How will Isles' season play out?

Which story will unfold on Long Island: the heart-warming love affair or the nightmarish adventure?

Updated: October 20, 2003, 2:48 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Having qualified for the playoffs two straight years after a seemingly interminable seven-year absence, one might think the New York Islanders wouldn't be suffering from an identity crisis.

Yet the Islanders remain one of the NHL's most perplexing teams.

Deep in offensive talent and loaded for bear with one of the strongest blue-line units in the NHL, a distinct lack of chemistry -- some might even say heart -- has short-circuited the team's return to elite status.

Steve Stirling coached the Islanders' AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn., the last two seasons.
"Last year we were falling apart at the seams," said captain Michael Peca.

Indeed, the Islanders did their best to play their way out of the playoffs altogether, winning only three of their last 11 games and finishing eighth before surrendering to Ottawa in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

Exit two-year coach Peter Laviolette.

Enter 53-year-old rookie Steve Stirling.

The laid-back, silver-haired Stirling is more teacher than tantrum thrower, more thoughtful than thuggish.

But the man who made a fleeting appearance in the cult hockey movie "Slap Shot" and was once a teammate of Islanders general manager Mike Milbury (we're not sure which is Stirling's greatest claim to fame) is the single-most important entity in the franchise.

Get his troops on board with a new trapping, transition style of play and instill in them a sense of confidence, there's no telling just how good this Islanders team could be.

Lose them early, and find out, as Laviolette discovered, that this team and its peculiar mix of personalities can go south in a hurry.

"It's not so much rookie jitters," Stirling said a week into his NHL coaching career. "I have jitters before every game and have since I was 10 years old. The good news is, I feel pretty good."

Does the career minor league player feel like he's on a short leash?

"There's no question. To get off to a good start, make some points. There's a fine line between making points and panicking," Stirling said. "But the first five, six (games), the first month, is critical for us to keep moving forward. The wins are important, but certainly the style and the level of play is probably more important."

Although the Islanders began the season with an up-and-down three-game road trip, Stirling is getting rave reviews from inside.

"A system's a system. If you execute it, any system, theoretically, should work," Peca said. "He's allowed everybody to feel important on the team. Last year, we had really eight or nine guys that were the go-to guys and the guys that kept getting used in all situations. This year, everybody's getting some added responsibility, and when that happens guys feel better about themselves, confidence grows and as a team you feel better about yourself."

Guys want to play and they want to play for him.
Jason Blake
"Guys want to play and they want to play for him," said Jason Blake, who was a revelation last season as he finished second in team scoring behind Alexei Yashin with 55 points.

Assistant coach Curt Fraser knows the challenges facing Stirling.

Fraser was a minor league coach until he got the call to become the Atlanta Thrashers' first head coach, a post he held for 3 years before he was fired last December.

"I think Steve is a very stabilizing coach. There's a relaxed confidence," said the more emotional Fraser, who brings a little edge to the Islanders' coaching staff.

Fraser, like everyone around the league, heard of the discontent simmering in the Islanders dressing room but insists when he arrived he was pleasantly surprised.

"It's a terrific bunch of guys," Fraser said. "They just need to learn to look after the little details."

That said, there remains plenty of work for Stirling, et al, who have imposed new line combinations and defensive pairings, not to mention introducing a brand new starting goalie in Rick DiPietro, the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft.

"Are we where we want to be?" Fraser asked. "No.

"Things are slowly improving. Things aren't about to change overnight." Here, then, are three factors critical to ensuring Stirling's tenure on the island.

Michael Peca, man or myth?

Michael Peca
On one side of Peca's resumé are protracted contract holdouts and serious injuries. On the other side, are a reputation as one of the game's best two-way players, the emotional leader of an overachieving Buffalo team and a crucial part of Canada's gold medal effort in Salt Lake City.

By the end of last season there were grumblings that Peca wasn't the team guy that his teammates expected, suggesting this season looms as a turning point in his career.

Peca, 29, insists he's back to form and if he is, the team is exponentially stronger.

"It's the first offseason in three years that I haven't had to worry about coming off surgery or anything else," Peca said. "I've had a summer where I can train and really focus in on the season and not just worry about a date I'm going to try and get back in the lineup. As every day's gone by I've felt better so it's good."

Rick DiPietro, No. 1 draft pick or myth?

It is the age-old hockey question, when is it time?

For DiPietro and the Islanders, the answer to that question must be now.

Rick DiPietro
Rick DiPietro is 2-0-1 with a 0.83 GAA and .956 save percentage.
After a silly, 20-game trial-by-fire in 2000-01 after Milbury made him the first goalie taken with the first overall pick in the history of the entry draft (DiPietro responded by going 3-15-1 with a 3.49 GAA), DiPietro has been biding his time under Stirling's tutelage in the American Hockey League. Now he will see whether the patience he showed over that time will translate into the maturity needed to be a No. 1 NHL goalie.

"I think it's definitely been difficult," said DiPietro, a former Boston University star. "I think anyone's competitive in nature they want to be here. They want to play. They want to try to prove to everybody that they belong in this league.

"But I look back at it now and realize that those two years in the minors couldn't have been better for me. Got a chance to play a lot of games. Learn the pro game. Coming from college it's a whole different game. It makes coming up here taking the nice charter planes and even the good pregame meals that much sweeter."

After relieving Garth Snow in the Isles' first game of the season, DiPietro began the season with a 115:35 shutout streak. The problem for Stirling will be in determining a workload that benefits the team but isn't detrimental to DiPietro's development. It is a challenge made more difficult by question marks surrounding Snow's ability to deliver quality starts. There is a blueprint to the goaltending plans, Stirling said, but it's written in pencil.

Marius Czerkawski, prince or sausage?

Mariusz Czerkawski
After a lackluster year in Montreal, Mariusz Czerkawski has regained his scoring touch.
The great thing about having a new coach is that the door to the redemption room is always open.

In that sense, Mariusz Czerkawski illustrates the challenge for a host of players from Alexei Yashin to Mark Parrish and Shawn Bates to Peca, a fresh start, a chance to prove detractors wrong.

When the man dubbed the Polish Prince (he was born in Radomsko, Poland) was traded to Montreal in 2002, for Arron Asham, it looked like the Habs had pulled off another John Kordic-for-Russ Courtnall steal. Instead Asham turned into a fiery force for the Islanders and Czerkawski imploded in Montreal.

He scored five times in 43 games and was banished, along with his $2.6-million salary, to Hamilton of the AHL.

Milbury returned the free agent to the Islanders' fold and he began the season playing on a line with Yashin and Oleg Kvasha, forming one of the great underachieving lines of all time.

But if Czerkawski can regain the form that saw him score 20 or more goals five times, he will be a shining example to his teammates that redemption is good for the soul. If he does not, he will be a lightning rod for discontent on a team that knows far too much about it.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.