Season Preview: New York Islanders
After making a long overdue return to the play-offs in 2013, the Islanders came back to Earth with a bump last season – finishing bottom of the Metropolitan Division with one of the worst defensive records in the league.
With the move to Brooklyn now imminent, and a change of ownership coming, the pressure on General Manager Garth Snow and Head Coach Jack Capuano has been ramped up this season – but after a summer of (largely) positive moves, and with a bevy of top prospects in the system, there’s plenty to be optimistic about on Long Island.
Captain John Tavares has developed in to one of the games elite players. The Mississauga native had 24 goals and 66 points in 59 games last season before a knee injury, sustained at the Olympics, ended his season.
Still just 24, Tavares is the cornerstone of a franchise with tremendous potential – if they can give the former Oshawa Generals phenom the right support.
Winger Kyle Okposo shook off years of frustration to emerge as a bone fide star for the club last season. After breaking out versus Pittsburgh in the 2013 post season, Okposo led the team with 27 goals and 69 points last year; forming a devastating partnership with Tavares and Thomas Vanek during the Austrian’s brief stint with the club.
With two of the leagues brightest stars locked in, one of the major questions heading in to the new season is who will slot in beside Tavares and Okposo on the clubs top line.
Long time incumbent Matt Moulson was traded to Buffalo as part of the deal for Vanek, with the Austrian controversially traded at the deadline after failing to agree contract terms with the Islanders.
22-year old Brock Nelson could be a strong candidate to fill the role, after an impressive effort last season. At 6’3″ and 196lbs, he combines great size with a strong skill set and is tipped to be one of the clubs stars of the future.
Josh Bailey is another possibility, but the winger is under pressure after registering just 8 goals last season. At 24 Bailey has time on his side, but has been mentioned in numerous trade rumours this summer – as has speedster Michael Grabner, whose numbers have fallen off considerable since he scored 36 goals in 2010/11. A brutal cold streak put the Austrian in the spot light last season, and his place on the team remains unclear heading in to the new campaign.
While the debate about who should partner Tavares and Okposo rages on, Garth Snow gave the clubs depth chart a considerable boost by signing UFAs Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.
A high profile row with Toronto coach Randy Carlyle saw Grabovski move to Washington last season; but reunited with former line mate Kulemin, the centre provides an additional scoring threat as well as allowing Frans Nielsen to concentrate on a more ‘Frans friendly’ role on the Isles third line and penalty kill. The talented Dane seemed to struggle with the amount of minutes he was given last season, looking jaded at times as the club struggled to deal with the loss of Tavares.
Cory Conacher also joins on a bargain 1-year, $600k deal – as he looks to resurrect what was once considered a promising career – but one of the clubs greatest challenges might be figuring out how to best handle Anders Lee and Ryan Strome this season.
Strome impressed after, finally, getting called up from Bridgeport and is likely to get an opportunity on the wing this year. What this means for Lee remains unclear though, as the former Notre Dame forward looks to be the odd man out at present.
Lee’s talents would likely be wasted on the third (or even fourth) line, depending on how Capuano wants the team to line up – meaning a season in Bridgeport might be more beneficial to his development.
Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, two of the NHL’s leading hitters over the past few seasons, provide grit among the bottom six while Casey Cizikas has become an effective depth centre.
Harry Zolnierczyk and Jack Skille also joined this summer, providing options should the club run in to injury trouble – but prospects Sebastian Collberg, Joshua Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle will remain firmly on fans minds over the next 12 months as the franchise continues to build it’s way back to the top.
At The Back
The Isles defence still had a few ‘car crash’ moments last season, but it’s not all doom and gloom.
Veteran Lubomir Visnovsky remains one of the strongest puck moving D men in the league when healthy, whilst Travis Hamonic has developed in to a strong member of the clubs top 4. But it’s Griffin Reinhart, college star Kevin Czuczman and Calvin DeHaan who provide the most intrigue.
Hopes for former Edmonton Oil King’s skipper Reinhart are particularly high, with many seeing him as a potential #1 D man – something the club sorely needs.
It’s a lot of pressure to place on the 20-year old, but thus far the Islanders have resisted the urge to rush him in to the line up simply to try and force him in to a role he isn’t ready for.
DeHaan impressed last term, after being called up from Bridgeport, adding an level of calmness seldom seen on the Isles blue line over the past few season whilst Czuczman (pronounced ‘Churchman’) seemed to adapt well to the NHL.
They head up a good group of defensive prospects, which also contains offensive D man Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech – both of whom may get a look this season.
Matt Donovan was moved around a lot last season, as the club dealt with a number of injuries, but along with Thomas Hickey helps provide some good depth at the back.
TJ Brennan joins as a free agent, providing a somewhat intriguing storyline after his 72 point effort in the AHL last season. Can he turn that in to something more substantial at NHL level? Or will his defensive frailties hold him back?
The Islanders could stand to add an experienced D man, something most likely to happen in season when management has a better idea of where it’s current D corps is at. Who they get, and at what cost, remains a topic of discussion among fans.
Between The Pipes
Goaltending wasn’t so much the Isles achilles heel last season, as it was an entire missing limb.
Age and injuries caught up with Evgeni Nabokov, with neither Kevin Poulin nor Anders Nilsson able to step in as the club struggled to keep the puck out of its own net.
Priority number 1 heading in to the off season, Snow acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak from Washington and signed the Slovak stopper to a 4 year, $18m contract.
28-year old Chad Johnson was also signed, following a strong year with the Bruins. The former University of Alaska-Fairbanks netminder walks in to the backup role, with Poulin heading back to Bridgeport after agreeing a 1-year extension.
For the first time in years, Islanders fans can feel confident about their goaltending.
Behind The Bench
The truncated 2012/13 season aside, Capuano has been on the hot seat for most of his time as Isles coach.
After a disappointing campaign last year, the 48-year old still seems to have the support of the clubs top brass, but needs to help the team make significant strides back towards the post season if he is to remains at the helm when the franchise moves to Brooklyn next season.
Biggest Addition – Jaroslav Halak
Halak represents the first bona fide #1 the Islanders have had since Rick DiPietro’s career fell apart due to injury.
The club has struggled to get any kind of consistency between the pipes for years now, so signing someone who can provide at least league average goaltending is a massive step forward.
Biggest Loss – Thomas Vanek
Snow took a huge gamble on Vanek when he traded fan favourite Moulson and a 1st round pick to Buffalo for their star winger.
Long linked with Minnesota (where he did sign this summer), Snow hoped a generous contract offer and the opportunity to play with Tavares would persuade the veteran scorer to stay on Long Island.
Despite the phenomenal tear the Isles top line went on prior to the Olympics, it wasn’t enough to persuade Vanek to stay.
Key Man – John Tavares
Tavares role on the team is so great, he’s essentially a perennial Hart candidate.
The Isles Captain, talisman and most talented player – any progress, in both the short and long term, hinges on Tavares.
This Seasons Chances…
If you were being optimistic, you might feel the Islanders have a shot at competing for a wild card spot at the very least – perhaps more. But any success this season will be determined by a number of ‘If’s.
If Halak is good. If the top 6 is good. If the defence is better. If the youngsters step up. And so on.
A more sensible outlook is to consider this a stepping stone – a season built to blood players like DeHaan, Reinhart and Strome in to the line up, to ensure their progress is paramount.
The Islanders have a young core with plenty of time to find its feet before seeking to bring Stanley Cup glory back to the franchise again.
A return to the play-offs would be nice, but a competitive effort combined with visible progress for the clubs many blue chip prospects should be considered a success come seasons end.
The franchise is on the right track – it just needs time to mature.
Posted on September 27, 2014, in Hockey, New York Islanders, NHL, Season Previews 2014 and tagged Jaroslav Halak, John Tavares, New York Islanders, NHL, Season Preview. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.