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Surprise! Islanders are suddenly respectable Add to ...

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.

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.

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.

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