Isles hope DiPietro's time has come

They have perhaps the deepest defensive unit in the Eastern Conference, perhaps the league.

They have been to the playoffs two straight years behind some of the loudest, unruliest fans in the NHL.

They have a 53-year-old rookie coach whose resume includes a bit part in the movie "Slapshot" and an enigmatic Russian star who insists he's ready to get back in the saddle.

But all eyes in the New York Islander universe, from general manager Mike Milbury on down, will be watching the progress of the young goaltender named Rick DiPietro.

Especially Milbury, who shocked many by trading superb goaltending prospect Roberto Luongo for a chance to make history and draft a goaltender with the first overall pick at the 2000 NHL entry draft.

Although there has been a dramatic transformation on Long Island with the acquisition of Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, the Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993. Last season they did their best to play themselves right out of the playoffs down the stretch, qualifying as the eighth seed and then self-destructing after beating Ottawa in the first game of the quarterfinals.

Had Milbury stayed the course and kept Luongo, acknowledged as one of the finest young netminders in the league, and drafted Dany Heatley for instance, it's entirely possible the Islanders would have been in a conference final already.

But that and five bucks will get you a fancy shmancy coffee.

It is, however, relevant now that DiPietro is poised to become a full-fledged NHLer. He will split time this season with veteran Garth Snow, but this is DiPietro's show.

If he proves Milbury right, the Islanders will be playoff bound. And from there, who knows.

If not, they will quickly fall below the demarcation line in what promises to be a furious battle for the final playoff berths in the East, and Milbury's checkered reputation will take another big hit.

Under rookie coach Steve Stirling, a former AHL teammate of Milbury, an extra in Paul Newman's cult classic "Slapshot" and now the Islanders' seventh head coach since 1997, the Islanders will play a traditional 1-2-2, trapping style.

That might not sound exciting, but Yashin has endorsed the plan, one he's familiar with from his days in Ottawa.

Yashin's production dropped 10 points last year although he still led the Isles in scoring with 65 points. Milbury is banking on those numbers shooting up with the reacquisition of former Islander sniper Mariusz Czerkawski, who once scored 35 goals as an Islander and hit the 20-goal plateau in four straight years on Long Island. Czerkawski, of course, spent a lamentable season in Montreal where he was ultimately banished to the Habs' AHL farm team.

Along with the Polish Prince, Yashin is expected to help resurrect the fortunes of gifted Oleg Kvasha, who has never met expectations in what may become known as the bust line.

Offensive redemption is also a top priority for other members of the Islander forward unit, including Mark Parrish, who went from 30 goals and 60 points two years ago to 23 goals and 48 points last season, and sometimes linemate and captain Michael Peca, who slumped to 42 points after recording 60 the season before.

Peca, who played in only 66 games after offseason knee surgery a year ago, has said he'll also try and be more open to discussion in the dressing room after complaints that he was aloof.

If Stirling is successful in getting a speedy, talented group to play a strong transition game, a la the Senators, he will also have the luxury of plenty of toughness up front with Dave Scatchard, who curiously led the Islanders with 27 goals; Arron Asham, whom the Habs gave up to get Czerkawski; and Jason Weimer.

There was also an intriguing battle for the final forward spots involving talented Justin Papineau, Justin Mapletoft, Trent Hunter and Finnish rookie Sean Bergenheim.

It is popular now to describe the Islanders' defensive corps as the best in the conference -- and perhaps beyond.

And when you roll out Janne Niinimaa, Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson, Adrian Aucoin, Eric Cairns and Radek Martinek, there aren't many cracks in the armor. The Islanders are so deep on the blue line it appears prospect Mattias Timander will start the season on the farm and could be used as trade bait.

Aucoin, known as the "minute man," was second only to Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit in average ice time, logging an eye-popping 29 minutes a night. Hamrlik was fifth and Niinimaa was eighth.

What makes the unit so imposing is the widespread offensive talent (the big four provided 136 points) and solid physical presence. Still, in spite of their press clippings, the unit makes too many turnovers, as the Islanders showed last year in giving up 231 goals, the most of any playoff team in the league save the Bruins.

A system that holds forwards more accountable for defensive responsibilities may see that number diminish.

Stirling preached patience to DiPietro during his two years in Bridgeport. And after a disastrous introduction to the NHL, when DiPietro was rushed into action with a bad Islanders team in 2000 (turning in a 3-15-1 record with 3.49 goals against average), there's no doubt the AHL was the best place for the top pick to hone his craft.

Even when he was called up last season following the trade of No. 1 netminder Chris Osgood to St. Louis, DiPietro was only average, going 2-5-2 with a 2.97 GAA and .894 save percentage. DiPietro, 22, will have to do better than that if he's to justify Milbury's big gamble.

Snow, 34, plays the savvy veteran to DiPietro's impetuous youth, and while he made more headlines for his war of words with Jeremy Roenick and his monster pads than for his play, his 2.31 goals against and .918 save percentage were better than average.

But Snow is not a 60-game guy; that's not his role with this team. Which means patient or not, DiPietro is going to have to answer the bell.

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