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The Islanders' case as the current 'Kings of New York sports'

Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

What a time to be a New York Islanders fan.

Normally when you hear that, it doesn't portend good things. It means the Islanders were criminally mismanaged or were purchased by an actual criminal or were forced into a nomadic arena existence that hopefully doesn't end with them in Quebec City.

But not in these Stanley Cup playoffs. The Islanders humbled the Florida Panthers. They ended the party for the Washington Capitals. They outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers and shut them out in a Game 7. No matter what happens against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals -- a series the Islanders made interesting with a painfully patient Game 5 performance -- they've pushed further in the NHL postseason than anyone could have imagined.

(Well, Lou Lamoriello probably imagined it, as he has imagined it in every season he has been an NHL general manager, unless Auston Matthews was available in the draft.)

What a time to be a New York Islanders fan.

Surveying the New York sports landscape finds the Isles in a position they haven't been in since their four straight Stanley Cups to usher in the 1980s. They are, primarily by default, Kings of New York Sports.

The Knicks stink so badly that their stench repelled Zion Williamson lottery balls. The Nets are in suspended animation until Kevin Durant returns to the court. The Giants are bad, and Saquon Barkley is being questioned as an every-down running back by Tiki Barber. The Jets are going to create new synonyms for "ineptitude" over the next 15 games. The Rangers will be in position to snatch the throne in a few years after drafting Alexis Lafrenière but aren't there yet. The Devils are in a second rebuild in five years. The Mets ... well, yeah. The Liberty had the worst record in the WNBA. The MLS teams have never brought a Cup home.

Based on that, the Islanders are the best team in the New York City metropolitan area.

"No, it's still the Yankees," said Don La Greca, radio host and resident party pooper. "That organization is so deep that they have star players they can't find room in the lineup for."

La Greca is the co-host of The Michael Kay Show on ESPN radio in New York City. The man knows his New York sports and New York sports history; he'll bludgeon me for bringing this up, but I used to listen to him as a kid when he was doing updates on WFAN.

I spoke with him this week after the Islanders extended their series to get a pulse check on their place in the city's pantheon. His argument for the Yankees is a solid one: Back-to-back 100-win seasons before the MLB's restarted one, where they're going to be a playoff team for a fourth straight year.

Clearly, to capture the crown, the Islanders need to win the Stanley Cup.

"If the Islanders win this Stanley Cup, it might even be more meaningful than the dynasty ones," La Greca said. "Those were anticipated. The Islanders were close before they won their first. This one would have come out of nowhere."

It's an excellent point. In fact, if you go through the past few decades of New York sports champions, you find they fall into a few categories:

The legacy champions: Beginning in 1923, the Yankees have never gone more than 18 years without a World Series championship. (They're in an 11-year drought right now). They're the gold standard for professional sports franchises, to the point where the Montreal Canadiens are shorthand described to casual U.S. sports fans as "the Yankees of hockey." No one is surprised when they win.

Since 1986, the New York Giants have four Super Bowl titles and five conference titles. They're in a nine-year drought for both, but that's another franchise where if they won the NFC in the next three years you'd be like, "well, that's the Giants."

However, a team can age out of being a legacy champion. The New Jersey Devils won three Stanley Cups and four conference titles from 1995 to 2003, and then another conference title in 2012. Now, they're just inept.

The surprise champion, logical conclusion category: Sometimes New York champions are surprises that we all sort of see coming. The Islanders' first Cup came after five playoff seasons. The Devils' Cup in 1995 came after losing in the conference finals to the Rangers. The Knicks' 1970s wins came during a nine-year run of playoff appearances. The '86 Mets were right behind a 101-win Cardinals team in 1985. LaGreca says he believes the Yankees' 1996 World Series was a surprise, but that's overruled by the "Legacy Champion" theorem.

The surprise champion, holy [expletive] category: The three most beloved championship teams in New York sports history -- that existed outside a larger dynasty -- were the 1994 New York Rangers, the 1969 New York Mets and the 1969 New York Jets. Now, you could argue the Rangers' win was a surprise because it broke a 54-year "curse" and ended the echoing chants of "1940!" in opposing barns; but importing half the dynasty Edmonton Oilers onto your roster certainly puts you on a championship track. The Jets and Mets were just all-time shockers: The first AFL team to beat an NFL team in Super Bowl III, and the "Miracle" Mets winning their first World Series in the first winning season in franchise history.

The 2020 New York Islanders would fit snugly in that last category. True, they made the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season. But anyone who watched these Barry Trotz teams figured that might have been the ceiling for their upside, due to style and substance. The Dallas Stars were sort of the Islanders' Western Conference proxy, but this playoff run has exposed the difference between the two clubs: Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski, Denis Gurianov, Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg. There's an offensive pedigree to their roster that the Islanders don't have.

What makes the Islanders remarkable as a New York sports "surprise champion" contender is, frankly, how unremarkable they are from a personality perspective. The 1969 Jets had Joe Namath guaranteeing wins. The 1969 Mets had Tug McGraw and a bunch of misfits. The 1994 Rangers had some guy named Mark Messier. Maybe you've heard of him.

"Who's their star player? Anthony Beauvillier is young. Mathew Barzal? You could make the argument that Barry Trotz is their biggest star," La Greca said.

Also, championship contenders in New York usually add stars to the roster before making a run. Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez for the 1986 Mets. The Yankees' dynasty was essentially a homegrown core augmented by imported stars. The aforementioned Rangers' Cup included grafting a dozen former Oilers onto the roster.

Yet the Islanders are unique in that they had their biggest start subtracted from the roster before they became a contender, as John Tavares took his Maple Leafs bed sheets and left for Toronto in 2018.

The most misunderstood thing about Islanders fans' angst about Tavares leaving as a free agent was that it wasn't a personal attack, but the latest manifestation of their post-dynasty frustration. After being dismissed as a second-rate franchise, having your franchise player proclaim he had a better chance of winning with another organization was like a punch in the gut when they were already doubled over from three-and-a-half-decades of appendicitis.

The losses, the playoff flameouts, the mismanagement, the bad coaches, the draft busts, the crooked owners, the unfulfilled promises, the arena drama that led to the relocation drama.

"No fans in this city have gone through more pain than Islanders fans," La Greca said.

It's understandable, then, that the Islanders have embraced an emotionally numbing style of hockey. A franchise defined by losses since the early 1980s is essentially playing not to lose, and hoping that conservative approach leads to emotional catharsis. B.F. Skinner would have a field day with this team.

Look, Game 5 was not exactly peak NHL. There were times when it felt as if the Islanders had unlocked some sort of anti-hockey equation to win the game. It was a double-overtime playoff contest that served as perhaps the greatest argument for adoption of the overtime shootout in the postseason.

But the Islanders' deadening style also fits within the tradition of previous New York underdogs. The 1969 Mets played a lot of small ball and relied on a great pitching staff. The 1969 Jets were the only Super Bowl champion to score only one touchdown until the Patriots repeated the feat 50 years later. The 1995 Devils, while an anticipated contender, trapped the more talented Detroit Red Wings into a Stanley Cup Final sweep.

There has been a playoffs-long debate about the Islanders' approach to hockey. Are they fun? Are they a bore? Game 5 was probably the final verdict for many of us, but ultimately it doesn't matter to Islanders fans. Winning is fun. Winning is what counts. And for one of the single most tormented fan bases in the NHL, they'll take "boring and successful" over "dramatic and pathetic" any day.

As would most New York franchises these days.


Bubble fit of the week

No, not our bubble. The other bubble, in Orlando. Montrezl Harrell of the Clippers rocked a Ducks jersey, reminding everyone that it should 100% become their primary logo again. Unfortunately, the Clippers decided to also adopt Anaheim's offense after Game 5 against the Nuggets ...


Three things about NHL demographics

1. A recent Morning Consult poll offered some interesting demographic confirmations and insights into the NHL. I doubt anyone is surprised that the league's audience is 61% white -- although its proximity to Major League Baseball's racial makeup is interesting, for baseball. But that political affiliation breakdown is fascinating: What is about hockey that attracts more unaffiliated voters?

2. The second part of the poll breaks things down on a team-by-team basis. One really interesting team is the Los Angeles Kings, the only NHL team with less than 50% of its fans identifying as white. I wrote about the Kings' outreach to Spanish-speaking fans last season. It's an important demo for hockey, and I'm interested to see what that number looks like for the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes in a few years.

3. Looking at these numbers, you understand the necessity for the Hockey Diversity Alliance and the NHL's various committees on diversity and inclusion. There aren't enough people of color playing, following or watching the NHL. But things are trending in a positive direction. We're only seven years removed from reports like this one from The Atlantic that measured the NHL's TV audience as being 83% white. There's progress, albeit slow.


Listen To ESPN On Ice

We're recording the podcast later this week, seeking a bit of clarity on the Eastern Conference finals. But we can tell you who are guest is on the new episode: Let's just say if there's a bar that needs some rescuing, this is the guy to call. You can listen to our archive here.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Kevyn Adams

Strong opening trade for the new Buffalo Sabres GM in acquiring Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild. He's a known commodity to Adams and Sabres winger Jeff Skinner, both of whom played with him in Carolina. Perhaps that can give Skinner a lift. Staal can slot in behind Jack Eichel to give Dylan Cozens a year to percolate. He can still produce at 35 years old. And Adams also shaves $1 million in salary from his budget, which will make Terry and Kim Pegula happy.

Loser: Wingers becoming centers

Marcus Johansson, whom the Wild acquired from Buffalo, can be an effective complementary winger who can play in a team's top six. But apparently Minnesota GM Bill Guerin sees him as a center, on the advice of head coach Dean Evason, who coached MoJo in Washington. Johansson can be an effective defensive player at center; he's leaps and bounds better offensively on the wing. The Capitals and Sabres both tried him in the middle, and he ended up back on the wing. Honestly, NHL general managers just need to stop this trend. It didn't work with Ville Leino. Didn't work multiple times in Montreal. Stop trying to make "fetch" happen, guys.

Winner: Catchphrases

The Dallas Stars are probably going to win the Stanley Cup, because neither the Islanders nor the Lightning have a rallying cry as awesome as "We're Not Going Home!" which was trending on Twitter after they won the West. Uttered here by Anton Khudobin and proclaimed earlier by Jamie Benn, it's just another endearing trait of a rather endearing team.

Loser: Laws

Whoever the Stars play in the Stanley Cup Final should be a little worried about getting a power play, because based on this bubble delivery, Dallas is no longer restricted by laws.

Winner: Jim Montgomery

The Stars are where they are due in no small part to Jim Montgomery's system, upon which interim coach Rick Bowness has augmented and built. Montgomery was fired due to an addiction to alcohol. He sought help. The Blues have now given him a shot to revive his career as an assistant coach to Craig Berube. "Sometimes it takes an unbearable consequence in your life to have a breakthrough," said Montgomery, who's been sober for over nine months.

Loser: Florida Panthers

TSN reported that the team parted ways with assistant coach Mike Kitchen after he allegedly kicked a player on the Panthers' bench on Jan. 20. According to the report, "sources said now former Panthers GM Dale Tallon and head coach Joel Quenneville were notified of the alleged incident immediately following the game." That's just over a month after the NHL announced measures to prevent and punish abusive coaches. Given that timeline, it's fair to ask who knew what, when did they know it and when was the NHL told?

Winner: Peter Laviolette

Washington is a good landing spot for him, if you believe the past two seasons were underwhelming due to an overwhelmed coach. He got paid -- $15 million over three years -- which was the sticking point for other spots, such as New Jersey. The Capitals also talked to Gerard Gallant and Mike Babcock for their opening. Gallant's too much of a players' guy. Babcock would have caused a player revolt. Laviolette is just the right mix of both, and for my money the best coach of the three.

Loser: Puck over the glass penalties

While I understand the necessity for preventing defensemen from simply firing pucks into the seats with regularity, I will never understand why the NHL refuses to allow its referees to have some discretion over whether a delay of game call is warranted. (And for the record: Yes, Zach Whitecloud's Game 5 overtime puck over the glass play deserved a penalty. He tried to make a defensive play and goofed up, which is no different than an inadvertent tripping call.)


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In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Great work here by Chris Peters on 10 prospects for whom he would "pound the table." (ESPN+)