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Surprise! Islanders are suddenly respectable

How about this as the National Hockey League's biggest early-season surprise story: One month into the season, while nobody was looking, everybody's choice for laughingstock-team-of-the-year, the New York Islanders, quietly became a respectable club.

Yes, those are the Islanders, holding down sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to a 4-1-1-1 home-stand that ended this week and helped them overcome a disastrous 1-3-1-0 start on the road. On the heels of all their off-season turmoil - general manager Neil Smith hired and fired within a six-week span, a record 15-year contract for goaltender Rick DiPietro - who would have thought that possible?

Even if the Islanders (or Wang-nuts as some describe them) were not your choice for NHL sleeper team of the year in the pre-season polls, could you have imagined them being this good this soon after their opening-night debacle in Phoenix, in which they lost 6-3 to a Coyotes' team now standing 30th and dead last in the overall standings? No, probably not.

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It tells you two things:

One, coach Ted Nolan hasn't lost his motivational chops, despite a decade-long absence from the NHL; and two, there is something to be said for employing NHL veterans who've been around; know how to play the game; and don't get too up or too down, under any circumstances.

There wasn't much that was sexy about the Islanders' primary off-season acquisitions - Mike Sillinger, Brendan Witt and Tom Poti. At the age of 35, Sillinger's main claim to fame is that he is closer than any other current or former NHLer to playing for each of the league's Original 30 (and now, has just 18 teams to go, after stops in Detroit, Anaheim, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Tampa, Florida, Ottawa, Columbus, Phoenix, St. Louis, Nashville and now Long Island).

Witt, by contrast, played his entire career in the Washington Capitals' organization until he was moved to the Predators as a trading-deadline rental. Tough but not especially quick or mobile, Witt is the antithesis of Poti, who is soft, but skilled and can run a power play. Along with Alexei Zhitnik, it solidifies a defence group that could have been great, if former general manager Mike Milbury hadn't traded away Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Eric Brewer in his annual, never-ending player shuffling that cost the team whatever little chemistry it could create.

Nolan understands the value of experience, which is why the Islanders' top prospects - Robert Nilsson, Jeff Tambellini, Blake Comeau, Ryan O'Marra - are all down on the farm, in Bridgeport, learning their trade, while the job of trying to win at the NHL level belongs mostly to established NHLers.

But Nolan's most amazing sleight of hand involves Yashin, the moody, mercurial, perennially underachieving scoring talent with the lifetime contract negotiated by owner Charles Wang. Yashin had 15 points through the Islanders' first 12 games, following Thursday's three-point night against the New Jersey Devils, which left him where he should be based on his salary numbers - nicely in the league's top 25 scorers. Yashin's strength has always been his scoring ability on the power play (last year, 32 of his 66 points came with the man advantage), and Nolan is smart enough to realize that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Even if power-play opportunities were down slightly in the first month, compared to a year ago, games are still being won and lost by special teams. Nolan had been the subject of so much rumor, conjecture and speculation during his decade-long exile from the NHL that he was prepared to ignore all the gossip about Yashin; assured him that he had a clean slate coming in; and was free to start over.

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This, of course, shows uncommon good sense on Nolan's part. Wang made it clear from the start that he wouldn't undertake everybody's favorite solution to the Yashin problem - buying him out of the remaining years of his contract - so Nolan understood that he needed to make the relationship work … and so far, it has.

In an era when virtually every team has a few square pegs that need to be shoehorned into a handful of round holes, the most effective coaches are the ones that can squeeze as much as they can out of their one-dimensional players. They give them a chance to succeed by playing them in situations where they can capitalize on their strengths; and minimize the opportunity for failure by keeping them out of the hard, heavy physical going as much as possible.

The Islanders may not make the playoffs this year, but off their performance in the first month, they probably won't finish dead last either. Given their summer of turmoil, it's more than most expected of a once-proud franchise that had been mismanaged into the ground for the previous decade-and-a-half.

IRONMAN PAT: When the Islanders conducted their mini-purge this past summer, replacing Smith as general manager with back-up goalie Garth Snow, Pat LaFontaine re-signed in protest. LaFontaine had been hired by Wang as part of his front-office shuffle only months before, and was supposed to act as his advisor on all matters relating to hockey. Wang envisioned a linear corporate structure, in which all key personnel reported directly to him - an unconventional approach that Smith thought unworkable, given how close most GMs and coaches need to work to stay on the same page. When Smith was fired, LaFontaine resigned in protest.

However brief his return to the hockey industry was, LaFontaine's philanthropic instincts remain in high gear. On Saturday, he will compete in the Florida Ironman competition in Panama City, Fl. for the third consecutive year, to raise money for his Companions in Courage foundation, which raises funds to build interactive playrooms in children's hospitals throughout North America. On race days, sponsors can log on to www.ironmanlive.com to track LaFontaine's progress. Donations are accepted at his website: www.active.com/donate/ironman2006 --With all the fuss in Pittsburgh over the future of the Penguins (and their need for a new building, preferably funded a casino or a government), there is much less discussion about the Islanders and their old barn - Nassau Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, which opened in May of 1972 just in time for their inaugural NHL season and is definitely showing signs of wear. It's not clear if their aging building is the major reason fans are staying away, or the fact that the Islanders have missed the playoffs in 10 of the previous 15 seasons and exited in the first round four other times. Maybe it's both. In an era when it is becoming increasingly common for even modestly good teams to accumulate 100 points in the standings (thanks to bonus points for shootout and overtime losses), the Islanders haven't broken the century mark since the 1983-84 season, when they lost in the Stanley Cup final to the Edmonton Oilers, ending a four-year reign as champions. Their best year, since then, came in 2001-02, when they won 42 games, managed 96 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division, but lost a tough, seven-game opening round series to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Peter Laviolette was the coach that year; the Islanders appeared to have a good thing going with him behind the bench. Sadly, ex-GM Milbury lost patience with Laviolette and some of his unorthodox motivational techniques; fired him after the next season and replaced him with Steve Stirling. Laviolette went on to win a Stanley Cup championship with the Carolina Hurricanes; Stirling was fired midway through last year and replaced, on an interim basis, by Brad Shaw. Announced attendance for last Tuesday's 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks was 8,739 - in a building with a 16,234-seat capacity. The Islanders aren't much of a draw on the road either. Only 8,269 turned up two nights in Jersey for New York's 5-2 win over the Devils.

AND ONE LAST ISLANDER THOUGHT: No matter what you may think of Wang's operating philosophies, he doesn't waver much from his core beliefs. Example: The Islanders have a medium-good 22-year-old Finnish born prospect named Sean Bergenheim in the organization, who has been an on-again, off-again player for them over the past three seasons, getting into 46 NHL games plus, another 111 in minor-league Bridgeport. Their first choice, 22nd overall in 2002, it was thought that Bergenheim would crack the roster this season and perhaps play as a top-six forward (in the summer, The Hockey News projected him as the team's second-line left winger, on a line with Mike York and Trent Hunter). Instead, Bergenheim signed a contract to play with Yaroslav Lokomotiv of the Russian Superleague for more money. The Islanders' policy is that if a player isn't signed for the start of training camp, they're not interested in his services for the remainder of the season. Bergenheim didn't like it in Yaroslav, a the team that has been in disarray virtually from the start of the season and made a peculiar early-season coaching move, firing the highly respected former national team coach Vladimir Yurzinov on the same day as Metallurg Magnitorgorsk fired Dave King. As a result, Bergenheim tried to get the Islanders to take him back. They said no. So now, he'll move over to the Swedish Elite League and play for Henrik Lundqvist's former team, Vastra Frolunda - and try to get a deal done for next year. The decision may hurt the Islanders in the short term, but it obviously sends a strong message to any player wanting to go down the same path as Bergenheim - that a policy is a policy and they'll make no exceptions, not even for talented first-rounders. It may also make it easier for the Islanders to sign the next player pondering his overseas options

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-- Lundqvist, who was No. 4 in Calder Trophy balloting last season behind three outstanding freshmen (Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf) is off to a terrible start with the Rangers - a 5-5 record, with a 3.57 GAA and a .857 save percentage). As a result, his back-up, Kevin Weekes got a pair of starts on the team's West Coast road trip and made the most of them, posting victories over the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks). Weekes' numbers are deceptively mediocre (3.61 GAA, .884 save percentage) because he gave up seven goals in his one-and-only previous start of the season. On the West Coast, he gave up just four more in two games and looks to be in line for more work in the weeks ahead, if Lundqvist's struggles continue  -- King, incidentally, is currently in Phoenix, after losing his job eight games into the Superleague season. He has been contacted by several Russian teams already, who want him to come in as a mid-season replacement, but for now, is biding his time, waiting to see if any NHL coaching consulting work comes his way. King has been out to a couple of Coyotes' games (and why wouldn't they consider him to supplement their coaching staff?) and has also watched a lot of other hockey on his satellite dish, some of it involving his star player from last year, Evgeni Malkin. After spending all of last year in Russia, this is King's first up-close-and-personal look at the new NHL and for the most part, he likes what he sees. "It certainly makes the skill player more of an asset to your team," said King. "Before, the small man had so many difficulties because you could not only put the stick on him, you could put an arm on him and take away his assets. Now, for the guy that's small and quick, you can't take away his assets. You can't ride him with the stick and tackle him. I think it's good, really good. I saw a couple of games on TV that were terrific skating games. I see skating. I see speed. I see teams going end to end. It's nice to watch" -- There are a number of King protégés or contemporaries currently dotting the NHL coaching landscape, including two head coaches (Dave Tippett in Dallas, Trent Yawney in Chicago), a handful of assistants (Newell Brown in Anaheim, Marc Habscheid in Boston and Guy Charron in Florida), plus a number of others with ties to Hockey Canada that were influenced by his philosophies (Tom Renney in New York, George Kingston in Florida).

INJURIES AND INJURY REPORTS: As the competition gets closer and closer in an unpredictable league, more and more teams are issuing regular-season injury reports that read a lot like the ones that come out at playoff time - that is to say, a player is either suffering from an upper-body or a lower-body injury. The Minnesota Wild, for one, has made it an official team policy, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. From now on, Wild players will not be permitted to discuss the details of their own injuries or those of their teammates as well. Only the coach, Jacques Lemaire, or the GM, Doug Risebrough, will be permitted to discuss injuries. The new policy was unveiled to the two people whose lives it will affect the most - Mike Russo and Brian Murphy, the primary beat reporters who cover the team. In explaining the decision, Risebrough told the Star Tribune that they had information that earlier this season, an opposing team targeted one of their players after the news leaked out that he was playing with an injured hand. The NHL is mostly in agreement with the policy, believing that teams have a right to protect players who may elect to play in a game, even if they are not completely healthy. The NFL has a strict policy about making injury information public that relates solely to all the gambling associated with the sport; the NHL believes that's a poor reason to force teams to disclose detailed information about a player's health status and therefore, won't force them to do so. A day after the Minnesota policy was unveiled, the Philadelphia Flyers apparently decided to follow suit, according to the Inquirer newspaper. On Thursday night, in a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia lost two players, Jeff Carter and Randy Robitaille, as a result of injuries to their left ankles. Officially, the Flyers announced that Carter had a lower body injury, nothing more. Presumably, somebody forgot to tell Carter about the new directive, however, because he later revealed that his ankle was swollen, but the X-rays came back negative. It's probably the last injury update you can expect from Carter for awhile

--  After a slow start, the Nashville Predators are on a nice roll at the moment, going 8-1-1 in their last 10, despite the absences of Josef Vasicek (hip flexor) and more recently, Martin Erat (bruised ribs), who was playing on the top line with Jason Arnott and Paul Kariya. But Nashville is getting decent fill-in work from former QMJHL star Alexander Radulov; and Steve Sullivan is back after spending time on the IR. Nashville got off to a fine start a year ago, but this year's Predators are a more effective five-on-five team (they lived off the power play a year ago) and are spending less time in the penalty box.

AND FINALLY: Patrick O'Sullivan, the former Mississauga Ice Dog, who was the centre-piece of the entry-draft trade that saw Pavol Demitra go to the Wild, has been sent to Manchester, the Los Angeles Kings' No. 1 minor-league affiliate. O'Sullivan scored just one goal and one assist in 12 appearances this season  -- Demitra, meanwhile, who was off to a red-hot start, cooled considerably following Marian Gaborik's groin injury. Gaborik, who has a history of groin, stomach and abdomen issues, recently visited a specialist in Vancouver, to gather more information about his tendency to have these types of problems. There is no word on a possible return date - and there probably won't be, given the Wild's new policy on injury information  -- Also in the minors now: Rangers' defenceman Darius Kasparaitis, who is in the midst of a 10-day conditioning stint with their affiliate in Hartford, after a mediocre start to the season. Kasparaitis was coming off shoulder and groin surgeries this past summer, and started slowly - in fact, the Rangers held him out of the first five games of the season, as a result of conditioning issues. Kasparaitis was clearly behind when he did get to play and the pairing of him and Sandis Ozolinsh was positively disastrous in last Monday's 4-1 loss to Los Angeles, when Kasparaitis was on the ice for three goals. Ozolinsh has played better since coach Tom Renney paired him with ex-Senator Karel Rachunek, who is back in the NHL this season after playing in Russia last season. It's worth noting that Kasparaitis is in the midst of a monster six-year, $25.5 million contract he signed with the Rangers back in their free-spending days (summer of 2002). Even with the 24 per cent, post-lockout rollback, his salary represents an annual cap charge of $2.98 million, pricey for a player who currently can't crack the team's top six on defence.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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