round choice (Jay McKee).

"It's something that kind of caught me by surprise," Peca recalled. "I thought things were going well, so I was pretty surprised when I was traded out of Vancouver. But obviously Mogilny was going the other way, so I when I look back I guess I did have value to the Canucks organization, and they viewed me that way.

"When I got to Buffalo, Mogilny was obviously gone, [Dale] Hawerchuk was gone, a lot of veterans were moving on and the team was going in the youth direction. I knew it was a chance for me to establish myself."

The highlight was the 1999 Cup run, a magical spring that ended bitterly on Brett Hull's controversial in-the-crease triple-overtime goal in Game 6.

"That was a very difficult moment," Peca said of Hull's goal. "It's a blue-collar town. It wasn't just the players that enjoyed that great ride, but the community as well. The Bills had their four straight Super Bowl defeats, so Buffalo was looking at their first pro championship for the city, and unfortunately things ended the way they did. But still very good memories."

His 2000-01 contract dispute finally got resolved with a June trade. Peca was sent to the Islanders for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. He was named captain and helped lead the team back into the playoffs after a seven-season dry patch.

"[Owner] Charles Wang was real eager to put that team back on the map," Peca said. "As much as I love Buffalo, this guy really loves Long Island and wanted to do something special for Long Island. Bringing in Peter Laviolette, I have the utmost respect for him as a coach. We were able to do something that first year. It was great to see. Long Island is a great place, and the fan base is extremely passionate, and I was happy we were able to get people excited."

The Isles made the playoffs all three seasons Peca was there. After the 2004-05 lockout, he was dealt to Edmonton for Mike York and a fourth-round draft choice (later traded to Colorado). Peca spent only one season in Edmonton, but what a season it was. Edmonton went all the way to the seventh and deciding game of the June 2006 Cup finals against Carolina.

"That was one of those rides; I try to explain that playoff run to people," Peca said. "That year in Edmonton really emblemized what a run is about -- it's about guys really believing in themselves. No. 8 seed against No. 1 seed, Edmonton taking on Detroit. Once we beat the Wings, you slowly saw the confidence grow and guys really believing in each other."

Then, a boyhood dream was fulfilled in the summer of 2006, as the free-agent Peca signed on with his hometown Maple Leafs. It was an injury-shortened season, but wearing the logo he had grown up watching was special.

"I obviously wish I could have extended that stay for many years," Peca said. "But unfortunately I broke my leg, and I can't blame them for wanting to go another way. But it's one of the greatest organizations in professional sports. It's really top-notch, and they look after the players there. I had lots of fun even though it was short-lived."

Peca played his final two seasons in Columbus and helped the team clinch its first playoff berth last season. Now, the only hockey in his life involves coaching his son's minor team.

"I've had just a lot of fun with that," said Peca, although that doesn't mean he has the pro-coaching bug. "I don't think so, because the part I like now is not traveling. I don't really see myself getting into that."

Family time rocks. He's at peace with himself. It was one heck of a ride.

"I don't think I'll ever stop reminiscing," he said. "The game has given me everything I've got. I'll be forever thankful."