By Nick St. Denis, AllPuck.com
The struggling New York Islanders were certain to get schooled Saturday night by the defending champion Boston Bruins, and Rick DiPietro had an unlikely opportunity to make a statement. Somehow DiPietro was the only healthy Islanders goalie that night; usually it’s the other way around.
So the first overall pick of the 2000 entry draft set up shop in the crease. As expected, the Bruins completely dominated the neutral zone and, in turn, dominated puck possession.
Thanks to DiPietro, they also dominated the scoreboard.
Boston’s first goal was more the fault of the Islanders’ defense, which left DiPietro out to dry on a one-timer in the slot via a 2-on-1. Once the Islanders were down, it was vintage DiPietro all the way – at least until he was pulled.
A few minutes after the first goal, DiPietro played the puck behind the net on the penalty kill, tried to make a clear and perfectly fed Bruins forward Nathan Horton just under the blue line. From way out, Horton ripped a wrist shot past DiPietro, who was out of position trying to be a defenseman.
DP Habit No. 1: Reckless handling of the puck. Check.
DiPietro gave up another goal minutes later on a routine quick-slapper from the top of the left circle. DiPietro went down way too early in giving Bruins forward Chris Kelly the entire top half of the net, of which Kelly easily took advantage.
DP Habit No. 2: Telegraphing the shooter where to shoot. Check.
With the Islanders down 3-0 at the end of the first period and the game essentially over, DiPietro was pulled in the first intermission for American Hockey League call-up Anders Nilsson. Islanders coach Jack Capuano didn’t even see purpose in giving DiPietro a chance to turn it around.
DP Habit No. 3: Watching instead of playing. Check.
The DiPietro hat trick was complete.
DiPietro’s pace in acquiring major injuries over the past four years is borderline unprecedented: Two hip surgeries, a pair of knee surgeries, three separate trips to Injured Reserve after the second knee surgery, significant time missed due to head injuries, a broken jaw acquired in a fight. If that wasn’t enough, DiPietro entered the 2011-12 season “healthy,” only to get concussed again, this time from taking a slapshot to the mask by a teammate in practice. What are the odds?
It’s only fitting that five years ago, the Isles locked DiPietro in to a 15-year deal.
No reasonable soul living beyond the walls of Islanders owner Charles Wang’s multiple houses thought signing DiPietro to the longest contract in NHL history (at the time) was a good idea. But that’s over and done with. The Islanders and DiPietro are stuck with each other.
In DiPietro’s defense, who wouldn’t take $4.5 million a year guaranteed for a decade and half? Many Islanders fans loathe DiPietro for the contract, but it’s not his fault. In fact, while DiPietro makes a few boneheaded decisions a game, his heart seems to be in the right place. He appears to give 100 percent effort all the time and is extremely competitive. It’s his competitiveness, which leads to his aggressiveness, that has been DiPietro’s downfall.
Because the length of his guaranteed contract, DiPietro is virtually unmovable. And the Islanders aren’t going to pay a guy that much to be a permanent fixture in the minor leagues. So what now?
Well, you have to play the guy. And if DiPietro is to get 10 more years of ice time (minus his annual stints on Injured Reserve), it’s not a reach that he has at least one, maybe two really good seasons on the way. Right?
It may be hard to remember, but there was the 2006-07 season.
By the winter of 2007, DiPietro had shot his way up to top-5 status and was producing at a very high rate. Not only was he scaling back his carelessness in handling the puck, he had the numbers to back it up. DiPietro finished the 2006-07 season with 32 wins and 19 losses, a .919 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.58.
If Islanders fans still had their doubts by March, DiPietro had an answer. He made a then franchise record-setting 56 saves against the New York Rangers on March 5 in a game the Islanders ended up losing in a shootout. Despite the loss, the Islanders had no business making it past regulation had DiPietro not stood on his head.
Ironically, it was his head that turned his career in the wrong direction. DiPietro got a concussion a week later when flying way out of his net to challenge a breakaway against the Montreal Canadiens. That was the start of his injury streak – one that has seen the goalie average 13 appearances over the last three seasons.
With DiPietro’s knack for missing games, his failure to put together a decent body of work since ‘07 and the Islanders’ recent tendency to use way too many different goalies, one has to wonder if DiPietro will ever be a No. 1 goaltender again. A team that has already invested $4.5 million a year over the next decade in a player can’t possibly just go through the motions with him until his contract runs out. Can it?
Who knows. The Islanders have been going through the motions for 20 years.