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By Scott Burnside
When you go from 17th to 26th to dead last in the league over the past three seasons, well, that's not an attractive trend. The good news for long-suffering New York Islanders fans is there's nowhere to go but up. Given how bad the Colorado Avalanche and, possibly, the Phoenix Coyotes look to be, there's hope they will escape the stain of being a 30th team. Not much hope, but some.
Actually, the Isles may not be as bad off as many people believe given the emergence of young players like Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and the arrival of this past spring's No. 1 draft pick, John Tavares. And the Islanders did corner the market on aging No. 1 goalies in the offseason, so there is that, too.
Let's start with Tavares. Barring a dramatic development, Tavares will be with the Islanders on opening night. The Isles can take a cue from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in 2008 who struggled early last season but blossomed in the second half. Isles coach Scott Gordon recently told ESPN.com he plans on easing Tavares into the lineup as he did last season with Bailey, who scored nine of his 25 points in the last month of the season.
"I know he's going to put pressure on himself to score," Gordon said of Tavares. "It's more important that he learns the pace of the game and the demands of the schedule without worrying about how many goals he has. We know there are going to be bumps in the road."
Still, Tavares is a talent, and with a lineup thin on, well, talent, he'll get loads of opportunity to learn on the fly.
2. Long Island M.A.S.H.
Hey, injuries are a way of life in the NHL. However, for the Islanders, injuries were more accurately a part of their team DNA last season. The Isles lost more than 500 man games to injury, including No. 1 goalie Rick DiPietro for all but five games. That's not an excuse for finishing last, but it does make assessing just where the Isles are headed more difficult. For instance, said Gordon, when the power play was clicking, was that because they had the right system or simply the right people healthy enough to play? "Even in training camp, guys were dropping like flies," Gordon said.
3. Crowded crease
With former No. 1 overall draft pick DiPietro signed into the next century (or so it seems), the Isles' acquisition of veteran netminders Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson was a curiosity to say the least. But there was method to GM Garth Snow's apparent goaltending madness. DiPietro, recovering from knee surgery, isn't expected back in the lineup until some time in November, perhaps later. Last season, inconsistent goaltending helped undo some of the small successes the Islanders might have enjoyed (they lost seven of eight to close out the season and were regularly shelled during that stretch), so having consistent goaltending was a top priority.
And given the compressed schedule because of the Vancouver Olympics, having two experienced netminders who don't mind seeing a lot of rubber is a luxury for Gordon. He's got that with Roloson (who will turn 40 early this season) and Biron (32). If DiPietro returns at some point, look for Snow to try and move Biron, who should have some marketability. If all three are healthy at the same time, look for some unhappy campers around the Isles' crease, but Gordon is willing to put up with that if it means he's getting solid goaltending.
So, what to make of Rick DiPietro? The flamboyant netminder played in just five games last season, and when healthy he's been only average for the Isles. And yet, he signed a 15-year deal coming out of the lockout, a contract that now looks to be among the most ill-advised in NHL history. As he tries to return from a series of knee operations, one wonders how much of a distraction his looming return might become.
5. Starved for offense
The Islanders ranked 29th in goals per game last season and that will only add to the pressure on Tavares to light it up early on. The Isles did not boast a 20-goal scorer and were led by defenseman Mark Streit's 56 points. Yikes. Look for Okposo to take another step forward in his development (barring that the minor concussion he suffered in a preseason game doesn't linger) and Josh Bailey will get a chance in his second NHL season. Gordon believes there is a lot of upside offensively and is looking for Bruno Gervais to build on a strong second half, while winger Sean Bergenheim looks to step forward after netting 15 goals in 59 games.
6. The challenges
The Isles were 28th in goals allowed per game, and while solid goaltending may help improve that number, team defense remains a top priority for Gordon as he enters his second season as coach. The Islanders were dead last in the NHL in collecting points when the opposing team scored first, going 6-32-7. Better goaltending and team defense may help that trend, but it was a reflection of the team's lack of maturity that it couldn't right the ship after falling behind. "One of the biggest things is to establish our work ethic," Gordon said.
7. The Lighthouse Project
It is clear the future of the Islanders on Long Island is tied to the much-ballyhooed Lighthouse Project that would see a massive retrofit of the Nassau Coliseum. The project remains mired in red tape and squabbling between local politicians, developers and owner Charles Wang. A decision on whether the Lighthouse Project will go ahead seems no closer, but one thing remains clear -- without it, Wang will either sell or move the team. If it does get settled, however, the Isles may actually be able to attract quality players from outside and stand a better of chance of retaining the young talent coming through the pipeline.
8. Special teams
Look for the Isles to build on special teams that weren't as bad as their record might have suggested. They were 22nd in the penalty kill and 23rd on the power play. With success measured in small steps, if the Islanders can improve two or three positions in each category, that will be a sign the team is on the right track.
9. A scheduling note
The Isles will get an early test of their resiliency as they play nine of 10 on the road in early November. For a team that won only nine road games last season, the fewest in the NHL, it will be make-or-break time early on in the proceedings.
10. Olympic exposure
Well, one good thing for the Isles is they should be well-rested after the Olympic break as only Mark Streit (Switzerland) is a lock to be playing in Vancouver. Okposo has an outside chance for the U.S. team, but that'll likely be it.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 26-47-9
• Division: Last in the Atlantic
• Conference: Last in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• This team won't be nearly as bad as people think, which means it will give the Isles' more talented division rivals a more difficult time. But it's a long climb back to respectability, and that means the Isles will once again occupy the Atlantic Division basement and miss the playoffs for the fourth time since the end of the lockout.
• Gordon, a former coach of the year in the American Hockey League, didn't exactly endear himself to veterans like Bill Guerin (sent to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline) or Doug Weight after he took over the team last August.
But this is Gordon's team, and his future depends on getting his young players to buy into his system. A second season should prove for a smoother working relationship. As he recently told ESPN.com, they know what he's talking about now. His experience with USA Hockey as an assistant at the world championships last spring and as an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team can only help make him a better coach. As for the playoffs, he won't rule anything out for a team that was ravaged by injury in 2008-09.
"Even though a lot of people don't look at us as a playoff team, we have a lot of X factors," he said.
F -- John Tavares
• In spite of the inevitable bumps in the road, a significant talent.
F -- Kyle Okposo
• Playing for a place on the U.S. Olympic team.
F -- John Bailey
• Nurtured through his rookie season, look for him to step up as a sophomore.
D -- Mark Streit
• A power-play machine.
D -- Bruno Gervais
• He is quietly becoming a solid NHL defenseman.
Best Bet: Mark Streit, D: Many expected a drop off in Streit's production with the move from the potent Montreal power play to the cellar-dwelling Islanders, but he led the team with 56 points and finished seventh among defensemen. He also managed a plus-6 on a team that finished with a collective minus-292. Streit is a legitimate top defenseman in the NHL, and with the influx of some youth in Long Island (including first-overall pick John Tavares) things could continue to improve. He is a lock to repeat his numbers as a No. 1 fantasy defenseman.
Risky Move: Kyle Okposo, F: When the training wheels came off late last season, Okposo really showed us a glimpse of how awesome he and John Tavares will be for the Islanders in a few years. Over the season's final 16 games, Okposo had 16 points. He'll surely take another step up the ladder and become a 60-point player in his sophomore season, but whether he can be an everyday fantasy starter really depends on just how well Tavares adjusts to the NHL. If he and Okposo are paired up and left to develop chemistry, they could become chic fantasy picks this season.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
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