The New York Islanders surprised the NHL last season by securing a playoff spot. Even with then-reigning cup champion Barry Trotz as head coach, the little team that could from Long Island was expected to heavily regress after John Tavares left in free agency for his boyhood team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Instead, the Islanders had their best season in recent memory, although they didn’t make it farther than the conference semi-finals where they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. Last season also saw the Islanders make a few returns to their historic home at Nassau Coliseum. The Coliseum is a familiar stomping ground for former Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro.
With his playing days behind him, the former number one overall pick is a co-host on ESPN 98.7 New York’s Humpty, Canty and Rothenberg radio show. On the show, he is joined by former New York Giant Chris Canty and veteran radio sports talk show host Dave Rothenberg.
The almost comedic pairing of Rothenberg and DiPietro is ironic. Rothenberg is a diehard New York Rangers fan, who attended every single game of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs. He holds that Stanley Cup victory as a cherished memory.
Unfortunately for him, he also has less than happy memories of being a Rangers fan growing up on Long Island and seeing the Islanders win four straight cup championships. While DiPietro may come off as the resident “hockey expert” on the show, Rothenberg also has prior experience covering the Carolina Hurricanes radio broadcasts.
I had the chance to talk with DiPietro last week during an on-location taping of their show at Minnesota’s in Long Beach. Throughout the day, in-between dishing out his opinions on everything New York sports, including his surprise knowledge and love for the New York Mets, DiPietro could be seen signing autographs for adoring fans.
DiPietro’s signature left on everything from a stray piece of notebook paper to an authentic 2014 Stadium Series Islanders jersey. He was even offered an Italian flag cupcake by a fan because “he’s Italian”, as fan exclaimed while handing out the deserts.
DiPietro was one of the last goaltenders taken first overall, where he was selected by the Islanders in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Marc-Andre Fleury was the last when selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins a few years later.
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With all the expectations and attention that comes with being the first overall pick, I had to ask how excited DiPietro felt when he heard his name called. “I actually knew the night before,” said DiPietro.
Just because it wasn’t a surprise didn’t detract from the excitement of the experience. “It was still awesome. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s still a surreal experience.”
Next, I asked DiPietro about the age-old argument regarding goaltending equipment. It seems like every season, the debate is reignited on if nets are too small and goalie equipment is too big, preventing scoring. While DiPietro’s position wasn’t exactly unexpected, he did add a bit of his own opinion:
“I’m of the mindset where I don’t think it’s the goals, it’s the scoring chances. I think you need to find a way to increase scoring chances… I mean look at the size of goalies now. If you were a goalie if you were six-foot you were happy. Now you got guys like Vasilevskiy, Pekka Rinne, these guys are big men.”
“So of course they’re going to look bigger in equipment. You also got better coaching, you got kids who start being goalies are younger ages. I think players are bigger, and the ice has gotten smaller.” DiPietro also doesn’t expect the controversy around that question to go away anytime soon either.
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“That’s the convenient excuse. We dealt with this when we did our CBA negotiations. Back in the day goal scoring was up, goalies were small, but the width of the pads were 15 inches, so it can’t be the pads.”
When asked about the Islanders performance last season, DiPietro was quick to answer that they overachieved. However, he doesn’t expect them to take a step back this season. In fact, he expects them to take another step forward and be even better:
“I’m pretty confident. As good as they were last year, I think having a second year in the system they’ll be better. Barzal is a superstar. I like the fact they brought Anders Lee back, he’s great for that locker room, he’s consistent. Varlamov was a good addition, he’s a good goalie especially when they play the kind of defensive system they play.”
While most are concerned with the loss of Jennings and Masterton Trophy winner Robin Lehner, and the subsequent addition of Varlamov, DiPietro said there shouldn’t be a reason to panic. If Varlamaov wasn’t worthy of the Islanders crease, then general manager Lou Lamoriello wouldn’t have chosen him. If there’s one thing Lamoriello knows, it’s goalies.
“The one thing people take for granted is the emphasis Lou puts on the goalie position. You saw the success he had with Martin Brodeur. The way this team is coached, the system they play, it’s consistent and it travels.”
Goaltending is a consistently successful factor on the teams Lamoriello puts together. While some argue Brodeur made that easy for him in New Jersey, you have to remember that other goalies were ranked higher and drafted before Brodeur was taken twentieth overall by the Devils in 1990. During Lamoriello’s brief tenure with Toronto, he also orchestrated a trade to bring in Fredrick Anderson.
The biggest off the ice storyline involving the islanders revolves around their stadium drama. The Islander left their historic home at the Nassau Coliseum for the newly built Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The move has in all respects been deemed a failure. When the Islanders made a temporary return to the Coliseum this season, the enthusiasm was like nothing the NHL could have expected:
“The atmosphere at the Coliseum is unmatched. You definitely saw that in the playoffs. It’s definitely a home-ice advantage. They should have stayed at the Coliseum the whole time. The NHL should have let [former Islanders owner] Charles Wang build what he wanted to build.”
“Right now with Brooklyn, it doesn’t make much sense. I know it’s tough on the players. They’re practice facility is beautiful. Belmont would definitely be an upgrade. Would I have liked to see a situation where you have a place where people can tailgate and do what they do at the Coliseum? Yeah, but it’s going to be a state of the art facility. I know everything Lou does, or has his hand in, is going to be beautiful.”
Throughout our interview, DiPietro gave a surprising amount of praise to the Islanders general manager. That was unexpected since he never played under Lamoriello and spent his entire playing career competing against his teams. In fact, DiPietro fins the notion of not respecting the elder NHL statesman unfathomable.
“How can you not? The amount of emphasis he puts on everything from soup to nuts, and that’s part of the reason why, as much as you want to point to Barry Trotz being the difference, well if they’re not doing what Barry Trotz is saying, they’re going to have to answer to Lou.”
One of my friends is the goaltending coach at our alma mater, Monmouth University in New Jersey. I asked him a little while back if the classic, or “stand up” style of goaltending is dead. In the past, we’ve seen a newer generation of goaltenders like Brodeur combine the elements of the classic and the butterfly styles, but even those are being phased out.
My friend contests that the butterfly is not a style, but a specific save. Since I had the chance, I had to ask DiPietro to weigh into our argument.
“A lot of the position now is spent on the ice, which makes sense. With analytics in every single sport, you get to see where most of the goals are scored, especially when the puck’s behind the goal line. You watch guys like Tuukka Rask, Lundqvist, they’re always down.”
“One of the things I noticed, Quick might be the last one, but I think as the years go on and goalies get bigger they start to play deeper and deeper into their nets. So I think your buddy’s right to a certain degree, and if you’re two or three feet deeper in, you have more time to react to a shot.”
Even though DiPietro’s playing days aren’t that far behind him (he retired in 2013), he definitely sees a change and evolution of his former position. The two things he is quick to point out is increased athleticism of the position. In addition, goalies now play less aggressively in the way they attack the shooter.
“The goalie position as much as skating and athletics has definitely taken more steps. It’s not necessarily the first shot that beats you. You see a lot of goals scored in the scrum. But for the most part you stay in the paint.”
“Martin Jones is the perfect example. Rather than being way out and having to adjust way across the ice, the angle for me being a step inside my crease instead of three steps outside my crease, isn’t much different and I can get an across the crease pass much quicker and efficiently.”
Namely, he sees the position getting more specialized.
“The specialization of the position is much different from when I played. When I grew up, it was always the kid that couldn’t skate that played goalies. Now you’ve got athletes that can skate really well. Like I love watching Tuukka Rask, watching that guy on his knees skate post to post, it’s smooth, it’s effortless. The position is definitely evolving, like when they say ‘the equipment is too big’, that means we’re doing our jobs.”
DiPietro also had an interesting take on the emergence of split duty goaltenders. We saw a few teams in the past season divide up their netminding responsibilities instead of going with a clear cut number one. Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek of the Hurricanes are a notable example of a duo that took their squad deeper than anyone expected into the playoffs:
“That’s the new thing with goaltending. It’s not like when Brodeur played when he played 77 games. You have a good back up so you split the work.”
DiPietro then went into a very interesting advantage that comes with split goaltending duties: cap space and flexibility. The specific example he laid out revolved around hypothetically spending $3 million each on two really good goalies instead of locking $8 million into one supposed number one goalie.
With teams like the New Jersey Devils who locked in Corey Schneider at $6 million a year, and Sergei Bobrovsky’s new $10 million a year contract in Florida destined to look not so good in a few seasons, DiPietro might have been onto something.
One of the biggest question marks heading into next season for the NHL as a whole is the St. Louis Blues, and their goalie Jordan Binnington. Fresh off a cup win and new a two-year bridge contract, will the second-year netminder live up to the performance and hype of last season? DiPietro admits it’s a tough act to follow, but brought up he was excited to see the Blues capture their first championship for their “interim” head coach:
“Craig Berube was my first roommate on the road. So I was pumped for him. That turnaround was amazing.”
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The Humpty, Canty and Rothenberg Show can be heard on ESPN 98.7 New York on weekdays from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. Once again a very special thank you to Belen Michelis from ESPN Communications for making this incredible interview possible. And also a very special thank you to the man, the myth, the legend himself Rick DiPietro for partaking in this interview.