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  In the Box with John Kreiser
Islanders Sinking Fast
by John Kreiser, Featured Writer

The New York Islanders struggle for media attention in the best of times. Now that they're going through the worst of times, they're getting more than they want. Then again, when a 1-1 tie at home is the highlight of the last three- plus weeks, you have to expect that someone's going to talk about your problems.

The Islanders were at .500 just 24 days ago after a road victory in Boston. They came home for a game with Ottawa and a chance to be above .500 at Christmas for the first time in years. Instead, they mailed it in during a 4-1 loss that some writers labeled the worst performance they'd ever seen. Over the next three weeks, they played well and lost. They played poorly and lost. They worked hard and lost. They didn't work hard and lost. They played tired and lost. They played travel-weary teams that didn't make it to the hotel until a few hours before game time and lost badly.

You name the way, they found a way to lose. Coach Rick Bowness tried everything but putting on a uniform himself -- switching goaltenders, changing lines, altering defensive combinations. Nothing worked. Bowness found himself on the hot seat as the Islanders sank slowly in the East, with GM Mike Milbury formally "putting him on notice" last Saturday that a change could be in the offing.

But the Islanders' problems run a lot deeper than Bowness' coaching ability, or lack thereof.

While insiders say some of the players aren't happy with the way they're being used, a bigger question is whether the Islanders have misjudged their talent. In a league where size increasingly trumps skill, the Islanders don't have enough of either. And in a time where money can help a team buy its way out of the basement, the Isles are the NHL's poor relatives, waiting for Daddy Warbucks (in the form of a new ownership group that's slated to take control of the team within a week or so) to open the vault for a team that's perennially among the league's most frugal.

The Islanders started the season confident that their young defense and goaltending were solid. They were right -- until the losing streak started. Tommy Salo has struggled and Eric Fichaud's form hasn't returned after a shoulder injury sustained in early December. Defensively, Bryan Berard has regressed from his early-season form while Bryan McCabe appears to be weighed down by the burden of being the NHL's youngest captain. The Isles have missed the presence of veteran Dennis Vaske, out with yet another concussion, more than they could possibly have believed.

All that might not matter if the Islanders could put the puck in the net more than once in a blue moon. They've scored one goal in six of their last eight games and haven't managed more than three during the 0-10-1 slide. Zigmund Palffy's scoring touch has dried up, as has Robert Reichel's. Bryan Smolinski, a 28-goal scorer last season, can't find the net, and none of the remaining forwards are doing much of anything. The penalty-killing is dreadful, the power play powerless, and players like Todd Bertuzzi haven't done enough to offset a lack of size up front.

New owner Steve Gluckstein and his group will have some fast decisions to make. Do they ax Bowness, who's no better than average and not a renowned handler of young talent? If so, whom do they get -- Terry Crisp? Ted Nolan? Terry Murray? Butch Goring, an ex-Islander star who's coached their farm team to two IHL titles? Or would Milbury, who reluctantly gave up the coaching post last season to stay in the front office, go back behind the bench?

Then again, how safe is Milbury? Yes, he's raised the team's talent level over the past couple of years, but the Isles will need a quick turnaround to meet his stated goal of a playoff berth. He's been hamstrung by the impending ownership change, but how will he be able to get a scorer without sacrificing some of the team's thin talent base? Though Islanders fans might yell for the new owners to sign restricted free-agent Sergei Fedorov, the price (aside from the money) could be Palffy and/or Berard or Kenny Jonsson. That's too much to pay for someone who shows more interest in being with his tennis-star teenage girlfriend than playing hockey.

Barring a sharp turnaround, Bowness may not make it to the Olympic break. If he gets the ax, it's going to get even warmer for Milbury -- especially if he winds up back behind the bench, where he was less than brilliant the first time.

Whatever happens had better happen soon. Luckily for the Islanders, they're just six points out of a playoff berth with more than 40% of the season remaining. But if they don't do something quickly, the Isles will find themselves right back where they were last spring -- making early tee times again.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE BODIES GONE?: The NHL has always been a gate-driven league -- and Fox notwithstanding, it will remain one into the foreseeable future. That's why Gary Bettman & Co. have to be concerned (though obviously not publicly) about the thousands of fans who come disguised as empty seats in a growing number of buildings.

Remember the days when the Bruins were an automatic sellout in Boston? Not any more. Stroll into the Fleet Center on game night and there are plenty of tickets waiting. The Capitals are finding out that fans are no more willing to see them at the downtown MCI Center than they were in the prairies of Landover. Empties are the norm at the new buildings in Chicago and St. Louis, while Mark Messier and Mike Keenan have done no more for the box office at GM Place than they've done for the Canucks' place in the standings. Even in Montreal, there are tickets to be had as often as not at the huge Molson Centre.

Then there's the Carolina Hurricanes, who lead the NHL in empty seats. Not since the pre-Lemieux days in Pittsburgh has an NHL team played to so many empty seats on a regular basis. Sure, they're in Greensboro, 80 miles or so from their future home in Raleigh. But a projected $20 million loss this season has to make the prospect of spending another winter waiting for their new arena a chilling thought.

The money coming from expansion over the next few years may paper over some of the problems for a while. But it's not going to put any more fannies in the seats -- and in the NHL, that's the name of the game.

STAT SHOTS: Why was Wayne Gretzky voted the top NHL player of all time? Consider that Monday's three-assist effort against Toronto marked the 213th time he's had three or more assists in a game. Just those games alone would put him among the NHL's all-time assist leaders. Imagine what would happen if the Rangers ever got him a finisher?

The Rangers' 3-2 victory over Toronto was their seventh in a row over the Maple Leafs. It's their longest streak ever against Toronto.

Tampa Bay is averaging less than two goals a game. No team has averaged less than two scores a game since the 1953-54 Chicago Black Hawks (that's how they spelled it then), who scored just 133 times in 70 games.

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