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Friday, September 16, 2011
Training camp preview: Islanders

By Katie Strang

The Islanders missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season and endured a tumultuous year that included a 13-game winless streak, a head coaching change and several debilitating injuries. They're hoping they can stay healthy and turn things around.

Main storylines

1. Goaltending: A franchise record-setting six different goaltenders made starts for the Islanders last season and the nets are already crowded this year. Injury-prone Rick DiPietro will have every chance to succeed -- after all, he's signed through 2021 -- but he'll be pushed by last year's surprise starter, Al Montoya, and promising up-and-comer Kevin Poulin. And now the Islanders can add Evgeni Nabokov to the mix. The 36-year-old veteran, who was claimed by the Islanders last January and refused to report, has by far the most experience of the four goalies expected to compete for the job. But the former Vezina Trophy finalist, who spent part of last season in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, hasn't played in the NHL since the May 2010. Strong, consistent goaltending will be vital to the team's success and they already have an interesting battle brewing.

2. Can they stay healthy? For the third time in four years, the Islanders led the league in man-games lost, including two devastating injuries that occurred before the puck even dropped on a preseason game. Two of the team's most valuable players -- defenseman Mark Streit and forward Kyle Okposo -- suffered significant shoulder injuries during intrasquad scrimmages. And those were just a harbinger of things to come -- the team also lost defensemen Mike Mottau, Mark Eaton, Andrew MacDonald and goaltenders DiPietro and Poulin for significant chunks of time. No team has the depth to withstand the injuries the Islanders sustained last season; they hope they aren't faced with a similar situation again.

3. El Nino: Former first-round pick Nino Niederreiter stuck around for nine games with the Islanders last season before they sent him back to his junior team, but the Swiss winger will have a much better shot at cracking the lineup this year. After dominating at the junior level (41 goals, 70 points) and honing his game, the chippy forward has a good chance to make the team. The Islanders envision him as their first-line right wing of the future, but will evaluate whether he is prepared to handle the rigors of the NHL game now.

New additions

C Marty Reasoner: The 34-year-old will replace fan favorite Zenon Konopka as the team's gritty fourth-line center, but he'll be expected to contribute offensively as well. Reasoner finished last season with 14 goals and 18 assist for the Florida Panthers.

LW Brian Rolston: Acquired from the Devils in a trade that shipped Trent Hunter to New Jersey, Rolston, 38, provides the Islanders with a strong veteran presence inside the room as well as a powerful shot from the point.

G Evgeni Nabokov: Although the Islanders owned his rights after claiming him off waivers in January, Nabokov refused to report and was subsequently suspended. With a lengthy layoff from hockey to rethink his situation, the long-time Shark appears to have a different attitude about playing for the Islanders. If he wants to get back into the NHL, his journey will have to take him through Long Island whether he likes it or not.

Wild card

At 18, the Islanders' 2011 first-round draftee, Ryan Strome, doesn't appear physically ready to play in the NHL, but the Islanders will keep an eye on the skilled center to see what they have in this year's fifth overall pick.

Bottom line

The time is now for the Islanders to shed the rebuilding phase and take the next step. They have enough young talent to become a playoff team, but will need to count on good health and consistent goaltending to make that happen.