By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Now this one hurts.
As much as the loss of defenseman Mark Streit to a severe shoulder injury put a shock into the Islanders’ system — both on the ice and in the players’ collective psyche — the fact that they won’t have wing Kyle Okposo for weeks is even more painful.
While there is no denying the fact that Streit is their leader on the blueline, the Islanders have been searching for an identity on offense ever since the last time they were serious Stanley Cup contenders. That year was 1993, their most recent trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
I don’t need to remind anyone how long ago that was.
Since that memorable playoff run, which featured a stunning seven-game series upset of the heavily favored Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders have struggled to put together a roster that can consistently put the puck in the net. Now, they have had some individuals who gave the fan base hope. Guys like Ziggy Palffy and Jason Blake had their 30-plus-goal seasons, but by and large if you really want to talk offense, the last true superstar offensive player they had was Pierre Turgeon.
And he left the Isles after the 1994-95 season.
Since then, this franchise’s offense has been downright offensive.
The idea, of course, is for last year’s No. 1 pick, John Tavares, to develop into the next Turgeon or maybe more, but at this point JT is more of a one-dimensional player who’s still filling out and learning his way through some wickedly rough terrain. No one is saying Tavares won’t eventually become the man. His 54-point rookie campaign had moments of brilliance, but also plenty of extended disappearing acts on the scoresheet. Again, no one expected this kid to be a major player in his first season, but it would be a bit much to expect him to pull off a Steven Stamkos-like sophomore season.
That’s because Tavares’ supporting cast is equally young and developing. The one constant Islanders fans had was the idea of Okposo lessening the burden on Tavares by continuing his development into a true sniper and top two-way player.
But a mystery shoulder injury which requires surgery has put those plans on hold.
If stats are your thing, Okposo is nothing special. His point totals are not eye-popping. In 154 career games, the now-22-year-old has 96 points, including just 39 goals. He’s not even close to the level of the player he’s been most closely compared to, future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames.
However, there isn’t a harder working player on the Islanders’ roster. Okposo brings it every night and plays every shift with purpose. This is a team player, an unselfish player, a guy who backchecks, a guy who can assume any role, be it on the power play, the penalty kill or on even strength. This is a heady player, a clutch performer.
And he is becoming a leader.
But now the Isles are down basically their two captains, all due respect to Doug Weight aside. And considering the fact that talent-wise this team has absolutely no margin for error it’s going to be quite a challenge for the Islanders to get off to the kind of start they will need if they really and truly plan on challenging for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They gave it healthy go last season, finishing nine points out of eighth, but as we all know five extra wins in a season just don’t grow on trees.
It takes responsible players, like Streit and Okposo, to make the difference.
Now the Islanders should for the most part be fine defensively, because they have enough young talent and experienced veterans — some home-grown, some paid for — to keep them in every game every night. The goaltending situation with Dwayne Roloson logging most of the minutes is better than average, but if Rick DiPietro ever becomes that guy again the Isles could potentially have one of the better tandems in the league.
The real question, as is always the case, will come on offense. How does coach Scott Gordon make up for the loss of all of Okposo’s abilities and intangibles for maybe the first third of the season? There really is no concrete answer at this point. One would think highly-skilled Rob Schremp would be the perfect candidate to assume Okposo’s scoring role. Maybe quickly developing center Josh Bailey gets shifted to the wing and plays more on special teams. Perhaps Trent Hunter, another guy with the Okposo-type of work ethic and tenacity, realizes his true potential and becomes more than a 20-goal scorer. Then there is Matt Moulson. Was his 30-goal 2009-10 season a fluke?
Of course there’s also the wish list. How about this absolutely shocking best-case scenario: first-round pick Nino Neiderreiter not only makes the team but explodes onto the scene. Pipe dream? Probably.
We’ll get our first look at the wounded Islanders on Wednesday night when they play split-squad preseason games against the Flyers in Philadelphia and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, against the Calgary Flames.
Again, the only certainty here is the fact that the Isles’ do-it-all guy won’t be around for a while. The X-factors will be many from this point on. The early part of the 2010-11 season has quickly become an all-hands-on-deck situation.
Someone has to step up, and quickly.
The last thing this downtrodden franchise needs is to suffer another KO before it ever really gets in the fight.