Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Trade and a Vote

News emerged today that the Islanders traded Trent Hunter to area rivals New Jersey in exchange for 37 year-old left wing Brian Rolston.

I like the deal for several reasons.

First off, one of (Islanders General Manager) Garth Snow's core philosophies is having veteran leadership in place. Rolston, the 16-year NHL veteran and former Stanley Cup Champion, certainly qualifies. He'll be brought in to help mentor a still-young team of which expectations are steadily growing. After four barren seasons, a postseason berth is expected of the squad that Snow has meticulously crafted, mostly through the draft.

In my mind at least, despite his age, Rolston is still an effective point producer. If I had to guess, I would say that 20 goals are not out of reach for Rolston, barring injury. Of course, that's the biggest risk at his age.

As an aside, you'll remember that the last man brought in for leadership, Doug Weight, didn't spend a lot of time on the active roster. But I digress.

Additionally, this move also adds by a bit of subtraction, though that seems a bit harsh.

After a stellar 51 point rookie season back in 2003-2004, I became a Trent Hunter fan. He was a big right wing who had been productive at Bridgeport, and had seemingly made a smooth transition to the Island. Not one to lavish quotes on the press, he did his talking with his hockey stick.

Unfortunately, it was shortly after that when Hunter went into the Witness Protection Program, so to speak. He was invisible on a lot of nights, and in more recent times, injured. Over his next three seasons he averaged only 16 goals, down from '03-'04's 25. His production slipped even further as the injuries claimed a lot of his playing time.

Lastly, the move eases fears that the Islanders would have trouble reaching the salary cap floor. Rolston's salary cap is over $5 million for the upcoming season, while Hunter would have been on the books for the next two years at $2 million apiece.

The Islanders will gladly take on the money after the aborted Ehrhoff deal, and will be glad to get out from an extra year of a non-productive salary cap in the following season, especially with John Tavares set to get a big pay raise at this time next year.

As long as Rolston stays healthy, it's a good move for all parties involved.

As you surely know, Monday (8/1/11) is D-Day on Long Island. If you are a citizen of Nassau County, I urge you to get out and vote for the new arena plan, and vote 'yes.'

The plan has broad support from unions, fans, and many citizens, and will provide jobs for our suffering construction sector.

In talking with a Rangers fan, of all people, he recently told me has was voting 'yes' because, simply put, he was afraid of a scenario for Nassau County where nothing was built on the site.

There are many reasons to vote yes, whether your primary concern is the local economy, ice hockey, having a top-notch venue for your kids to see the newest acts, or just the civic pride that comes with having a new landmark.

So please take 5 minutes out of your day on Monday to find your polling place and vote yes. Like today's trade, it seems like a good move for all involved.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Introducing: Mei Ushu

I’m a big believer in the power of sports to bring people together. There is something magical in unifying a group with diverse backgrounds toward a singular goal.

The Islanders, from what I can tell, believe in this message as well. This past week I had the pleasure of again covering Prospect Mini-Camp at Nassau Coliseum. It’s a weeklong event designed to showcase new draft picks, prospects, and local players in a professional atmosphere. It’s also a great chance for fans, scouts, and management to have a look at players they may not yet be fully familiar with. In short, it’s a look into the future.

The Blue and White Scrimmage and Skills Competition, held on Saturday night, caps off the week.

Invited by the New York Islanders, players travel for the camp from near and far. Hockey hotbeds such as Sweden, Russia, and Canada, are normally, of course, represented. Some non-traditional areas produced players this year as well, like Lithuania, Switzerland, and Japan.

Anyone who knows me would say I like to focus on the Japanese sports scene. So I took some interest when I saw that Mei Ushu had been invited to join the festivities.

Mr. Ushu is a 6’0”, 196 pound ninensei (“second year player,” or sophomore) who plays his college hockey at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. He’s a 20-year-old defenseman who has also been selected to his homeland’s national team.

When I first met him early in the week, his size caught my attention. Coupled with his youth, I realized that just those two factors could add up to him being a legitimate NHL prospect down the road.

When speaking to him more in-depth a second time, after he had completed the scrimmage and skills events, he mentioned that he would like to add some more muscle and work on his skating. It’s a fairly common sentiment among many of the young players and prospects.

Nerves, he admitted, were a problem prior to playing on the Nassau Coliseum ice, but Coach Jack Capuano said that Ushu handled himself nicely and “fit in just well” in the scrimmage game (played in front of 5,000+). Both men admitted to having bit of a language barrier, but Mei told me that he seemed to become more comfortable with his surroundings as the week went on. He and his mates found ways to communicate.

This was his first trip to the United States, I was told.

One final thing that troubled Ushu was the size of the rink. In Japan they play with the wider, international size hockey rink (200 feet x 98 feet). He seemed to adjust well, though I did see him make one error near his own blue line very close to the sideboards.

Asked what he’ll take away from the experience, he mentioned that he learned how to prepare better for games mentally, and picked up tips on puck movement from his defensive teammates.

He’ll return to Japan on Tuesday of this week. His immediate plans are to continue playing for Waseda, and he will attend some camps for Asia League ice hockey and Japan’s Under-22 team.

I hope he will return to Long Island next year, so we can see what progress he has made. I also hope he continues to chase his goals, perhaps even as far as becoming the first Japanese defenseman to play in the National Hockey League.

He was a pleasure to meet and speak with, and I wish him well.

Special thanks to Taka Shirai and Kazuhide Yamanouchi for their assistance this week. You can follow Mei Ushi (@Meichel23) [Japanese] on Twitter, as well as the author (@RealKenDick).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Impressions From Prospect Camp

There's scarcely anything in hockey more enjoyable for me than getting to meet the newest members of the New York Islanders. Prospect mini-camp week is my chance to view many of the young players management believes will be the next stars on Long Island.

It's done at this time of year when hockey is dormant, in a fairly relaxed atmosphere, which makes for an easier transition to the pro game for the players, and fewer barriers exist for media and bloggers when trying to converse with them.

One of the newest selections, fresh out of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft (chosen at #34 overall), is Scott Mayfield. An affable and approachable 18 year old with a winning smile, the tall (6'4") defenseman told me that his being passed over in the first round will be a motivating factor for him.

"It was kind of tough sitting there Friday night (1st round). I sat there for 30 picks and wasn't called, but at the same time I can use it for more motivation." But, he added, now that the matter is settled, he "couldn't be happier [to be a part of] this organization. Everything's more professional here."

Mayfield is committed to the University of Denver, where fellow prospects Rhett Rakhshani and Matt Donovan played their college hockey. He's working on the offensive facets of his game after saying that his numbers were down last season, he's looking to add some weight, and is simply taking in his new environment.

He even tried an Italian ice, which he was told is something of a Long Island specialty.

As the first players went off the ice and the new shift emerged from the bowels of the arena, news broke that Jeremy Collition had been signed to a new deal.

The second shift, or the White Team, as they're being called in advance of Saturday night's prospect game, allowed me to have a look at Mei Ushu. He's a big kid, listed at 6'0" and 196 pounds, a sophomore from Waseda University in Japan.

I introduced myself and wished the young man good luck, but I'll have more on him after the game on Saturday.

When the second group was winding down their activities, I had a few moments with two important members of the Islanders, both who hope to move their careers and team(s) from the "potential" column into tangible results. I am referring to Kirill Kabanov and Coach Jack Capuano.

Kabanov, who perhaps didn't leave such great impressions in his bosses minds last season, seems a bit more focused on his game this year. He told me he's working to be as good in the defensive zone as he is in the offensive one, including blocking shots and back checking. He also has his mother joining him on Long Island this summer as well to help keep tabs on him.

During his down time, he's enjoying tennis and the beach like any other soon-to-be 19 year old. He's making sure that he's on time this year, and I even witnessed him sharing a moment with fellow prospect Andrey Pedan, with whom he shares a common language. While they were engaged in a private conversation, perhaps Kirill was imparting some 'veteran' (of mini-camp, at least) wisdom to the Lithuanian defenseman.

Jack Capuano summed up the day by saying that the camp is about putting aside college rivalries, working together as members of the Islanders family, and getting a change to meet potential teammates of the future.

The coach mentioned Brock Nelson as a player who had improved from last year. He also liked "where Calvin [DeHaan] is mentally," believing that this camp will be used for him to "make a statement."

Let's hope that's the mindset of all of the attendees, and that they put on an impressive show on Saturday night.