Was June 26th, 2009 the day the fortunes of the New York Islanders changed for the better?
The answers to that question is beyond the scope of this preview to answer as it won’t be known until it is time to write next season’s preveiw (if not the preview after that) but many on the Island have begun to sense that change is in the air. At the same time while they see these positive changes, I think Islander fans realize that this one draft pick isn’t himself going to get them into the playoffs.
While it has been many years since the Islanders have seriously competed, almost two decades since they’ve won a playoff series and thirty years since the glory days of the early 80’s when they won the first of four Stanley Cups the Island is ready for some change. But instead of chasing a few free agents with the hope of making the playoffs (but without the depth to challenge) it appears instead that GM Garth Snow will be implementing a long term startegy that might just see the fortunes of these Islanders change and perhaps see the team return to the glory years.
The Islanders were almost last in every statistical category during the 2008-09 season. They finished 29th overall in goals per game, 30th in 5 on 5 goals for/against ratio at an abysmal 0.68, 29th in faceoff wining % (45.7) and 29th in goals for (201). So how is this going to change?
It seems pointless to start talking about lines (especially since I had the recently crunched Kyle Okposo on my top line) as the starting line combo’s change up many times before the regular season.
First overall pick John Tavares seems to be saying all the right things as he talks about adjusting to the NHL. We could speculate as to who Tavares will be playing with but as I said above, the players that he was anticipated to be on a line with, like Doug Weight and Okposo have been sidelined with injuries. Expectations around the league are already pretty high for the youngster as John Grigg of the Hockey News suggested back in August that Tavares would be the natural choice for the calder saying:
Expect J.T. to win his team’s scoring race and make those around him better just about every night. This kid is special because he rises to the occasion when it matters most – the mark of a superstar, albeit in-the-making. There may not be too many occasions worth rising to on the Island this season, but Tavares will be out to prove all year why he’s been touted as the next great goal-scoring center since he was a 14-year-old. Now that’s a personal challenge worth rising to.
How will he do with such pressure? I expect Coach Scott Gordon will not put Tavares in situations where he feels his confidence will be rattled. Instead he will slowly work him in to boost his confidence and this should really help the #1 overall choice as his professional game develops this season.
With veterans such as Andy Hilbert, Mike Sillinger and Dean McCammond all gone, there are several spots up for grabs. Josh Bailey figures to play a more prominent role this season and will be counted on to supply some offense, as will Blake Comeau, who may be poised for a breakout and is a favorite of head coach Scott Gordon. Other youngsters looking to make their mark include Jeff Tambellini, Sean Bergenheim, Matt Moulson and Joel Rechlicz, who recently fought Oilers behemoth Steve MacIntyre to a draw.
Greybeards Jon Sim,Richard Park, Trent Hunter and the aforementioned Dough Weight will be counted on to provide leadership to this young and inexperienced group. As discussed earlier, its far too early to put together any potential line cominations or to even guess who the 13 or 14 forwards will eventually be. The good news for Isles fans is that the competition for jobs should be intense, and the team can start off the season with considerable momentum.
The bad news is that because they are relying on so many youngsters, it could be another long year on the Island. Don’t get me wrong, there is some talent there, but until the new group finds defined roles and gels, the learning curve could be tough. Some of the new additions have experience at the NHL level (Jeremy Reich, Matt Moulson, Greg Moore) but the goals might still be hard to come by. Both Moulson and Moore have scored well at the AHL level, and Moulson should benefit from getting a longer look with the Islanders (he was a victim of depth with the Kings), but the on the job training is not really a good way to build a winner.
All the same, it should be an interesting year on the Island as the team grows together. Since not much is expected of the team, they are free to experiment and find out just who can play at this level.
The Islanders are truly absent any big name defencemen. What they do have instead are some pretty solid players. The first pairing would likely see offensive swingman Mark Streit and Bruno Gervais who is a solid, dependable counter to Streit’s offensive inclinations.
The second pairing would have steady but unspectacular Brendan Witt playing with Radek Martinek, who is seen as a player who makes excellent break out passes as well as a being a very good two way defenseman.
The final defensive pairing would have Andy Sutton who brings size and toughness to the blueline playing alongside former collegiate all star Freddy Meyer.
The seventh player for the Islanders would likely be Jack Hillen who split time between the Islanders and Bridgeport last season.
The Islanders goalie of the future Rick DiPietro missed the most of the 2008–09 NHL season due to post-arthroscopic surgical swelling in his right knee. Prior to last season he had three decent years playing over 62 games and averaging about 30 wins per season. The big question on Long Island is whether or not he can stay healthy following his surgery and if so, can he be that consistent tender that the Islanders desperately need?
When speaking to Katie Strang of Newsday, DiPietro had this to say about recovering from his injury which likely means that he will start the season on the Long Term Injured Reserve while he rehabs:
He is being cautious and easing his way back onto the ice. He began skating last week, will skate more again this week, get into pads soon and go from there. Given the organization’s initial timeline (DP to begin skating in August, will be with team for Camp in September) and their off-season moves (signing both Roloson and Biron to ensure DiPietro doesn’t rush back prematurely), it should not be surprising that he is where he is for the time being.
GM Garth Snow’s past life as a goalie will probably serve New York well as he brought a solid but aging Dwayne Roloson from the Oilers and serviceable Martin Biron who comes in after he was left out in the cold by the Flyers. I’ve always been a fan of Roloson and despite his “advanced age” (39) he should be solid enough to give the Islanders a chance to win some close games. Martin Biron has been itching for an opportunity to be a #1 starter and perhaps if Roloson gets off to a slow start, and with RD on the LTIR, this might finally be the chance he’s been waiting for.
Class of Competition:
Which leads us to the final question for the Islanders this season; Can the improvements by their Atlantic Division competition, prevent them from rising up?
New Jersey Devils – Here is what Ezzy of IC fame, thought about the Devils ceiling: The Devils can finish as high as second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference if they get secondary scoring from their younger players and Marty B. stays healthy all year.
Pittsburgh Penguins – One gets the feeling that the Penguins after winning their 1st Stanley Cup in 16 years are even hungrier this season. The team remains extremly solid and will push the Devils for 1st in the conference.
Philadelphia Flyers – This is now the team that is being discussed as a possible Stanley Cup contender this season. Having added an all-star in Pronger to solidify the defence and a goalie with a chip on his shoulder in Emery, the Flyers are only looking up.
New York Rangers – This is a team nobody really talks about until the playoffs roll around. The biggest question is will Henrik Lundqvist get the support that he needs? Bit of a wild card team but with the mix of experience and youth and with such a solid tender, you have to think they will be in the mix.
Ceiling– While the Islanders have certainly improved, they just haven’t got enough tools to finish any better than 5th in the Atlantic division. While I realize that a ceiling is to project if everything goes right, I still don’t see these young Islanders winning more than 30 games next season. If Atlanta’s goaltending situation doesn’t pan out then I could see the Isles passing the Thrashers and finishing in 14th overall.
Floor– Well unfortunately if my ceiling was 14th overall, then there is only one way to go for my floor. If Roloson doesn’t play well, RD doesn’t return to help the team in time, 1st round pick Tavares struggles and the team trades away vets like Weight, then this team could easily finish last overall.
Islander Blogger Thoughts:
In addition to the above analysis I thought it would be a good idea to get a quick thought from Islander bloggers. These guys follow Long Island through the ups and downs of each season, so who better to get a quick hit from them then?
Dominik from Lighthouse Hockey said:
Generally speaking, no one’s expecting a miracle. People are realistic about Tavares’s effect (although the projections of his goal tally varies wildly and amusingly). This is still an Atlantic basement team, unless the Rangers implode — which is always an enticing possibility. People toss around which prospect they’ll get with a Top 10 pick next June.
That said, there are a few reasons to expect some promising improvement:
1) Goaltending: Two experienced veterans, as opposed to last year’s backup show. For any team, that’s big. For a young team, that’s really big.
2) Injuries: The Isles have been at or near the top of the league in man-games lost to injury for three years running. Last year was an amazing 583 games. Surely, that’s bound to change, right? Every Islander regular spent time on the shelf last year. There was no continuity, which was tough for a first-year coach. Which leads me to…
3) Experience. Scott Gordon has a full year at this level now (he didn’t arrive until August last year), and now Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Blake Comeau have a full year under their belts. The first three are definitely legit players, and Comeau is at least a PP scorer, too. If even two of them make reasonable progress, that’s a big improvement to the top two lines.
Add Tavares to that mix and…well, more goals scored this year, fewer allowed.
Most fans seem to realize this is a work in progress. While some are expecting some Penguins-like rise by next year, most are just looking for signs of progress and that the rebuild is headed in the right direction. Personally, I think it is: The Islanders are drafting pretty well and finally showing the patience to do the rebuild they should have carried out a decade ago.
One wild card is if the Lighthouse Project becomes bad news and the possible specter of a relocation becomes a distraction. But I don’t think that will. Both sides are serious about getting something done, but neither fully trusts the other, so there will be a few more episodes of poker and grandstanding before things move forward.
Paul from Islanders Blogger said:
The Islanders should be much better than what they were a year ago. There are severeal reasons why, but the biggest one is health. Last year the Islanders led the League in man-games lost to injury. A healthier team should improve the point total at the end of the season.
Better goalies. Most people had their fun with the Islanders having signed three goalies. However, everyone knows who they are. Other than your own division, can you name other backups, not named Conklin, Anderson or Clemmenson? I didn’t think so. You have two number one goaltenders to start the season; you know that the Islanders will be in it for most of those games. DiPietro will come back on his own time and then the Islanders will still have a deep plethora of goaltending.
A healthier defense always helps a goaltender also. If the defense stays healthy, they could be a difference maker when you have quality goaltending to support you.
There should be more confidence in the younger players. The last twenty or so games for the Islanders last year was crucial because the younger players were given bigger roles, and they flourished in it. Players like Bailey, Comeau, Okposo, Tambellini, and Neilsen are all on the same page and have more confidence going into this season, and I believe that it will show on the score sheet and in the overall record.
John Tavares. Everyone on that team has taken him under their wing, especially his current roommate Doug Weight. Fans need to give him time. He’s learning a lot, having fun, and he’s getting used to his first pro training camp, pre-season, and of course a new professional system.
Forwards: Islanders should have 4 20+ goal scorers (Okposo, Bergenheim, Hunter, Tavares).
Defense: Look for Streit to lead the way, but look for a breakout year from Gervais, and a comeback year from Sutton.
Goaltenders: Roloson, and Biron will hold the fort just fine while DP recovers. They will keep the team in most, if not all the games, and may even steal a few.
Coach: Scott Gordon now has his coaches in place with most players in the organization knowing his system. Players no longer think about what to do, it’s just natural.
Ken from Islanders Outsider said:
Any forecast of the Islanders’ 2009-10 season would have to include the words mostly cloudy with the potential for hazardous conditions. From a competitive standpoint, the Islanders are in no better position this September than they were last September. Before you knew that they were about to face an intolerable number of man-games lost to injury, it would have been generous to say that the 2008-09 Islanders had a 25% chance of finding their way into the playoff race and a 75% chance of finishing near or at the bottom of the league.
But here they are again with a younger team and no promises other than that the current makeup will get a legitimate shot to grow into something special without being boxed out of important minutes by 30-year-old 20-goal scorers.
And, finally, Islanders fans are okay with that.
They were rewarded for last year’s tumble to 30th place with the drafting of an offensive talent not seen in these parts since Zigmund Palffy. Fans will tolerate another season of swimming against the current because they know that’s what it takes to turn the corner in the current NHL.
The good news is that things almost have to get better—or at the very least be more fun—and they can do so without necessarily spoiling the chance for another high draft pick.
You have to assume that the team will be more healthy, enabling it to remain competitive on a more consistent basis. Having more of the team’s popular players in the lineup more consistently also gives the fans more incentive to remain engaged with the season.
John Tavares will be something to watch. And on this franchise, with its current culture, he can probably post a 40-50 point season without being run out of town. Anything better in his rookie season will be gravy, because…
It’s not as if people have lost interest in the development of Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. Okposo proved himself in the second half last year and there’s great anticipation to see what level his game lands on next. Bailey did not fully distinguish himself in his rookie season. While most of North America only has eyes for Tavares, Islanders fans know that the development of Bailey into a major offensive contributor bears watching. For this season, it is probably more important than the immediate impact of Tavares, especially with Franz Nielsen returning to New York with knee trouble.
For the first time in a while, the Islanders are actually set in goal. Garth Snow’s tandem free agent signings of Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron give the Isles one of the more solid combos in the league. Expect their presence to inspire greater confidence in the players in front of them, even if those same players, being good teammates, never expressed anything but confidence in Joey MacDonald and Yann Danis. (And, if you’re a pessimist, expect to see Scott Munro and Nate Lawson pressed into duty by November.)
The goaltender position may actually be point of intrigue 1A next to the arrival of Tavares this season in New York. With Rick DiPietro surprisingly facing shots already on his way back from two hip surgeries and two (or three) knee surgeries, the crease watch may be on sooner rather than later. Both the Islanders and DiPietro have pledged to be extremely conservative with the goalie’s rehab this year, a goal they can achieve thanks to the presence of Roloson and Biron. But if Biron performs well and DiPietro recovers his best form, the Islanders will find themselves with a decent trading chip sometime between December and March. Snow will be under some pressure to convert that chip, but its value already seems a little inflated (i.e., don’t be shocked to hear grumbles of, “More draft picks?!”).
The other area where the Islanders can show improvement is in their comfort level with each other and with coach Scott Gordon and his quick-footed and quick-witted ways. The always moving, always thinking coach can focus less on getting his players to do things a certain way and more on getting them to do everything better, sharper, and crisper—and on winning games.
So, about that forecast. Bring your umbrella, your galoshes (does anybody still say galoshes), and your slicker (ditto). And your hand-crank radio with flashlight and special National Weather Service band. But if you look at things from the proper perspective, the Islanders 2009-10 season may just feel like a light summer rain.