Forward Thinking

Glance at Brian Rolston’s face and it’s nothing like the other forwards on the New York Islanders roster—the gray hair in his beard, the scar over his left cheek. He’s fought for possession along the boards for years. He’s had to earn his 11 trips to the playoffs, three times worn the letters “U-S-A” across his chest and at one time clutched the Stanley Cup above his head.

At 38 years old and with 17 seasons under his belt, Rolston knows what it takes for a team to earn its stripes. Skilled forwards, physical defensemen, solid goaltending, they’re all important, but there’s an element of toughness—which he’s exhibited—that is in every winning combination.

“If you want to make the playoffs, you can’t accept losing,” Rolston said. “This is a playoff-caliber team, there’s no question in my mind, but you have to believe you can get there and hold each other accountable on a game-by-game basis. That’s the most important thing. We want to compete for the Stanley Cup; that’s why we play this game.”

By Thanksgiving last season, the Islanders were finished. They weren’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but after dropping 14 games in a row, nobody was mistaking them for contenders. However, they showed some life in the 2010-11 season’s latter half under Head Coach Jack Capuano, compiling the second-most points in the East after December 16, trailing only Cup champion Boston. Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson topped the 30-goal plateau and wunderkind John Tavares led the team in scoring.

“I think the sky’s the limit offensively for this team,” Rolston said. “We are not going to have a problem scoring goals; it’s going to be a matter of guys buying in defensively.”

General Manager Garth Snow brought in Rolston and veterans like Marty Reasoner and Evgeni Nabokov to bring it all together. Rolston, who played in New Jersey the last three years, came via trade, having been dealt for longtime Islander Trent Hunter. Rolston has played in nearly 1,200 NHL games and scored more than 700 points.

Rolston doesn’t dismiss the Isles’ late-season run but he downplays its significance.

“When the pressure’s on, that’s when it needs to be done,” Rolston said. “Sometimes when you’re out of the hunt, it’s easier to play. That’s something that we have to prove, plain and simple, on a day-to-day basis.”

Along with appearances in the 1994, 2002 and 2006 United States Olympic teams, the Flint, Mich., native has almost a full season’s worth of playoff experience, logging 31 points in 70 postseason games. Rolston was the leading playoff goal scorer for the 1996-97 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils. He’s played key roles in the postseason for Boston and Minnesota as well.

Rolston is pleased to be in this position. And fully healthy at that. He acknowledges that the right pieces are in place for the Isles to end a four-year playoff drought and, potentially, a span of 17 years in which they’ve failed to win a postseason series.

“There’s a ton of great talent up front and on D,” Rolston said. “A bunch of young guys have gotten their feet wet in the league. I think they’re poised to make that next step… It’s time for these guys to take the bull by the horns and I think they’re ready to do that.”

brett mauser

Brett Mauser has been a monthly contributor for Long Island Pulse since June 2006. In addition to freelancing for a variety of regional and national publications, he is the executive director of Hamptons Collegiate Baseball.