Long-suffering New York Islanders fans were heartened by the news owner Charles Wang will give up a majority stake in the franchise within the next two years to investors Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin. The question is, can they do a better job with the Islanders than Wang did?
I recall Islanders fans had the same enthusiasm for Wang when he took over co-ownership of the Islanders in 2000 with then-partner Sanjay Kumar. At the time it was considered a positive move for an Islanders franchise wallowing in mediocrity, still reeling from the embarrassment of having nearly been purchased in 1996 by con man John Spano.
Wang and Kumar were heralded as just the right guys to bring stability to the sad-sack Islanders. They were billionaires, having made their fortunes in the computer software industry. They had deep pockets and an willingness to invest in the club, though Wang cautioned at the time he wasn’t offering quick fixes. Still, he was determined to not only keep the Islanders on Long Island, but also restore them to first-class stature. Wang bought out Kumar in 2004 and become the club’s sole owner.
In the early years of Wang’s ownership the Islanders enjoyed an upturn in their fortunes. In the summer of 2001 they acquired forwards Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, who at the time were among the league’s elite players. They also plucked goalie Chris Osgood off waivers in September 2001. Having missed the playoffs seven straight years from 1994-95 to 2000-01, the Isles made the playoffs in each of the next three years, though they failed to advance beyond the first round.
Sadly, that would prove the high point for the Islanders under Wang’s ownership. Between 2005-06 and 2013-14 they only made the playoffs twice. Yashin would eventually be bought out ,while one of the players (Zdeno Chara) and the draft pick the Isles gave up (which became Jason Spezza) to land Yashin became NHL stars in their own right. Peca was dealt to Edmonton and Osgood was shipped to St. Louis.
After ousting Mike Milbury as general manager midway through the ’05-’06 season, the Isles briefly hired Neil Smith as GM in the summer of 2006, only to replace him with recently-retired backup goalie Garth Snow into the position.
While Islanders’ critics greeted that move was greeted with derision, Snow received praise in his first season as the club made the playoffs. He also drafted John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic and Matt Martin, who’ve had careers of varying success with the Isles. Snow also selected promising youngsters Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Calvin De Haan, and wisely stayed patient with young winger Kyle Okposo, who blossomed into a star last season.
Snow also earned his share of criticism. He signed Rick DiPietro to a 15-year contract, offered up all his draft picks in the 2012 draft to Columbus in a failed effort to land the second overall pick, gambled and failed with Thomas Vanek, stubbornly stuck with washed-up Evgeni Nabokov as his starting goalie last season, and this summer failed to bolster his blueline depth. Even his draft record has been subjected to barbs from Islanders followers in recent years.
Perhaps the biggest reason Wang couldn’t turn around the Islanders was the failure of his Lighthouse Project, which was designed to renovate the club’s aging arena and the surrounding land into a modern suburban area. The plan ultimately failed when it was voted down in a local referendum. Without the Lighthouse Project, he couldn’t keep the Isles in their crumbling arena.
The franchise continually lost money, prompting Wang in 2009 to admit he never would’ve bought the team had he known how difficult and expensive it would be. With the club’s lease in the old building expiring in 2015, Wang and the NHL announced in 2012 the Islanders would move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn beginning in 2015-16.
Because Wang couldn’t make money in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Islanders couldn’t afford to invest big bucks in big-ticket, long-term acquisitions as they did in 2001. Free-agent stars weren’t interested in joining the Islanders, and those on the roster due to become unrestricted free agents almost never stayed. The Islanders became a sick franchise. They were a poor draw among local fans, stuck in a decrepit arena, unable to build and maintain a winner.
In other words, they remain pretty much the same sad-sack franchise they were when Wang bought the club fourteen years ago. This is the legacy Ledecky and Malkin will inherit.
The new owners will have a few advantages Wang didn’t have when he took over the club. The Islanders will be in a new arena, they’ve got a genuine superstar in Tavares and a core of promising youth.
However, the new owners don’t own Barclays Center, so they won’t enjoy the lucrative revenue from the building’s other events. It’s also a smaller venue (15, 813) than most NHL arenas, meaning they’ll have to charge higher prices if they hope to get their money’s worth and sink more dollars into the roster. While the Isles have promise, there’s also no certainty they’ll become a hot ticket in their new building. It remains to be seen what changes, if any, will occur in the front office.
Most importantly, they must convince Tavares the Islanders are on the right track and keep him from pursuing riches with a better-run franchise when he become eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of 2017-18.
It’s one thing to say the Islanders need a change of ownership. It’s another to have an ownership which can turn this moribund franchise around. What Ledecky and Malkin have in mind could be completely different than the expectations of the club’s long-suffering fan base.
The Islanders need ownership with the will and the dollars and the savvy to make the long-overdue positive changes which finally turn this long-time laughingstock into a well-run, competitive team its fans can be genuinely proud of again.
It cannot be a marginal playoff contender. It cannot continue to be engaged in a seemingly never-ending rebuilding process. And it cannot be one which is only in Brooklyn for a good time, not a long time, before moving on to a bigger venue in Quebec City, Seattle or Kansas City.
That’s the challenge facing Jon Ledecky and Steve Malkin. Only time will tell if they’ll have better luck than Charle Wang.