Is it true? Is the team that has never won a playoff series in my lifetime on the rise? Are the ghosts of the Nassau Coliseum stirring as the team prepares for its thirty mile move to Brooklyn? Are the Stanley Cups that my parents saw lifted with regularity as teenagers on their way? Will the banners that sway in the rafters soon have company? Will the Bossys and the Trottiers, the Potvins and the Gillies, the Arbours, Nystroms, Morrows, Bournes and Tonellis finally have reason to smile? How about Smitty and Chico and Westfall and Torrey and Lafontaine? Will they finally make us proud to wear the sweater again? It’s an exciting time to be an Islander fan again and make sure you get your seat. The bandwagon is filling up fast.
The future looks brighter than ever for the New York Islanders. After a strong season the Isles made a nice showing against the top seeded Pittsburgh Penguins. The team surprised many and gave Pittsburgh a run for their money, outplaying them in four out of the six games. Penguins star defenseman Brooks Orpik responded to the series by claiming the Islanders are a team on the rise and the Penguins were outplayed throughout the series and lucky to be moving on. The Islanders, who ranked last in the league in attendance, sold out all three games played at Nassau Coliseum. The organization asked the fans to “Rock the Barn,” referring to the Coliseum, and the fans were heard all 188 minutes of hockey played there. The arena that housed four Stanley Cup-winning Islanders teams, nicknamed “Fort Neverlose,” was back. It was enjoyable to see the oldest arena in the league come back to life.
Photo Credit: MARK BLINCH/REUTERS
22-year-old Hart Trophy Finalist John Tavares had three goals and five points in the series and has developed into an all-world player and the team’s unquestioned leader. Veteran forwards Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, 23-year-old Josh Bailey and young vets Matt Moulson and Frans Nielsen all “grew up” this season and stepped up their game in the playoffs. The third line was anchored by 24-year-old Matt Martin and 22-year-old center Casey Cizikas. Young defensemen like 22-year-old Travis Hamonic and 26-year-old Andrew McDonald were strong throughout and ate up top pair minutes on defense. Just making the playoffs this season was a great stepping stone for these young players to build on. Their performance was a bonus.
Of course, there is more good news on Long Island as there is more help on the way. The Islanders have drafted well in recent years and they own one of the deepest pools of young talent in the league. The list of forwards is led by 19-year-old Ryan Strome and a pair of 20-year-olds in Brock Nelson and Nino Niederreiter. All three are recent first round draft picks and are projected top six forwards. They are expected to join the team on Long Island this fall. The Islanders’ 2012 first round pick was rugged 19-year-old defenseman Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart, who stands at 6’4” and weighs over 200 lbs. is the son of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart. He is expected to help anchor the Islanders defense corps for the next decade. Two collegiate players are also expected to make an impact in the near future. Notre Dame center Anders Lee and hulking Denver shutdown defenseman Scott Mayfield have signed entry level deals with the club and are expected to continue their development at the teams minor league affiliate in Bridgeport, and eventually join the big club in the near future. The Bridgeport team is stocked with prospects like 23-year-old power play quarterback Matt Donovan and former 1st round pick Calvin DeHaan. The 22-year-old DeHaan has all the talent in the world but injuries have derailed his progress. If healthy, you will see DeHaan playing games with the Islanders next season. In addition, the Islanders hold the 15th overall pick in this year’s extremely deep NHL Entry Draft. The last time the Islanders picked 15th overall, they selected NHL bust Ryan O’Marra, but as a true fan I prefer to think about their 15th overall way back in 1977. That was the year they chose the greatest pure goal scorer in NHL history, Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. So while I’m not sure in what direction General Manager Garth Snow will go, expect another high-level prospect to join the team’s pipeline.
Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
The offseason will hold a lot of questions. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is an unrestricted free agent. While he has expressed interest in returning to Long Island, the asking price will probably be high. He was great in the regular season and a wonderful influence on his younger teammates. The downside is he is 37 years old and had a difficult playoff vs. the Penguins. Expect him back on a one or two year deal. The Isles also have two-time Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas under contract after trading for him last season. Thomas took last season off to spend more time with his family. Should he return next season, his experience and skill would be huge assets. Forward Brad Boyes, who signed a one-year deal with the Isles last summer, is also a UFA. Boyes had a good season on Tavares’ wing but could be replaced by one of the kids. I don’t believe they will bring back Boyes, but will not rule it out if the price is right. I would not bring back team captain Mark Streit. The 35-year-old defenseman is unrestricted and didn’t have a strong season. While still effective on the power play his defensive play hurt the team and he was a third pair defenseman by seasons end. Streit is believed to be asking for a three-year deal north of four million per season. That would be too rich for me and I would let him go. Veteran Lubomir Visnovsky could easily replace Streit as the power play quarterback and young defensemen like Donovan and DeHaan could start to play their trade with the big club. With the move, the Islanders would be expected to name John Tavares the 14th captain in Islanders’ history. Other UFAs include Radek Martinek, Marty Reasoner and Keith Aucoin. All are replaceable parts although I really liked Aucoin’s contribution, and it never hurts to have a veteran depth defenseman like Martinek, so I would consider signing the two to one year deals.
I believe that the Islanders are back, and their late season run and their series with the Penguins put the NHL on notice. The young core has been built, and more high level top prospects are on the way. This team is already looking forward to next season and should be in the playoffs for years to come. All I can say is: It’s About Time!!