The Islanders shocked a lot of people last season by making their first playoff appearance in six years and continued to do so by giving the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins a run for their money in the first round. They ended up being eliminated in six games but many who watched that series were impressed with how the Islanders played and considered the better team for a few games. It may have come as a surprise to some since the Islanders are considered one of the perennial losers of the NHL, but they have quietly been building a solid foundation there for years and we are starting to see it pay off.
Most would relate the Islanders success to them stocking up on high draft picks for years, the most notable one being 2009's first overall selection, John Tavares. While Tavares & other high draft picks played a major role in the Islanders return to relevancy, GM Garth Snow has done a very good job of acquiring talent in other rounds (Nielsen, Hamonic, MacDonald) and sprinkling them in with good low-risk acquisitions through trades (Visnovsky), free agency (Moulson, Boyes) and waivers (Grabner, Hickey). You generally need a solid mix of these to build a competitive team and the Isles have done a nice job of this over the last couple of years. Now the question is can they return to the playoffs and continue building off what they did last year.
The Isles have a good young nucleus, so the belief is that they should get better this year with players like Tavares, Bailey & Okposo entering their primes. They also have a lot of young talent in juniors and the minors who should be ready to make an impact relatively soon and when you take that into account, it's fair to speculate that the Islanders could be a contending team for years to come. However, the new playoff format could make it tough for them to be contenders every year unless they can add more elite talent to their rankings. This is a good team, but how well do they stack up against the rest of the Metropolitan Division?
New York Islanders at a Glance
The Islanders are a fast team that thrives on transitional play and as a result, they are capable of creating a lot of offense while giving up a lot of chances in their own end. Not too different of a style from what the Hurricane splayed last year. The difference is that the Islanders were slightly better at winning the territorial battle and had one of the best power plays in the league, both in terms of converting & creating chances. They may have trouble carrying this over into next year with the loss of Mark Streit, but they still have plenty of talent to fill out their first power play unit.
Offense isn't going to be a concern for the Islanders this year, but they do have their share of questions at the other end of the rink. They play somewhat of a high-risk style that results in them giving up some high quality opportunities and their goaltending isn't good enough to bail them out. We saw this in the playoffs last year, as the Penguins frequently took advantage of the Islanders defense and made goaltender Evgeni Nabokov look like an AHL back-up. With Nabokov returning next year and no other goalie brought in, goaltending remains the Islanders biggest weakness and something that could keep them from making the playoffs next year.
RW Pierre-Marc Bouchard
LW Jesse Joensuu
RW Cal Clutterbuck
C/RW Keith Aucoin
C Peter Regin
RW Matt Watkins
LW Nino Niederreiter
C Marty Reasoner
RW Brad Boyes
G Rick DiPietro
D Radek Martinek
D Mark Streit
C David Ullstrom
The Islanders lost quite a bit of talent this summer but a lot of it is replaceable in the big picture. Aucoin and Reasoner are good role players, but the Islanders have guys in their system who can take over for them. Brad Boyes had a great season on Tavares' wing and they are hoping that Pierre-Marc Bouchard can do the same thing on a one-year deal. Neither Joensuu or Ullstrom played that much last season and Visnovsky should be able to take over Streit's role at even strength and possibly on the power play.
Overall, the Islanders did what they had to do through trades and free agency to fill some needs on their roster and they seem content with promoting from within to fill other holes. This is probably the smart thing to do with all of the talent that the Islanders have in their system, but I was surprised that they didn't sign another defenseman or a goaltender to help shore up both positions. Although, Garth Snow scouring the waiver wire for talent isn't out of the question either.
Most of the Islanders main forwards are still on the team, which is good news considering how much they lean on their top-six. All they have to do is find someone to take over Boyes' spot on the first line and fill out some depth pieces. It sounds like Bouchard is going to be the one sliding into Boyes spot to start the year and he could be a 50-60 point guy if he works well with Tavares. Staying healthy will be the issue for him, though as he has battled concussion issues for most of his career.
If Bouchard doesn't work out, then Kyle Okposo or Josh Bailey could slide up to the first line. Bailey played there during the playoffs and was one of the Islanders best forwards while Okposo has experience playing with Tavares and is a very good play-driver. The one knock on Okposo is that he isn't a great goal-scorer but with how often Tavares & Moulson shoot the puck, this may not be too much of an issue.
All that's left after that is filling out depth spots, which shouldn't be too hard because the Islanders have enough forwards to build a decent bottom-six. Cal Clutterbuck will likely play on the third line with Grabner while Peter Regin can center one of the bottom-two lines. These players aren't given big roles, but Jack Capuano tends to bury some of his grinders in the defensive zone to give Tavares' line somewhat of a territorial edge so Regin or Cizikas better get ready to do some heavy lifting.
A team losing their captain is never easy, but Streit's on-ice role declined over the last couple of years and Visnovsky did essentially the same thing as him and was slightly better. Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey should be a very good duo that can dominate second pairings minutes if they are given those assignments. Playing the toughs will be Andrew MacDonald & Travis Hamonic, both of whom are coming off a rough season but are still one of the more underrated defense pairings in the league.
Hamonic only 23 years old and can move the puck very well for a shutdown defenseman, so I would expect him to get better with age. MacDonald is also very solid and plays more of a physical stay-at-home game. These two were not great last season, but I still think they make a good duo and should rebound with a little more help from their teammates. As you can tell from the chart, they basically did all of the grunt work last season and I think Visnovsky, Hickey & possibly Strait should contribute more in that area.
The Islanders didn't bring in any defensemen, but they have enough guys to round out their third pairing from the looks of things. They generally play soft minutes and all they have to do is not get destroyed territorially while playing them. Hickey & Strait are capable of doing this and Matt Carkner has put up decent numbers against soft minutes over his career. Matt Donovan will also get a look on the second pairing as someone who can provide some offense from the blue-line.
The lines are subject to change, but there's a good chance that Bouchard starts the year riding shotgun on Tavares' line. He hasn't played first line minutes in awhile, but Tavares is capable of making his linemates look better and Bouchard is talented enough to keep up with him. Bouchard was also one of the Wild's better territorial players in past seasons, which will help on this line since that will lead to more zone time & hopefully more chances for Tavares & Moulson. His health makes him somewhat of an unknown quantity, though.
Kyle Okposo may also get a look on that first line for a few games because he is also capable of being someone who can drive the bus and he started there last season. He has had some trouble scoring, though and may struggle to stay on the first line if the goals don't come even if he contributes well outside of that. Plus, he seems to be a good fit on the Islanders tough-minute line with Bailey & Nielsen, who are usually matched up against the opposition's first lines. If Okposo gets bumped off that line, I'm not sure who else the Isles will turn to there.
Another player who I thought might get a chance on the first line is Michael Grabner, who has amazing speed and some natural goal-scoring talent. He may stay on a checking line for most of the year, though since he generates most of his offense off breakaways and transition rushes rather than sustaining an attack in the offensive zone. This could make him a decent fit with hard-hitting Cal Clutterbuck on the third line, as he plays a similar game in terms of creating chances.
The third and fourth line center spots could alternate throughout the year but I think Cizikas ends up on the third line when all is said and done. Regin is a terrific possession player, but injuries have limited his effectiveness and he hasn't played a full season since 2009-10, which makes me believe that he is more prone to losing ice time if some of the Islanders younger guys impress in training camp.
The only changes I expect with the defense pairings it that Hickey will probably play on the second defense pairing with Visnovsky instead of Brian Strait. These two played together for a good chunk of last season and were very effective in secondary minutes. Hickey is also very young and should be ready to take on a bigger role on the second defense pairing to help make upf or the loss of Streit. Although, I think Visnovsky is capable of handling that.
Brian Strait could end up staying on the second pairing if he plays well enough, though. He had a decent season after being claimed off waivers from the Penguins and mesh well with the offensive-minded Streit. He could do the same with Visnovsky and possibly Donovan, should the latter make the team. Donovan's upside seems higher than Carkner's or Finley's, so him making the Isles out of camp is plausible.
Nabokov could prove to be the difference maker for the Isles, and not in a good way. He was below-average last season and started the year off terribly. If he can be an average goalie, then the Isles might be in good shape but if he continues to struggle (entirely possible at age 38) then the Islanders will need to do something about their goalie situation. Kevin Poulin is inexperienced and his numbers in the AHL don't blow you away. The only other goalie under contract is Anders Nilsson and his numbers aren't any more impressive than Poulin's. I would expect Poulin to get a chance eventually, especially if Nabby's save percentage is below .900, but how much of a help he can be remains to be seen.
Calvin De Haan
I mentioned Donovan as someone who can make the team earlier and the Isles have a few other defensemen who could challenge for roster spots outside of him. One of them is Calvin De Haan, who missed all of last season with an injury but I think he could have a shot if he looks good in training camp.
Centers Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome could also be in the running for roster spots, but they'll have to outplay Cizikas, Regin or Lee to make the team. Strome seems the most likely to earn a roster spot because he has the highest upside and can move to the wing if necessary. He may start the year in Bridgeport, though because I don't see the point of burning a year of Strome's contract if they plan to use him in a third or fourth line role but it wouldn't surprise me if he is the first one called up in the event of an injury.
The Final Word
The Islanders managed to earn a playoff spot despite getting sub-par goaltending last season, so I'm inclined to think that they can do it again this year. Most of their core pieces are still there and if they can get even average goaltending out of Nabokov then they might be able to find their way back to the playoffs. However, if Nabokov regresses even more and the Islanders struggles against "Atlantic" teams continues, then they could find themselves near the bottom of the standings.