by Josh Brewster, Buffalo Sports Page NHL Expert
“We’re not looking for government funds,” announced New York Islanders’ majority owner Jon Ledecky in an exuberant moment Wednesday after the team’s bid for an 18,000-seat arena at Belmont Park was selected this week by Empire State Development over a competing proposal from soccer’s New York City FC.
Having navigated New York State politics, successfully delivering a world-class arena project with private financing, Ledecky and partner Scott Malkin deserve high praise. Quality franchisees are hard to come by (remember John Rigas?) and this pair is well on their way to making Long Island a destination for NHL stars once again.
Earlier this fall, Ledecky offered up an appetizer for state officials to chew on by renovating the Northwell Health Ice Center, in East Meadow, Long Island. He sank roughly $7M into making the facility a much more comfortable practice rink for his club, including the hiring of a world-class chef. It was a foreshadowing of this week’s historic announcement and will help lure even bigger names to the roster in the future.
Keeping the Team on the Island
No one, starting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who cheered for the Islanders in his younger years, wanted to see this club move. But without an arena that could support a major-league club in an ever-expanding $5B-per annum industry, Houston, Quebec or Seattle were starting to make a lot more sense.
It’s been a long time since the NHL’s best suited up for the Islanders. One has to go all the way back to the 1970s and early 1980s, when the entry draft was king, before parity, free agency and salary caps, when players were tethered to their clubs until the boss said otherwise, to find Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, John Tonelli, Billy Smith and a wide array of greats hoisting the Stanley Cup annually.
The time has finally come for long-suffering Islanders fans to celebrate.
Since the Islanders last won the Stanley Cup in 1983, ownership had been an often torturous experience. The outdated Nassau Coliseum was home for at least a decade or two too long. John Spano damn near purchased the club in the late 1990s for $230M despite the fact that he was a fraud, actually had but a few hundred grand in the bank and ended up going to prison for years (then later went back to prison for other fraudulent jobs).
GM Mike Milbury had 1997 4th overall pick Roberto Luongo in his net, then traded him away in favor of selecting mega-bust Rick DiPietro first overall in 2000. The team later signed DiPietro to a 15-year, $67.5M deal in 2006. He played 381 NHL games before retiring (Luongo, in Florida at present, has played 982 and currently stands fourth in wins at 459).
The team threw tons of money at a lackadaisical Alexei Yashin. They changed their classic logo to one resembling the Gorton’s fish stick guy, and traded away future Hall of Fame defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Later, owner Charles Wang hired Cup-winning Rangers GM Neil Smith to run the club, then fired him 40 days later. The list of bungling went on unabated. The fans began to check out.
It was one Excedrin headache after the next.
Don’t See the Light
In recent years, Wang proposed the Lighthouse project, which would have renovated the Nassau Coliseum and added mixed-use facilities including restaurants, stores, a minor-league baseball park and housing to the tune of $3.7B. Along the way, to force the issue, Wang’s Islanders played a 2009 preseason game in Kansas City. In 2011, voters nixed the Lighthouse proposal.
Wang first sold a minority interest in the Islanders to Ledecky and Malkin in 2014, with a two-year transition period ensued, culminating in the pair’s becoming majority owners in 2016. Not unlike the Nashville Predators, who went through a tough run of franchisees before Tom Cigarran’s group purchased the club from the bankrupt Bill “Boots” DelBiaggio in 2010. The Preds had previously been found usually occupying the bottom of the NHL’s salary structure, and like the Isles, had been long-rumored to be headed for Kansas City and nearly ended up in Hamilton if not for Bettman’s refusal to allow Jim Balsillie to purchase and move the club. Similarly, the Islanders came to life under Ledecky and Malkin. The Isles now sits 14th on the salary list, at roughly $72M in salary paid, just above the Ducks, Rangers, Lightning and Predators.
In 2015-16, the Islanders began play at BarclaysCenter in Brooklyn, which was built for basketball. In its current adaptation for hockey, there are thousands of obstructed-view seats and constant complaints about the quality of the ice. The surface is shared with the NBA Nets, who moved from New Jersey to occupy the site as its main tenant. The Islanders have a 25-year agreement (through 2040) with Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, but they want the Islanders out, and will likely get their wish, as Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for the Belmont project, wants Bettman and crew to swing a deal for the Isles to occupy the Coliseum once more on an interim basis until Belmont is ready.
John Tavares Situation Heats Up
“For my situation, it’s really exciting news,” said superstar center John Tavares to Newsday’s Arthur Staple. “I’m not going to say it’s going to change or ultimately make my decision, but everything that’s involved in my daily life plays into it and going to the rink, playing games is a big part of that.”
Tavares, an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, is likely to pull a Steve Stamkos and test the waters on July 1. With the NHL’s $75M salary cap expected to climb as high as $78-$80M next season, the 27-year-old from Mississauga will easily command upwards of 20% of his club’s payroll, which is his right under the current collective bargaining agreement. Whoever signs Tavares (35GP: 21-24-45) can expect to pay $14-$16M, and it will be for the maximum eight years allowed under the CBA.
The six-year, $33M deal Tavares signed in 2012 does not speak to his value at present, but you’ll never hear him complain (unlike Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson). Tavares has said little about what the future holds, and nothing about the money. Tavares’ actions will speak loudly, though, when next summer comes.
Johnny T. Loyalty?
It says here that with a strong loyalty streak at his core, the longstanding support of GM Garth Snow and an Islanders team that is finally making some noise in the tough Metropolitan division, he’ll be rewarded by an ownership group that’s come way too far, done way too much to get this new arena deal, to offer him anything less than full value. But don’t expect a hometown discount.
One key question might be whether Snow can swing a deal to pull the club’s goaltending up a few notches, since that’s really the only glaring weakness (the team ranks dead last with Tomas Greiss and Jaro Halak). With linemate Josh Bailey (35GP: 10-35-45) feeding Tavares the puck and emerging as a star in his own right, with Matt Barzal on the verge of Calder Trophy contention, and defenseman Nick Leddy similarly positioned for Norris consideration, Tavares could easily see Long Island good a bet as any for future success.
Bailey, who arrived on Long Island one season prior to Tavares, might be key to securing the big fish. He is also a UFA come July 1, and due a big raise from his current $3.3M. If Snow can sign Bailey to an extension before season’s end, it could go a long way to securing his partner Tavares, with whom he makes up the NHL’s finest pairing outside Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in Tampa.
Tavares finished third in Hart Trophy voting in 2012-13 and 2014-15 and it’s entirely possible that he wins it this season.