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Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Updated: July 12, 4:00 PM ET
Improving Islanders still need more

By Graham Hays

Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar rose to prominence at Computer Associates, a cutting-edge technology company, with an aggressive management style that included buying-out and then drastically restructuring the competition. Expected to employ a similarly active approach after taking over a struggling Islanders franchise, the new owners didn't disappoint. After finishing with the league's worst record and second-fewest goals in 2000-01, a season that included the debuts of Columbus and Minnesota, the Islanders wrote some big checks and ditched their perpetual long-term rebuilding plans.

2001-02 by the numbers
42-28-8-4, 96 points
(T8th overall, 4th East, 2nd Atlantic)
Goals for:
239/2.91 (6th overall)
Goals against:
220/2.68 (T21st overall)
19 (12th overall)
20-goal scorers:
Alexei Yashin (32), Mark Parrish (30), Michael Peca (25), Mariusz Czerkawski (22)
50-point scorers:
Yashin (75), Parrish and Peca (60), Shawn Bates (52), Czerkawski (51)

The arrival of Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca, Chris Osgood and Adrian Aucoin, and the decision to send Rick DiPietro to the minors, signaled the Islanders felt the Eastern Conference was up for grabs. General manager Mike Milbury looked inspired when the club burst out of the gate, and even a midseason slump wasn't enough to deprive the team of its first playoff appearance since 1994. Unfortunately, finishing a point behind the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic Division meant a first-round encounter with the 100-point Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders came up just short in seven games, losing one of the more physical first-round series' in recent memory.

Looking at next season
After last offseason's fireworks, the Islanders appear poised to spend this summer juggling complementary parts. Acquiring a top-tier winger to skate with Yashin sits atop the team's wish list, but missing out on Bill Guerin, Scott Young and Teemu Selanne leaves just one option. Tony Amonte has long been a target of adoration on Long Island, but the free-agent winger is rumored to be seeking a contract worth as much as $7.5 million a season. While Milbury isn't publicly ruling out the signing, the Islanders may lose out to their more affluent Manhattan neighbors. Whatever the result, the quest for a big-name winger suggests offense remains a sore spot despite a 54-goal improvement over their dismal 2000-01 showing.

As important as Yashin's 75 points were to a team desperately in need of offensive firepower, adding Peca was equally critical in returning the team to the playoffs. Not only did Peca collect 60 points, displaying tremendous chemistry with wingers Shawn Bates and Mark Parrish, but he also played his standard Selke-quality defense. That's bad news, because Peca is expected to miss at least the first half of the season following surgery to repair a torn anterior crucicate ligament in his left knee. Without Peca, Parrish, who finally broke through with a 30-goal season, must prove last season was no fluke. Sixteen of the winger's 30 goals came in the team's first 23 games.

Having dealt Mariuscz Czerkawski to Montreal for gritty Arron Asham, forward depth is a major issue. Brad Isbister occasionally looks like the next Todd Bertuzzi, but his spot on the first line has more to do with a lack of options than rugged play. Oleg Kvasha has done little to suggest he'll ever capitalize on decent talent, but the Islanders can't afford to cut him loose. Hope is on the horizon in the form of youngsters Raffi Torres, Trent Hunter and Mattias Weinhandl, but it's unclear whether any of them will offer significant contributions this season.

In a move that may partially alleviate some of the team's offensive woes, but is more directly aimed at annihilating the opposition's offensive options, the Islanders traded promising defenseman Branislav Mezei to Florida for rugged center Jason Wiemer. The kind of player capable of punishing overly-aggressive opponents, he was suspended last season for butt-ending Toronto's Darcy Tucker, Wiemer should help ensure teams don't emulate Toronto's model for beating, and beating up, the Islanders.

On the surface, New York had the defensive talent to justify trading a prospect like Mezei. After all, no other team had three 30-point defensemen. That's a testament to the all-around skill of Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik and Kenny Jonsson, but it's also an indictment of the other blueline options. Acquiring inconsistent Mattias Timander and getting Radek Martinek back from knee surgery, he should be available for training camp, helps, but a veteran like Darius Kasparaitis would have been as welcome an addition as Amonte or Guerin. Look for Milbury to add at least one more experienced defenseman before the start of the season.

The Islanders made stunning progress last season, improving in the standings by 44 points over the previous season. Even if they get a winger like Amonte in the fold, they'd be hard-pressed to avoid some kind of slippage this season. Without another weapon to pair with Yashin, and without Peca until at least mid-December, the team will need career years out of several underachievers to have any chance at home-ice advantage in the first round. But with the added toughness of Wiemer and Asham and a healthy Peca in the playoffs, this year's team may be better equipped to extend their season beyond the opening round.