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Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Another bad break for Islanders

By Mike Hume

Did Garth Snow break a mirror this summer? Seriously, I'm asking.

Yet another key player went down for the Islanders, with Kyle Okposo requiring shoulder surgery that will sideline him for 2-3 months. That's on top of the weekend news that Mark Streit's bum shoulder that will have him out for six months. In sum, that's two of the Isles' top three scorers from 2009-10 out of action for extended periods to start the season.

It's hardly an exact science, but if you take the estimated recovery times as hard return dates, Okposo should be back around Dec. 28 (missing 34 games), with Streit returning March 26 (with six games left on the schedule, if the Islanders even let him suit up at all). Apply their point-per-game averages from last season to that span and the Islanders will be looking to replace 67 points during that stretch, or about 11.5 percent of their total point production from all of last season. No biggie.

What's really crushing is that the Islanders had a shot to make the playoffs. Seriously. Were they a shoo-in? No, but they're a young, improving team and -- more importantly -- the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is very, very fuzzy. Is anyone really prepared to say, without a doubt, that the Canadiens, Rangers, Hurricanes or Lightning are playoff locks? I'm not.

Now Snow and head coach Scott Gordon will have the unenviable task of replacing two of their top players. Subbing for Streit will likely be impossible. In today's NHL, top-pair, puck-moving defensemen are as rare as photos of Don Cherry in a conservative suit. Okposo's absence will likely mean a much longer look at top prospect Nino Niederreiter, who is almost certain to play the entirety of the nine-game sample stretch allowed under NHL rules. After that time the Isle will have to decide whether to keep him around or send him back to his WHL team in Portland, Ore. and start the clock on his contract a year later.

Keeping the rook around may seem like a simple solution to replacing Okposo, and by most accounts, scouts and talent evaluators believe Niederreiter has the NHL-ready body to endure the league at age 18. But in the team's long-term plans it may be smarter to save the year of service and send him back to Portland.

Barring a miracle, it seems clear that the Islanders won't contend this season, but the foundation is in place for a bright future. While Niederreiter may be able to contribute from Day 1, how much does it matter if he's just contributing to another non-playoff campaign? Shelve him for a year, however, and the Islanders have a cheap supporting scorer to complement John Tavares, Josh Bailey and a healthy Okposo and Streit through 2014.

It's hard to wait a year, but with some $20 million coming off the books at the end of this season, the Islanders could reform into a very serious contender with some free agent help. (Check out the 2011 crop of UFAs via ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.) That's something Snow will think long and hard about before deciding El Niņo's immediate future.

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