Injury-plagued Isles needed 'team first' mentality

Updated: April 19, 2006, 7:08 PM ET
Associated Press

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders skated off for the final time, hanging their heads following a loss reminiscent of so many others throughout a disappointing season.

After three straight postseason appearances, the Islanders fell out of the playoff race long before their 40th loss Tuesday that concluded their most tumultuous season in a decade.

With a chance to damage the Philadelphia Flyers' playoff prospects, New York (36-40-6) was unable to hold a one-goal advantage in the third period in the finale and lost 4-1.

"We let a lot of games slip away," captain Alexei Yashin said. "We spent a lot of time chasing points, and those points wound up costing us the playoffs."

The blown leads became a club trademark and was a big reason why coach Steve Stirling lost his job midway through the season.

"What I think was missing this season was the team-first mentality," said interim coach Brad Shaw, who went 18-18-4 after replacing Stirling on Jan. 12. "Some nights our defensive work was good, on others, our offense was good. But we need 20 guys to put the team ahead of individual accolades, and I don't think we had that throughout the season."

Injuries also took their toll. Veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik was lost late in the season as the Islanders tried to make a final playoff push after the roster was purged in a salary dump.

"It was a disappointing season," Yashin said. "I never played on such an unlucky team."

Former No. 1 overall pick Rick DiPietro won a career-best 30 games as he continued to settle in as the Islanders' top goalie. He should be back next season but many other key figures are sure to change.

The biggest difference will be at the top of the organization as the Islanders will have a new general manager for the first time since 1995 and likely another new coach.

On the day Stirling was ousted, GM Mike Milbury announced he was also giving up his job. He stayed on until the end of the season and will keep the job until a successor is found. Team owner Charles Wang hopes to have one before the June draft.

Milbury became the symbol of the failing franchise's fall from the premier team in the NHL -- when it won four straight Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s -- to the club that played before sparse crowds at dilapidated Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders missed the playoffs in Milbury's first six seasons and didn't win a single postseason series during his tenure that also featured two stints as coach.

"Mad Mike" traded away a host of big-ticket players that now star for other teams while taking on disappointments such as Yashin, who has never lived up to the huge contract that now weighs down the club in the NHL's new salary-cap era.

But even in this long run of futility, Milbury was always allowed to stay. He worked under four ownership groups, hired six coaches and made eight changes behind the bench. Even after this latest shortcoming, he is still employed by Wang as a vice president for the owner's other sports properties.

Wang has so much trust in Milbury that Wang is allowing him to have input in finding a replacement.

After the changes, Milbury continued to put his mark on the team -- trading away top forwards Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha along with leading defensemen Janne Niinimaa, Brent Sopel and Brad Lukowich -- for prospects and draft picks.

Sopel and Lukowich didn't last one season on Long Island after they were acquired to help offset the losses of defensemen Adrian Aucoin, Kenny Jonsson, and Roman Hamrlik.

They couldn't fill the void on the ice or in the dressing room. The Islanders' leadership core of Aucoin, captain Michael Peca, and forward Dave Scatchard was dismantled as each left by trade or via free agency.

The enigmatic Yashin is midway through the 10-year, $90 million contract that was much maligned throughout the NHL and one often cited by league officials as why a salary cap was necessary. The Russian forward hasn't culled much favor with teammates or fans in four seasons with the Islanders.

Despite finishing tied with Miroslav Satan for the club lead with 66 points, Yashin often hears boos. Stirling tried to spark him by naming him captain before the season, but he and the job never meshed.

"It was an experience," Yashin said. "I tried to do the best I could to bring the guys together. We have a good group of guys. A lot of the young kids got some experience, and that will help us."

Whoever takes over as GM -- whether it be Vancouver assistant Steve Tambellini, former captain Brent Sutter, former Sharks boss Dean Lombardi or some other candidate -- will have to decide if it's prudent to cut their losses and buy out Yashin's contract that has five years and $34 million left.

"It's not in my hands," the 32-year-old center said. "I try to give the best effort I can, but it's up to whatever management decides."

The Islanders used 13 new NHL players this season. Defenseman Chris Campoli was the best of the bunch with 34 points.

Satan, signed away from Buffalo in the offseason, scored a team-high 35 goals and played all 82 games as did Yashin.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press