2011-2012 season preview: New York Islanders
2010-2011 record: 30-39-13, 73 points; 5th in Atlantic, 14th in East
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Things are looking up for the Islanders. While their record was dismal last season, the signs of a turnaround were there. Now with their bevy of young players gaining experience and getting a little older and rounding into form, some believe the Isles rise to glory is coming soon. At a minimum now, they’ll figure to be a tough team to deal with in the East.
It’s safe to say that this is John Tavares’ team now. Tavares enters his third season in the league and he’s improved in each of the previous two. He led the Isles in points (67) last season and was a goal shy of getting 30. Getting consistent scoring from Matt Moulson helps pace the team and the rise of Michael Grabner as an offensive weapon gives the Isles a dangerous offensive team. A healthy Kyle Okposo will be interesting to watch as will all-around forward Frans Nielsen, who will get more minutes as the second-line center. If Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey can improve, the Islanders’ ability to score goals (15th in the NHL last year) should only improve, especially if Nino Niederreiter joins the team this season and Brian Rolston can rediscover his old ways.
The defense was decimated by injury last season, but they enter this season with everyone healthy. Captain Mark Streit leads the way, Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau are back from injury and they’ll they join up with the likes of Andrew MacDonald, Milan Jurcina, and Travis Hamonic along the blue line. It’s a bit of a motley crew with some youth in the mix as well (Ty Wishart, Calvin de Haan). How well they play and come together will hinge upon the success of their goaltending. File that under, “duh.” You can add tryout Steve Staios to the mix as well as the team signed him to a one-year deal.
The question here is always, “How long will Rick DiPietro last before injury strikes?” Last season DiPietro led the Islanders in games played. That’s normal for a guy who is the starter, but playing in just 26 games made life hard again on Isles goalies. This season, DiPietro has a host of insurance in Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov. One of those two guys will start the year on Long Island and give the Islanders some hope that they’ll have a competent guy in net no matter what happens. DiPietro is the best guy they have, but if/when his health comes into play is always the problem.
Jack Capuano took over for Scott Gordon last season and after a rocky stretch solidified his position with the Isles. New York under Capuano has been an aggressive team that doesn’t back down from opponents, turning the once-pushover Islanders into a team that will bite back when attacked. With the team removing his interim tag in the offseason, they’re standing firm behind him. How he handles his first full season with the Isles as they’re ready to start making the jump to being a good team will be his test this season.
After having a couple of surprise players last season (Grabner, P.A. Parenteau), it shows that things can be sneaky when it comes to proving one’s self. This time we’ll look at the blue line and focus on Hamonic, who was thrown to the wolves last season thanks to injuries and played well in 62 games getting five goals and 21 assists as well as 103 penalty minutes. A guy with offensive ability and a nasty streak? We’re sold. He’ll be able to show more of his skills full-time this season and get noticed for good and bad reasons by opponents.
Tavares continues to blossom, becoming an 80-point player while Moulson turns into a 40-goal scorer. Their top line with Okposo becomes one of the best scoring lines in the league while Grabner continues to make Vancouver and Florida look silly for giving up on him, recording another 30-plus goal season. DiPietro plays in 60 games and shows that, yes, he can stay healthy and prove why he was a No. 1 overall draft pick.
The Isles will be a fun team to watch and a dangerous one for teams in the Atlantic to deal with. Tavares is a superstar waiting to bust out and his linemates will reap the benefits. Staying healthy is going to be a very big deal for the Isles. If they can do that reasonably well, they’ll challenge for a playoff spot. If they get solid seasons from Comeau, Bailey, and Rolston while Parenteau and Grabner continue to stay strong, they can roll three very good lines. If the goaltending is also good, they’ll surprise a lot of teams.