Published September 29, 2011
| Sports Network
Earlier this summer the New York Islanders suffered a defeat at the polls, as voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to use public funding to finance a new arena to replace Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
Nobody really knows how the Isles' quest for a new home on Long Island, or possibly elsewhere, will pan out, but the players themselves are gearing up for a playoff run.
The problem is the Islanders have missed the last four postseasons and have finished last in the Atlantic Division every year during that drought. The division will again be tough in 2011-12 and it doesn't seem like the Isles have altered the roster enough to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Rangers.
Still, New York has its share of impressive youngsters, especially at forward with guys like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and the highly- touted Nino Niederreiter. Also, the Isles will get their No. 1 defenseman back, as Mark Streit is ready to return from a shoulder injury that wiped out his entire 2010-11 campaign.
The good news is that the youthful Isles are a year older and head coach Jack Capuano is back for a full year after impressing on an interim basis last year. However, getting to the playoffs is going to require more than just one of the young guys having a monster season and it's hard to assume that will happen.
FORWARDS - Tavares was the first overall pick of the 2009 draft and if he wasn't already the face of this franchise he certainly claimed that designation when he signed a six-year, $33 million extension with the club in September.
Tavares, who recently turned 21, has turned in a pair of productive seasons as an NHLer. Last year, the centerman improved upon his rookie totals in both goals (29) and assists (38) and New York expects another step forward in 2011-12.
Tavares could be paired with Okposo on the right wing and Matt Moulson on the opposite side. Okposo had 19 goals and 52 points in 80 games during the 2009-10 campaign, but he played in just 38 games during an injury-plagued season last year. Moulson, meanwhile, finished second on the club with 31 goals and tied for second with 53 points.
Frans Nielsen is expected to fill the second center spot after the 27-year-old Dane notched 13 goals and 31 assists over 71 games last year. Nielsen is a good playmaker and plays a solid two-way game, something that was evident when looking at his plus-13 rating, which tied linemate Grabner for the team lead.
Grabner was a pleasant surprise for the Isles last year, as the 23-year-old Austrian finally delivered on the promise that led Vancouver to select him with the 14th overall pick of the 2006 draft. After being claimed off waivers by the Isles, he led all rookies with 34 goals and was third among first-year players with 52 points.
Grabner's breakout year earned him a Calder Trophy nomination and a five-year, $15 million contract extension with New York. Of course, he will now be called upon to try and duplicate his terrific numbers from a year ago. If he falls short of his 2010-11 production, the Isles could be in serious trouble offensively.
P.A. Parenteau also turned heads in 2010-11 after it looked like he was destined to be a career minor-leaguer. The 28-year-old Parenteau had 20 goals and 33 assists in his first full NHL season, tying him with Moulson for second on the team in points.
Parenteau could skate on the second line or possibly slide down to the third unit if Niederreiter exceeds expectations.
Speaking of Niederreiter, the 19-year-old Austrian has a great chance at making the NHL team this year. The fifth overall pick of the 2010 draft had one goal and one assist in nine games with the Isles last year before getting sent back to his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.
Josh Bailey is penciled in as the third-line center as New York continues to be patient with the ninth overall pick of the 2008 draft. Although he's still just 21 years old, Bailey has played in 211 games as an NHLer and has recorded only 34 goals and 54 assists over that stretch. Nevertheless, he was given a two-year, $2.1 million contract this offseason and still has time to prove himself worthy of his high draft status.
New York also has left wing Blake Comeau, who is coming off a 24-goal, 46- point season with the Isles.
Veteran forward Brian Rolston, who was brought in after a trade with New Jersey this summer, is a new face that could help boost an offense that was middle of the pack in the NHL last year. Rolston is 38 and in the final year of a four-year deal, but he still has the ability to be a 20-goal scorer. Last year, Rolston notched 14 goals and 20 assists while playing in 65 games for the Devils.
The Isles also added veteran center Marty Reasoner through free agency this summer after he posted 14 goals and 18 assists in 82 games with Florida in 2010-11. Reasoner will at least contribute in the faceoff circle, after winning 54.5-percent of his draws last year. The veteran pivot could miss the start of the season with a knee injury.
If last year is any indication, New York will also have plenty of guys willing to mix it up in the physical aspects of the game. Zenon Konopka and his 307 penalty minutes have moved to Ottawa, but Trevor Gillies, who had 165 PIM in 39 games at the NHL level last year, is always a call-up away from taking over the enforcer role.
DEFENSE - The biggest blow to the Islanders already-slim playoff chances last year was the season-ending shoulder injury to Streit, who was not only New York's top defensemen in 2009-10, but also the club's best overall player and only All-Star.
Streit, a 33-year-old Swiss, suffered a torn labrum and rotator cuff on September 27 of last year, when Moulson checked him into the boards during a scrimmage. Just like that, the Isles lost the player who finished first on the team in 2009-10 with 38 assists and third in points with 49.
The Isles managed to finish 17th on the power-play without Streit, who is easily the club's most-talented offensive defenseman. He could get some help in that department if puck-moving blueliner Calvin de Haan -- the 12th overall pick of the 2009 draft -- makes the club this season.
Streit could eventually be paired with Andrew MacDonald, who stepped up with a career year in 2010-11, leading the Islanders' blue line in points with 27 (4 goals, 23 assists). MacDonald is questionable for the start of the season after undergoing hip surgery in the offseason.
Like Streit, Mark Eaton hopes he can be healthy enough to help the Isles this year. The veteran played in just 34 games for New York in 2010-11 before suffering a season-ending hip injury.
Travis Hamonic will be back after turning in a strong rookie campaign last year. Hamonic led New York's defensemen with five goals and 103 penalty minutes and was also second in points with 26.
GOALTENDING - The 2011-12 campaign will be the sixth season in Rick DiPietro's mammoth 15-year contract and the Isles are hoping it goes better than the previous three years have.
DiPietro played in 62 and 63 games, respectively, in the first two years of the $67.5 million deal, but has appeared in 39 contests combined over the last three campaigns. Twenty-six of those outings came in 2010-11, as the former No. 1 overall pick went 8-14-4 with a 3.44 goals-against average and .886 save percentage.
Thanks in part to DiPietro's battles with knee injuries and the trading of Dwayne Roloson in January to Tampa Bay, the Isles wound up using a club-record six goaltenders last season. Making matters worse, Isles general manager Garth Snow tried to fix the problem by claiming veteran NHL backstop Evgeni Nabokov off waivers in late January, but the Russian netminder refused to report to the team.
However, Nabokov is still under contract for one more year and the club is willing to let bygones be bygones. The 38-year-old former Shark has reported to training camp and appears willing to split netminding duties with DiPietro.
If Nabokov or DiPietro struggle or are injured, the Isles have a solid third option in Al Montoya, who was acquired in a trade with Phoenix last February. Montoya went 9-5-5 with a 2.39 GAA and .921 save percentage in 20 outings for the Isles.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - It's a good bet that the Isles will improve upon their 73-point season of a year ago, but expecting a club with this many question marks to make the playoffs would be folly. The important thing is that Capuano is able to build the confidence of New York's young corps to help the franchise slowly inch its way out of a deep hole. If the Islanders fail to end a four-year playoff drought, perhaps they can achieve a minor goal by finishing better than last in the Atlantic.