On Friday night, Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal stood on a stage in downtown Manhattan and asked moviegoers if there were any Islander fans were in the house. A good chunk of the audience applauded; they were there to see the premiere of a documentary called "Big Shot" about John Spano, the man who briefly owned the team in the late 1990s. (Spoiler alert: Spano turned out to be the fraudiest fraud who ever frauded.)
The film is terrific -- it'll air on ESPN in the fall -- but the period of time it focuses on was a low point in the history of a proud franchise. And other reminders of the organization's decline abounded, from on-screen images of the team's ill-advised fisherman-logo jerseys to the presence in the last row of Mike Milbury, the much-maligned former coach and general manager.
Those fans that applauded before the film began really have been through a lot: After Spano's scam unraveled, the team was eventually sold to Charles Wang, and it's hardly flourished under his watch. They haven't played in the postseason since 2007, haven't won multiple games in a single postseason since 2002, and haven't won a playoff series since 1993, years before the Spano debacle. Along the way, the Islanders have routinely been a punchline. (Common areas of ridicule have included the terrible contracts given to Alexei Yashin and Rick DiPietro, the outdated Nassau Coliseum, and players like Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky straight-up refusing to report to Long Island.)
But the Isles aren't a joke anymore. As a collection of hockey players, they're finally relevant again, improving in the standings in 2013 thanks to young talent and cost-effective acquisitions. More importantly for those that bleed orange and blue, the Islanders, as a franchise, are no longer in danger of moving out of the area. With less than a week remaining in the regular season, the Islanders are on the verge of securing their first playoff berth in six years. Things are happening on Long Island, and they're happening ahead of schedule.
The Islanders have had trouble drawing fans in recent years -- they finished each of the last five seasons either last or next-to-last in the NHL in average attendance -- but unlike in some of the league's less-established markets, it's not because their fanbase doesn't exist. The die-hards never went away, but the Islanders have given everyone else every reason to stay home in recent years: uncompetitive teams, lousy facilities, and, of course, the growing possibility that the team might up and move to Kansas City or Quebec City or some other far-away place when its lease at Nassau Coliseum expires in 2015.
The question of where the team would play beyond 2015 was answered last fall, when Wang announced the Islanders had signed a lease to play in Brooklyn's Barclays Center when its Coliseum lease was up. It wasn't a perfect solution -- a new building in Nassau County would have been ideal -- but it was good enough. It kept the team in the New York metropolitan area, and it meant that long-time fans could still get to attend home games in person without purchasing a plane ticket.
Of course, that stability only means so much if the product on the ice isn't worth watching. And in recent years, that's been changing on Long Island: The Isles have made their share of missteps, but GM Garth Snow now has some players he can build around, with former No. 1 pick John Tavares at the center of everything. Snow works on a shoestring budget -- the Islanders have been more concerned with the salary floor than the salary cap -- and that's meant developing players the team has drafted themselves, working the waiver wire, and signing players on the low-cost end of the free agent spectrum.
Still, his efforts hadn't yet translated into wins: They finished fourteenth in the East in each of the last two seasons, and in the five seasons since they last made the playoffs, they've finished no higher than thirteenth. The Isles had been increasingly watchable in recent seasons -- but they hadn't necessarily been good.
Indeed, not a whole lot was expected of them this season: The Hockey News, for instance, picked them to finish dead last in the East. "Eventually," wrote the mag in January, "this team is going to take a step forward and it's probably going to come out of nowhere to surprise everyone." The consensus in that particular season preview was that such a step wouldn't happen in 2013. But the thing with surprises is that they, you know, tend to take you by surprise.
And so not only are the Islanders getting production from the usual suspects -- Tavares and Matt Moulson have both surpassed the 40-point mark, no small feat in this shortened season -- they're getting contributions from the likes of Brad Boyes (signed to a cheap one-year deal last summer and currently third on the team in scoring) and Visnovsky (acquired for a draft pick June and helping to bolster an improved defensive corps). And for all the goaltending drama of the past few seasons, Nabokov has proven to be capable, if not necessarily spectacular.
The culture around the Islanders had started to change in recent years: The Tavares pick alone put them on the radar of the average hockey fan. (Worth noting: For all the jokes about the Islanders being such a miserable destination that guys were refusing to report, both Nabokov and Visnovsky eventually signed extensions to stick around.) The thinking went that the changes to the culture would accelerate in the coming years: The team, in theory, would continue to improve on the ice in the franchise's final years in Nassau County, and the eventual move to Brooklyn would mean more buzz and more attention (and hopefully more money, not to mention a more attractive destination for future free agents).
But the team itself is developing ahead of schedule -- they finished the weekend in sixth place in the East -- and there's even the possibility that the move to Brooklyn could happen sooner than was anticipated. (The team and Nassau County will reportedly discuss the possibility of the Isles getting out of their Nassau Coliseum lease a year early, which would make next season their last at the old building before moving into Barclays Center in 2014, one year early.)
But that's looking ahead. The future may be bright, but for a change, Islanders fans can do more than simply wait till next year. This year's team isn't among the conference's elite -- let's not give them more credit than they deserve -- but they're thoroughly watchable, and they're on the right side of the postseason cut-off line. Months after their post-Coliseum future was announced, they've made progress on the ice. It's a step in the right direction, and for Islanders fans who've waited a long time for their team's return to relevance, that step means everything.
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