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By Matt Canamucio, NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - The summer of 2006 got off to a nice start for the New York Islanders.

Then all heck broke loose.

After bringing in a solid crop of free agents that included Brendan Witt, Mike Sillinger, Tom Poti and Chris Simon, the club's newly polished front office became a laughing stock. Just about a month after he was hired as the general manager, Neil Smith abruptly vacated the position due to philosphical differences with owner Charles Wang.

Of course, it's easy to see Smith's inability to function in the environment when he, a Cup-winning GM, was being asked to take part in a hockey operations by committee scheme that saw him on a level playing field with guys whose credentials are far less distinguished.

The comedy continued when backup goaltender Garth Snow retired and took over as the GM. It was a scene, straight out of the next straight-to-video Slapshot sequel.

Good things - the new players brought in and the hiring of Ted Nolan as head coach -- aside, the happenings of this summer on Long Island have made Wang come off as a madman. Perhaps his new group approach is an overcompensation for the long leesh he afforded Mike Milbury for all those years.

And the unconventional antics continued in early September when Wang inked goaltender Rick DiPietro to a 15-year contract that will pay him $4.5 million per season. The contract, while it could bring rewards if DiPietro continues his development and becomes a top-five goaltender, leaves little room for flexibility in the crease and essentially makes DiPietro an untradable commodity.

Let the circus continue.

FORWARDS - DiPietro's new deal is the longest in NHL history, as it surpassed the 10-year pact inked by Islanders center Alexei Yashin in 2001. Yashin, while his numbers have been solid, has been criticized for his lack of showing up in key situations, namely the playoffs. Last season he tied for the club lead with 66 points (28g, 38a).

Sniper Miroslav Satan came over from Buffalo last offseason and tied with Yashin for the club's scoring lead. He topped the club with 35 goals, but that total could have been so much higher had he been a little more consistent than he was. His highest goal total in a month was eight, and that was back in October.

Overall, the Islanders hope to improve an offensive attack that was among the NHL's worst a season ago. They tallied only 230 goals in 05-06, which tied Boston for the fewest amount in the Eastern Conference. Nolan, however, is expected to bring a more offensive-minded approach to the ice, fitting in with the new-look NHL.

The Islanders aren't likely to be one of those clubs that can go three scoring lines deep on a consistent basis. Jason Blake, who is best known for being the hockey equivalent of a gnat, has become a steady 25-goal, 50 point guy. Sillinger is a solid defensive center, but he can also put the puck in the net, and Trent Hunter hopes to bounce back from a rough sophomore season that saw him manage only 16 goals.

Mike York, meanwhile, is a decent No. 2 pivot to put behind Yashin. Last season York, who was obtained in the Michael Peca trade, tallied a career-high 18 assists on the power play.

Keep an eye on youngsters Robert Neilson and Sean Bergenheim to make more of an impact this season. Both players played part of 2005-06 with the big club and were solid in spurts. Each player is a former first-round pick and both are expected to see significant ice time.

DEFENSE - A few years ago the strength of the Islanders' roster was its top- four defense that consisted of Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, Janne Niinimaa and Kenny Jonsson. Well, all four players have since departed the club.

Alexei Zhitnik spent his first season on Long Island last year after leaving Buffalo, while the nasty Witt signed a free agent deal in the opening days of the summer market. Zhitnik, soon to be 34, can still provide anchor minutes in any situation, while Witt is the physical force any blueline corps needs.

After that, however, things are a little more uncertain. Poti comes from the Rangers, where he was best known for drawing the yells of the MSG faithful for bonehead plays that led to turnovers. Radek Martinek is OK, but nothing special, while the bottom end of the roation has yet to be determined.

We all saw last season that with the NHL game more wide open, a mistake-free defense is key to success. As good as the Carolina Hurricanes were on the attack, their defense was responsible and able to compensate if a turnover was made. I don't think the Islanders have the horses on the backline to achieve such a formula.

GOALTENDING - Last season DiPietro finished with a 30-24-5 mark and 3.02 goals-against average in 63 appearances for the Isles. The so-so numbers could have been the product of a shoddy defense in front of him, as he managed a 2.36 goals-against average and five shutouts in 2003-04 -- his first season as a regular starter.

This 25-year-old former No. 1 overall pick surely has the potential to be in the league of the Brodeurs and Luongos of the world, but he is by no means there yet. Maybe the new contract will kick him up to that level, but we will have to wait and see.

Snow's retirement vacated the backup goaltender job, and it remains to be seen who will take it. AHL netminder Wade Dubielewicz is in the mix, as is NHL vet Mike Dunham, who happens to be Snow's old college roomate from their days at Maine.

http://146.145.120.3/default.asp?c=hockeynews&page=nhl/news/ADN4042049.htm
 
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