Islanders: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott BurnsideIt's often hard to get your head around the New York Islanders and where they're at because so much junk surrounding the team tends to obfuscate the real picture.
And there is still a lot of junk going on with this team.
A referendum to have voters help pay for a new arena was handily defeated, leaving owner Charles Wang "heartbroken" and the team's future uncertain. Yet beneath that blanket of uncertainty beats the heart of a team ready to make a move. From the goal on out, this young Islanders squad has a lot of terrific moving parts, especially offensively.
"I think it really is a big year for us as a team to really show the improvement and the progress we're making as a young group and where we're headed," former No. 1 overall draft pick John Tavares said in a recent interview.
Are they good enough to sneak into the playoffs in what may be the hardest division in hockey? It will be a tough road, but not an impossible one.
1. The future
The Islanders' lease with Nassau County Coliseum expires in 2015, and the assumption is they will be on the move if Wang can't get a plan to either retrofit or build a new arena on Long Island approved by various levels of government. There has been talk about a move to Queens or Brooklyn, and there is the possibility Quebec City will get funding to build an NHL-style arena with an eye on plucking up an errant NHL franchise as Winnipeg did with the Atlanta Thrashers this past summer.
There's also Kansas City, where the Sprint Center is looking for an anchor tenant, although an Isles preseason game there last year didn't create much excitement. Regardless, the future of this once-proud team remains very much in doubt. One wonders if a renaissance on the ice will have any effect.
One thing we noticed straight off in our interview with Tavares was his self-assuredness. About to enter his third NHL season and just days away from signing a new six-year contract extension that will kick in after this season, Tavares was confident without being cocky, more sure of himself and his role with the Isles. He didn't back off discussions about his future with the team, even though the team's future itself remains uncertain.
People forget he had 29 goals last season and is working on all elements of his game. On a team with deceptive talent, Tavares is poised to step completely from the shadows.
"For us, you can't always think about the big picture, and [you] just worry about what we have to do from day to day and week to week and what we have to do to win each game," Tavares said. "I think that's what the best teams are able to do. When they do play poorly, they're able to put those behind them and move on and refocus."
3. The anchor
The Islanders were dealt a double-blow from the moment camp started a year ago when top-six forward Kyle Okposo went down with a shoulder injury and defensive anchor Mark Streit, signed as a free agent after establishing himself as a top offensive blueliner in Montreal, was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
In Streit's absence, a number of young defensemen got opportunities they might not otherwise have received, but the fact Streit is back and healthy is grand news for the Islanders. So grand, Streit was named captain during training camp, making him the first Swiss-born captain in NHL history.
4. The start
The Islanders hit a patch in late October and into November last season where they went 14 straight games without a win and won just once in 21 games (not all that surprising given the injury situation, perhaps). It was a stretch that cost coach Scott Gordon his job (he is now an assistant to Ron Wilson in Toronto) and scuttled any chance of a playoff run. Given that, and given what we assume to be heated competition within the Atlantic Division, it is crucial for the young Isles to get off to a good start.
"We have a lot of young skill players and a lot of guys might think we're inexperienced, but I think we've just got to learn from what happened last year in November," Michael Grabner recently told ESPN.com. "Most all the guys are back, so we know what happened. We know what we have to do to win.
"I think the last two, three months, we played some good hockey. We kept up with the best teams in the league. I think we've just got to learn from that and take the next step forward and everyone's got to expect to be better for themselves."
5. The goalies
Outside of Philadelphia, is there a wackier place for goalies than Long Island?
Rick DiPietro still has 432 years left on his deal (OK, it's really 10 years left, it just feels like 432); does anyone really know what the former No. 1 overall draft pick can deliver even if he stays healthy, which, of course, he never does? Last season, DiPietro had his face caved in by Brent Johnson in a rare but ugly goalie dust-up. Who does that happen to?
If DiPietro is healthy, he'll get his looks. The problem for the Isles is, he may well be the third-best goalie on the roster now. Al Montoya showed his mettle down the stretch last season and earned a one-year, one-way contract, while the erstwhile Evgeni Nabokov is ready to resume his NHL career after wasting last season in the Kontinental Hockey League and refusing to report to the Isles after they claimed him on waivers.
One has to imagine Nabokov will be looking to rebuild his reputation as a top netminder even if it's only so the Isles can get something of value if they trade him.
The Isles will need solid goaltending, that goes without saying. Which of the three netminders provides it will be a top storyline for the Isles all season and will go a long way in determining whether or not they're for real.
6. Matt Moulson, the real deal
One of the feel-good stories for the Islanders the past couple of seasons has been the emergence of undrafted, unheralded Matt Moulson. We recall interviewing him in St. Louis one night two seasons ago and he was talking about his idol, Andrew Brunette, who made a solid career out of making the best of opportunities around the net. Moulson scored 30 goals in 2009-10 and signed a one-year deal before the Isles re-upped Moulson for three more years last season to give the big winger some security. He responded with a second straight 30-goal season (he had 31, to be exact).
Moulson was one of five players who had 20 goals for the Isles last season, a stat that might astonish some fans. Throw in Josh Bailey, who just signed a new deal and has 20-goal potential, and the injured Okposo, and the Isles could be on the verge of becoming more than a little explosive. Go figure.
Another player with strong offensive upside is Nino Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick in 2010 who played nine games last season, but came into camp this season looking to stay with the big club for the long haul.
8. Goals against?
Again, the injury picture clouded things, but the Islanders did end up ranking 27th in goals allowed per game, giving up 3.15. Whether it's the goaltending or the scheme or the health of blueliners, the Islanders will have to be better by about a half a goal per game to make the playoffs, and that's a pretty big defensive bite to take. Goaltending factors into it, but look for the blue line to be significantly upgraded with the return of Streit and Andy MacDonald, who was solid playing alongside Travis Hamonic. MacDonald needed surgery for a hip problem that cut short his season, but the Isles were hoping to have him back for their season opener Oct. 8.
We spent some time in Pittsburgh talking to Matt Cooke during training camp. He's trying to turn over a new leaf. We would be remiss if we didn't suggest that a couple of Islanders might want to consider a new line of thinking, too. Trevor Gillies embarrassed himself and the Islanders last season by taunting a fallen Eric Tangradi, whom Gillies had just concussed with a cheap shot to the head during that now-infamous debacle against Pittsburgh in February. Then, after serving a nine-game suspension, Gillies leveled Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck seconds after returning to action and earned a 10-game trip to the cooler.
We suggested then the Isles could have done the game a favor and made a statement by dismissing the big galoot. They didn't, but here's hoping Gillies gets on the Cooke plan, assuming the Cooke plan works. It might not be a bad thing for Matt Martin to figure things out, too, after he went maniac in that infamous game against the Penguins.
10. And one last thing ...
Speaking of Grabner, even now he wonders about the path that brought him to Long Island. Drafted by Vancouver with the 14th overall pick in 2006 and then dumped during training camp last year by the Panthers, Grabner was swooped up by the Islanders and all he did was score 34 times.
"It was a crazy year all around and the start I think was pretty crazy. Felt good going to training camp in Florida, but it didn't work out," Grabner told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "So I was a little disappointed, but when the Islanders picked me up, I was definitely happy to get another chance at it right away to play in the NHL. I just went there and tried not to look back. I knew you're not going to get too many more chances, so I just tried to look forward and do my best."
One of the most impressive aspects of Grabner's rookie campaign was how he got better as the season went along. He netted 19 goals after the All-Star break, a time when some rookies are finding it hard to keep up the production. And it wasn't all one-way play. Grabner and Frans Nielsen combined for 15 short-handed points last season, the best tandem in the NHL.
After having a child and signing a new five-year, $15 million deal this past season, Grabner should stay grounded and avoid suffering the backsliding that many promising rookies suffer in their sophomore campaigns.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering second NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Is there an NHL head coach with a lower profile than Jack Capuano? He might well have the best hair of any bench boss in the league, but outside of Islander Nation, not much is known about the man who guided the club to a 25-21-8 record over its last 54 games last season.
You have to give Capuano credit, as he took over an ugly situation in what looked to be a hire of expediency (and cost effectiveness) for a franchise not known for its forethought or willingness to spend money. But Capuano got the young Isles to play his system, and with a healthier, more mature squad, the bar should be set even higher for Capuano and the Isles.
If he somehow sneaks the Isles into the postseason, there's a Jack Adams Award in the offing for a man who began his coaching career with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks back in the mid-1990s. --Scott Burnside
Best bet: Mark Streit
He's baaaaaaaack. A perennial fantasy star otherwise, Mark Streit was forced to spend 2010-11 on the shelf with a serious shoulder injury. But the 33-year-old is all better now. If Streit doesn't manage to amass 60 points this season, he'll certainly come close. An ever-maturing young corps of talented Islanders forwards will also help to boost Streit's production. -- Victoria Matiash
Risky pick: John Tavares
He'll turn 21 just before the season begins and already has two quality NHL seasons under his belt, but Tavares isn't going to get much better until the players around him get better. There is more help on the way, but this season looks to be another 65-point effort with a poor plus-minus showing. Still, when a player is one or two puzzle pieces away from being an elite offensive weapon, it is hard not to draft Tavares and hope for a little upside. -- Sean Allen
Sleeper pick: Nino Niederreiter
While the New York Islanders were right that Niederreiter wasn't ready for the NHL last season, he was too much for the WHL after they returned him to juniors. He scored 70 points in 55 games back in the WHL and added another 27 points in 21 playoff games. Clearly, he is set to make the Isles' roster this season. Niederreiter has a goal-scorer's mentality and would be an upgrade alongside Tavares, but he will have to prove himself worthy during training camp this preseason. Keep him handy in case he earns a spot on the top line because 25 goals would be within reach. -- S.A.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Islanders:
• May 13: Re-signed RW Michael Grabner.
• May 25: Re-signed RW Kyle Okposo.
• May 27: Named Doug Weight assistant coach and special assistant to GM.
• June 19: Re-signed LW Trevor Gillies.
• July 1: Signed C Marty Reasoner.
• July 15: Re-signed D Ty Wishart.
• July 28: Acquired LW Brian Rolston and a conditional pick in the 2012 draft from New Jersey for RW Trent Hunter.
• Aug. 2: Re-signed RW Blake Comeau.
• Sept. 15: Re-signed C John Tavares.
• C Doug Weight (retired)
• D Bruno Gervais (traded to Tampa Bay)
• D Radek Martinek (unrestricted free agent, signed by Columbus)
• C Zenon Konopka (unrestricted free agent, signed by Ottawa)
• RW Trent Hunter (traded to New Jersey)
• D Jack Hillen (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)