<
>

Still looking for the right mix

7/14/2004 - New York Islanders

During his long and tumultuous reign as general manager and oft-times head coach of the New York Islanders, Mike Milbury has endured lows and lowers. Forgive him if he's still not accustomed to failure.

An accomplished 12-year playing career with the Boston Bruins concluded, Milbury prepped for one season while becoming AHL coach of the year, then coached the Bruins deep into the playoffs in his two years there. After a spell away from the game, Milbury became one of the sport's top television analysts before taking the Islanders up on a head coaching offer on July 5, 1995. Five months later, he was the GM, too.

Yet his Islanders wouldn't make the playoffs until eight seasons into Milbury's tenure as general manager and two stints as head coach. They've now made the playoffs three straight years -- but lost three straight times in the first round.

If you think this is getting to the man, just think what it's doing to the team's fans. Milbury does just that. Yet this week, and in interviews since a first-round loss to Tampa Bay, the usually outspoken and entertaining Milbury offered only a brief defense of his club and its playoff performance.

He does offer Islanders fans words of hope that their time to cheer in the postseason won't be much longer in coming ... presuming there will be a playoff season to watch sometime soon.



ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Milbury:
There is no shame in making the playoffs three years in a row after what this franchise and our fans went through prior to Charles (Wang) buying the team. We lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion (the Tampa Bay Lightning). You have to give John Tortorella and his players all the credit in the world. That said, (Lightning goalie Nikolai) Khabibulin stole the first game for them and we won Game 2 in Tampa. Coming home 1-1, and after playing so well, no one saw us losing the next three. But Tampa Bay executed and they were relentless. We were not. It proved we still have a ways to go.



ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation, and perhaps had the biggest impact on your team?
Milbury:
Trent Hunter went from a guy looked at as maybe an in-season recall from Bridgeport to a finalist for the Calder Trophy. His emergence was huge for us. His scoring dropped off after a knee injury in February, but he was still very effective. And the good thing is, Trent can still get better.



ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season? In what way?
Milbury:
It's no secret we need more from a lot of players, and included in that group is Alexei Yashin. We've talked about it at length with him in the offseason. Still, he suffered a very serious injury around Christmas, an injury that's very tough to come back from. Part of the responsibility is on us to make sure we're doing everything we can to get the most out of Alexei.



ESPN.com: Who is the top player or players in your system that you might consider to be ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
Milbury:
Justin Papineau, Sean Bergenheim and Justin Mapletoft are among a handful of strong forward prospects we believe can definitely contribute next season.



ESPN.com: What is your top priority in improving the organization?
Milbury:
We're no different than anyone else. We watched what Tampa Bay and Calgary did this spring and saw that you cannot have enough guys with pride, determination, guts and competitiveness.



ESPN.com: Is it business as usual for your hockey operation right now?
Milbury:
I don't think it is for any team this summer in the typical sense. Still, we're going about the business of putting the best hockey team on the ice that we can.



ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will offer you a distraction or take you away from hockey this offseason?
Milbury:
There is no such thing as the off-season in hockey. That went away years ago.

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.