After a seemingly endless cycle of failed rebuilding efforts, things are finally looking up for the New York Islanders.
Thanks in large part to the contributions of the ever-improving John Tavares, the club ended a four-year playoff drought last spring. Although the Islanders bowed out the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, extending the franchise's streak of losing playoff series to seven, there seems to be good things on the horizon.
New York's even winding down its time at the outdated Nassau Coliseum with just two seasons left before the club moves its home to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn beginning with the 2015-16 campaign.
Thanks to the NHL's realignment plan for the upcoming season, the Islanders will make the switch to the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14. The group includes all of New York's former Atlantic Division foes and adds Carolina, Columbus and Washington. The top three teams in each conference's two divisions earn a trip to the postseason, while the remaining two spots are wild cards.
It's hard to tell how the first year in realignment will shake out, but with Tavares leading the charge, the Isles have a solid chance at earning one of the Metro's three automatic playoff berths.
FORWARDS - After an 81-point season in 2011-12, Tavares continued to make strides in 2013 and the centerman wound up as one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy in the lockout-shortened campaign.
The 22-year-old Tavares recorded a career-best 31 goals in 2011-12, but he was even more dangerous last season when he tallied 28 times in just 48 contests. The first overall pick of the 2009 draft also has a knack for making those around him better and nobody knows that more than left winger Matt Moulson.
Moulson, a former ninth-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2003, struck gold when he signed a one-year contract with the Islanders in the summer of 2009. He scored 30 or more goals in his first three years playing to the left of Tavares and had 44 points (15G, 29A) in 47 games last season.
Moulson could be in for another big season in 2013-14, considering this is a contract year for the 29-year-old sniper.
The Isles opted not to re-sign right winger Brad Boyes after he notched 10 goals and 25 assists while primarily playing on the top line in 2013. New York hopes Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Isles this summer, can be even more productive while playing alongside Moulson and Tavares.
Bouchard is a highly-skilled player who had played his entire career with the offensively-challenged Minnesota Wild, but he could be in for a banner season if he plays on the top line in 2013-14. The 29-year-old had 20 points (8G, 12A) in 43 games for the Wild last season and once posted 20 goals and 57 points for Minnesota in 2006-07.
Kyle Okposo (4G, 20A in 48 games in 2013) and Cal Clutterbuck are also candidates for the right wing spot, but Bouchard's speed and skill gives him the inside track over those guys. However, Clutterbuck will miss at least the first month of the season after suffering a laceration to his leg in the pre- season.
Clutterbuck, who was acquired for forward prospect Nino Niederreiter in a summer trade with Minnesota, is as physical as they come, but he probably is a better fit on the second or third lines. A tireless worker, Clutterbuck had four goals, six assists and 27 penalty minutes in 42 games for the Wild last season.
There is also an outside chance rookie Ryan Strome could eventually occupy the spot to Tavares' right, but that day may not come this season. Although naturally a centerman, the fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft projects as Tavares' right winger of the future. The problem is at 6-foot, 179 pounds, he may not yet have the size to compete in the NHL on a nightly basis, meaning Strome could spend much of 2013-14 with New York's AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn.
With the Tavares line primed for another powerhouse season, the Isles' main concern on offense is depth and secondary scoring. The club's best goal- scoring threat not named Moulson or Tavares is Michael Grabner, who finished second on the team with 16 goals last season, although the Austrian left winger ended with a total of 21 points.
Josh Bailey, who can play center or wing, added 11 goals and eight assists last season, while Frans Nielsen, the club's projected second-line centerman, recorded 29 points on six goals and 23 helpers.
The fact that too much of New York's scoring comes from its top line is a problem, as it allows teams to focus on shutting down one unit. Then again, that leaves opportunities for guys not named Tavares or Moulson to step up and the Isles hope one of their younger players can make that leap in 2013-14.
DEFENSE - The Islanders biggest loss this summer came when it was forced to part ways with top defenseman Mark Streit.
Streit was set to enter free agency this past summer when the Isles cut their losses and traded his rights to Philadelphia for a prospect and a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft. The Flyers then signed Streit to a four-year, $21 million, ending the 35-year-old blueliner's successful five-year run on Long Island.
Streit led New York's blue line with 27 points last season, leaving Lubomir Visnovsky as the club's top remaining offensive defenseman. Visnovsky, who had three goals and 11 assists in 35 games for the Isles last season, had a monster season with Anaheim in 2010-11, when he recorded 68 points on 18 goals and 50 assists. However, the Czech native has managed to record only nine goals and 41 points in 103 regular-season games since that career season.
Visnovsky will log major minutes at the back end this season, as will the solid Travis Hamonic, who signed a seven-year, $27 million contract this summer after recording 10 points (3G, 7A) in 48 games in 2013. Having recently turned 23 years of age, Hamonic will be expected to take a big step forward in his fourth season as an NHLer.
Andrew MacDonald will also feature heavily in New York's defensive plans this season after leading the Islanders blue line in ice time last year. He finished the 2013 campaign with three goals and nine assists in 48 games.
Brian Strait is also expected to skate in one of the top-two pairings, while Thomas Hickey and Matt Carkner provide depth at the bottom of the rotation.
GOALTENDING - To the surprise of very few people, the Islanders used a compliance buyout this offseason to wipe out Rick DiPietro's salary-cap hit.
DiPietro was a former No. 1 overall pick and signed an infamous 15-year, $67.5 million contract with New York prior to the 2006-07 season. Of course, it was all downhill after that as injuries and poor play derailed DiPietro's career and the Isles were left with an albatross of a contract around their necks.
With the DiPietro fiasco in the past, the Isles head into 2013-14 with steady veteran Evgeni Nabokov installed as the club's No. 1 netminder. Nabokov, 38, had a terrific season with New York in 2013, going 23-11-7 with a 2.50 goals against average, .910 save percentage and three shutouts.
Nabokov did have a rough time in the playoffs, but it's hard to blame him entirely for that since the Isles were simply overmatched by the high-powered Penguins. When the smoke cleared, Nabokov had given up 24 goals over the six- game series, leaving him with a 4.44 GAA and .842 save percentage in the 2013 postseason.
Kevin Poulin has the inside track on the backup job after going 1-3-0 with a 3.02 GAA in limited duty last season. Anders Nilsson, a third-round pick (62nd overall) by New York in 2009 also has a chance to work his way into the rotation after spending the last two seasons playing in Bridgeport.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Islanders have depth issues on both ends of the ice, but Tavares' ability to carry the team on his back could get this flawed club back into the playoffs. Injuries could easily derail a team with such a shallow pool of talent, but that's hardly news to head coach Jack Capuano, who has been forced to get by with little depth before. Perhaps, the Isles can afford to spend more money in a few years when the move to Brooklyn materializes, but for now, the club will have to rely on Tavares to do the heavy lifting.