Isles' Off-Season Inertia Spells Trouble for '02-'03

After one year of modest success following several abysmal seasons, the New York Islanders have raised ticket prices by a whopping $35 per seat. How, then, can they justify their utter inactivity in the free agent market this off-season?As a long-time season ticket holder, I don’t mind paying this astronomical increase — provided new ownership keeps its promise of plowing the money back into the team. Regrettably, and as with all too many miserly ownership groups on Long Island, that appears not to be the case.

Wang and Kumar rationalize the inertia by citing a $20 million operating loss last season. That doesn’t cut it. Think of how many more empty seats there would have been — and how much more they would have lost — had they not sprung for Peca, Yashin and Osgood. And in any event, Wang and Kumar publicly said they expected severe losses when they bought the team.

Tightening the purse strings after one encouraging season is terribly shortsighted. Kang and Kumar head one of the wealthiest corporations on earth. Their cries of poverty ring hollow. If they want to charge Ranger prices, they should implement a Ranger budget and payroll. That’s what they promised to do, and Computer Associates is no less successful than Cablevision.

The free-agent inactivity sends the current players the wrong message — that ownership cares more about filling seats than winning. A little success last year brought packed houses and three home playoff games. Standing pat suggests the owners are content with that fair showing. But the players will sense their satisfaction and performance will suffer — just as it did when the Mets failed to better themselves after making the 2000 World Series. This is especially true because the other teams in the East — particularly the Rangers and Washington — have improved so dramatically.

The irony is that the inertia is ultimately self-defeating. The Isles are two good players — a physical defenseman and a scoring forward — away from being real Cup contenders. Kasparitis and Amonte fit the bill perfectly. The Isles were an overwhelming popular success with a decent squad last year; think of the revival they’d experience with a deep playoff run. Wang and Kumar would get their new arena, their luxury boxes, their NBA franchise, their rights to develop the area around Nassau Coliseum and anything else they want. But by sitting idle while their competitors advance — with the inevitable result on the ice — the Isles will lose all the fans and credibility they gained last year. Contrary to Wang’s and Kumar’s promises, the bad old days are back on Long Island — just as the good ones were getting started.