Monday, November 22, 2010

Scoring In Your Own Net

The on-ice play of the New York Islanders is just depressing. As Chris Botta recently pointed out, one day it’s a couple bad bounces, next day is bad goaltending, and next day is no offense. The Islanders are continuing a historic slump, which simply cannot be explained beyond, “simply being outmatched and outplayed.” It is safe to say that this meager blogger cannot begin to confront how to turn around this struggling team. What I can say is the New York Islanders have had more than their fair share of blunders off-the-ice that should never have happened.

The Isles 13 game losing streak has been eclipsed by their recent treatment of writer Chris Botta. As Misconduct noted below, Botta’s press credentials were revoked from the Islanders for being overly critical of the team. In an interview on WFAN, Botta explained that the team accused him of centering the story around himself and not the Islanders. This was a reference to a comment he made during the draft last summer when Garth Snow denied Botta an invitation to hear his comments about the draft class, while other reporters were granted access. Botta, dutifully reported, that Snow refused to comment to him.

The fact is hockey is not what it was in the United States, and most certainly, the New York Islanders are not the team they once were. This certainly put the organization in a tenuous position for fans. Diehards (yes, we are still out there) cry themselves to sleep each night, while the casual fans get driven farther and farther away. If the Isles PR continues on the track it has right now, they will literally not have enough people in Islander country to fill the NHL’s smallest arena – which is incidentally the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The excommunication of Christ Botta may seem like a fleeting PR problem, but it really is indicative of a much deeper problem:

1. Losing an Ally - First, and most importantly, the Islanders lost an enormous ally in Botta. Botta had been with the organization prior to becoming a national sports writer. His passion for the Islanders was reflected in his blog, which gave more analysis and reporting on the Isles in the last two years than ESPN has done in the last decade. It was nice to know that there were a national sportswriter looking out for our team.

2. Shortening the Bench – The Isles beat writing staff is down to one. With the revocation of Botta’s credentials, Newsday’s Katie Strang remains the last beat-writer standing. This is particularly troublesome since Newsday limits its content, even access to Strang’s blog, to Newsday and Optimum subscribers. If the Islanders are hoping to better reach out to fans this is not a good way to do it. Especially when beat-writer blogs have become the best way to get up-close access to your favorite teams. I get plenty of insight from the 3 Yankee Blogs and 2 Giants Blogs that I read. As for the Isles? Botta really was the only/best game in town. We can only hope that he continues to post despite this diminished access.

3. Driving Away Talent – The current organization does not discriminate when it drives talented people away from the team. We have lost free agents (Ryan Smyth), coaches (Peter Laviolette, Ted Nolan, and Scott Gorden), front office staff (Neil Smith and Pat Lafontaine), and now they have turned on the members of the media. In the off-season, we saw the Islanders interceding on contract negotiations between MSG and Billy Jaffe. Sources said that Jaffe had been overly critical of the team and asked that his contract not be extended. I thought Jaffe was a gifted commentator and so did Versus and NBC who picked him up for national telecasts. Now Botta. Let’s hope Howie Rose is not next after his comments, which, frustration aside, I tend to agree with. With this circumstances, how can the Islanders expect to attract quality writers and commentators? It's hard enough to find the Isles on MSG+, MSG+2, or The Ocho or wherever they are for TV and Hofstra University Radio!

4. Troubling Fans – Fans are and should be concerned with the way the Islanders handle these situations because it is indicative of how the franchise is run. Fans, before even wins, want to know the franchise is stable and not say…moving to Kansas City. They want to know the team is more than just a bargaining chip for owner Charles Wang’s Lighthouse Project. Who else but the Isles’ enemy #1, Chris Botta, defended Wang as an involved owner who genuinely cares about the team. But we need to hear it from Wang, Snow, and the organization. Good PR goes a long way on this front.

5. Appearances Help – We know the team is sucking money – like many NHL franchises. But come on! There is a dirty little secret about the Isles’ payroll that we should acknowledge. Without the buy-outs of Alexei Yashin and Brandon Witt (over $5M), the Islanders would be under the league minimum. Similarly, the Isles continue to pay injured players Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit instead of putting them on the injured list in order to stay above the salary floor. This may make good business sense, but let’s at least try to make it look like the Isles are focused on winning. Coughing a few extra bucks on players certainly is better than firing a talented Scott Gordon and talking about making the playoffs in the midst of a historic losing streak.

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