On November 21, 2011, the whole hockey world tuned in to watch the New York Islanders. The last time the team received this much attention was in the aftermath of the infamous "brawlgame" on February 11, 2011.
All of that attention was negative, and it would be this time as well. Both games were against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins. In the February affair, the Islanders were criticized for "gooning" it up. This time, it was for not showing up.
Of particular note was the fact that one player, in particular, did not show up at all—at least on the ice. That player was Rick Di Pietro.
Many expected that Di Pietro would show up on the ice because the game marked the return of Sidney Crosby to the NHL, and the Islanders' only other option in net was prospect Anders Nilsson, who had never started an NHL game. In fact, his first NHL experience had been the game before, when he relieved Di Pietro after the latter player was bombed for three goals by the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
Instead, Islanders coach Jack Capuano started Nilsson, prompting the media to accuse Cappy of "throwing [Nilsson} to the wolves." One writer called the decision "inexcusable."
Cappy, in fact, fell on his sword for the franchise. He knew, as did Islanders fans, that starting Nilsson was the lesser of evils. The sad truth is that Di Pietro, the former No. 1 overall pick and supposed franchise cornerstone, is no longer an NHL-caliber goaltender. This is a truth that owner Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow must now begin to face.
The faulty decision-making that led Mike Milbury to draft Di Pietro first overall in 2000 and Wang to sign him to a record 15-year contract, as well as his lengthy injury history, have already been chronicled by this writer. My hope at that time was that Di Pietro would retire this past summer. His play this season seems to have proved the wisdom of that advice.
While teammate Al Montoya is near the top of the stat sheet for NHL goal tenders, Di Pietro is at the very bottom. About the only net minder with worst stats than Di Pietro is Nilsson, who had no NHL experience at all prior to this season.
Are Di Pietro's struggles the result of the cumulative effect of his injuries? If so, neither he or the Islanders are saying. He added to his lengthy medical history in October by getting hit in the head by a practice shot and, just this past Saturday night, with a groin injury.
No Islanders fan wishes Di Pietro ill. In fact, we would all be overjoyed if he were to suddenly become the bonafide franchise goaltender he was drafted to be. That, however, is clearly not happening. What is more, his bad play is dragging the team down with him.
Apart from all the bad stats and soft goals, the team does not respond well to Di Pietro. The bad play is part of it, but it also cannot have escaped anyone's notice that Blake Comeau was first benched and then waived and picked up by the Calgary Flames when he did not perform while Di Pietro, horrible stats and all, is still here.
This situation would be pure poison even for a veteran team. It can only be worse for a young and developing team like the Islanders.
The team may have caught a break, oddly enough, by Di Pietro's injury. Between that, Montoya's fine play and Evgenyi Nabokov returning in a few weeks, the Islanders may not have to endure many more Di Pietro starts this season.
This cannot be allowed to continue next season. Snow and Wang should sit down with Di Pietro and his agent this summer and discuss alternatives. Di Pietro can be offered a chance to revive his career at the AHL level. Or he can accept a buyout along with probably writing his own ticket within the organization. Wang bought out Alexei Yashin and remains on good terms with him. This does not have to be acrimonious, but it must be done.