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Gallof: Work-In-Progress Islanders Likely 1 More Season Away From Relevance

That Dreaded Word Again, 'Patience,' Will Be Needed From Everyone In 2013
(credit: Facebook/Official New York Islanders)

(credit: Facebook/Official New York Islanders)

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By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com

NEW YORK (WFAN) – So here we are, in the midst of a very short training camp, one whole week for teams to get ready for a 48-game sprint to the playoffs.

It’s crazy if you think about it.

General manager Garth Snow had mentioned over the summer that the Islanders had been planning on one spot on defense being for a rookie, presumably Matt Donovan, Aaron Ness, or, before he got injured, Calvin de Haan. Yet, as the Islanders started camp, neither Donovan nor Ness was invited.

Hmmm … something is afoot. The question is: What changed?

My best guess is that Snow and the braintrust’s conservative tendencies have reappeared. That previous plan was for a normal schedule over a full season.

The January start and compressed schedule has the Islanders expecting injuries, and players like Donovan or Ness to be key plug-ins when the unpredictable happens.

That’s not an “if,” folks, but a “when.”

This is why Radek Martinek was signed and in camp. Yes, Martinek is someone who has yet to play an entire season, his most being 74 games back in 2005-06, but he is a veteran familiar with the organization. Sometimes, it’s the devil you know, especially when the Islanders were unable to get the Devil they did not know last summer — Bryce Salvador — who re-signed with the New Jersey Devils.

Speaking of delicate things, Rick DiPietro is currently positioned as the back-up goaltender. What can one say here besides just the facts? Let’s be honest, there is still a question if he was healthy during a stint in Germany during the lockout that consisted of just 59 minutes of actual play. This on top of his basic absence over the previous several seasons.

Goaltending will be huge for the Isles, and the compressed schedule actually might burden the back-up more than normal. Being that it is DiPietro right now, it is going to put his oft-criticized eroding abilities front and center very quickly.

Luckily, there are excellent fallback options in Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, the two key goalie prospects of the future, at Bridgeport, biding their time and playing regularly.

Thanks to so many mitigating factors, it is likely fool’s gold to start trying to predict what will happen this season. This is probably why the front office is back in its familiar conservative posture. There will be many surprises this season across the league, events and instances that are likely to have an unpredictable ripple effect. Add to that the fact that there will be a salary cap drop for everyone next season, so a lot of teams are going to play it cool not really sure of the unknown that lies ahead.

I’ve been warned that anything anyone writes as a season primer that tries to predict what will happen from Saturday on will become dated real quickly due to those factors. In other words, it’s going to be a wild journey, so hold onto your hats, ladies and gents.

When looking at the Islanders we already see a tentative roster that we should not expect to remain intact. I mean, look at the questions already:

DiPietro to stay healthy? OK, regardless if he does, can he even amass stats and performances comparable to at least a mediocre player?

Will starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov be able to get up to speed quickly? Most of the Isles’ fortunes really rest on him, yet he is no longer a spring chicken, not to mention the questionable at best defense that will play in front of him yet again.

Will Niño Niederreiter, Donovan, and Ness remain at Bridgeport all season? Better yet, if they get their chance with the big club will they take it and run.

Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Strome were also issued camp invites, but why have they so far been working out with depth lines? We know Reinhart is probably a few years away, but Strome’s case is compelling regardless of which side of the fence you sit on. Despite all the fans pushing for Strome to begin his NHL career in earnest, those who have watched him have warned that he has a weak spot.

The Prospect Park, a website that covers both the Islanders’ and Rangers’ prospects, told me this about Strome: “…While I like the kid, as he does have legit talent, he also has a ready-made downside. NHL teams are going to discover that the key to stopping Strome is physical presence. The Islanders will need to assign a bodyguard to Strome. It is not that Strome won’t go into traffic to make a play, but rather you shut him down by repeatedly hitting him. Yes, he put up numbers in the OHL, but come crunch time during the playoffs Strome disappeared in the biggest series in two straight years.”

Others disagree when asked about NHL physicality having an adverse affect on a player like Strome. One source had this to say: “That’s what everyone says about any skill guy not 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He’s played against big, tough guys in OHL and WJC. Who has shut him down? He just needs to mature physically and mentally and he’ll be a great No. 2 center.”

Knowing all of this, we can draw a few conclusions on Strome. The Islanders seem to be expecting chaos, fast and furious, and this is why their conservative approach actually makes some sense. Nobody knows what to predict, so play it cool. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsday reported Thursday that Strome has been informed that he will be sent down)

As I have mentioned on Twitter, unless Reinhart and Strome start practicing with top lines, and quickly, the plan was just to give them a taste as a reward, and then, ultimately, send them back to juniors. Just keep watching the lines in practice. Strome has only played with third and fourth liners thus far. If he continues to play with those same players, the odds are he will not be someone they will rely on this season.

And here’s one more thing for the Strome peanut gallery to chew on: It is rather funny that after the Niederreiter fiasco last season that fans are so adamant about Strome making the Islanders now. How soon we forget.

If he plays five games, the team can no longer send him back to juniors. Maybe fans should look back on all the numerous tweets, blogs, fan posts and declarations from last year about rushing Niederreiter.  They made a lot of sense because he wasn’t ready, despite the hype that came along with his game.

Do you want this team to be careful and cautious? Or only when it suits you? The hypocrisy here that I see from fans’ melodrama, the same ones who were the most vocal over the mishandling on Niederreiter, I might add, is simply stunning.

Be careful what you wish for, folks. Really. Patience is a virtue, and it’s about time the Islanders showed it with Strome.

Moreover, neither Strome nor Reinhart hold the key to the most important aspect of what this shortened season is supposed to be about — making the playoffs. I do not understand why some are living the fantasy that Strome, in particular, will be that kind of difference-maker.

PLAYOFFS?

So what is in this poker hand for the Islanders? Is it all just a bluff that will once again end with a key draft spot instead of meaningful springtime hockey?

Or will what’s left of this season be just another key developmental year for more pieces of the rebuild?

This aspect remains the true barometer of how to judge the Islanders’ season. What will determine if they will be at the caboose of the NHL, or actually pushing for a playoff spot, is this: the natural maturity process of the current rebuild chips.

Who are they? The players that are blooming and developing into men, like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Andy MacDonald, Travis Hamonic, Josh Bailey, David Ullstrom and more. They all must get better. As a unit, they could soar, or they could again struggle.

The Isles’ fortunes rest on the rebuild pivots that are at their development points, not fans expecting miracles from a few kids who are on the edge of just merely making the jump. This is where attention really needs to be paid, because it’s the ONLY engine that can lead the Islanders to a playoff spot.

THE COOL HAND IS PATIENCE

The Islanders seem to have learned their lesson with pushing kids before their time. One would think this would be something to be appreciated.

Strome, Reinhart, and others will find their way to the NHL soon enough. Rest assured. The organization is teeming with prospects that will be busting through the gates soon enough.

In the meantime, Snow is once again paying attention to the waiver wire to fill needs. On Tuesday he picked up Joe Finley, formerly of the Sabres and Capitals. He is 6-8 and more than 250 pounds, and has played wing and defense. He might be looked at as the seventh defenseman. Then we have Thomas Hickey, the former No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft who had signed for an additional year in Los Angeles.

If Snow feels he can upgrade another role, he will use that waiver wire again. I am pretty sure we can all agree that both blue line pickups are improvements over the original camp invites of AHL players Jon Landry and Ty Wishart.

It’s almost as if the Isles were expecting key defense targets to sneak in on waivers.

So as this team has only a mere few days until it all begins on Saturday, we are already seeing final lines being put together. It means we won’t be seeing any trades, or dead weight like Scott Gomez or Wade Redden land on the Islanders. I’m not sure why these two get mentioned incessantly, but I just don’t see them as options. The Islanders seem to be far more interested in the rebuild taking hold than seeing if a dead horse can still leak some glue.

There is a very unpredictable season ahead and the Islanders seem to be set to see if their key rebuild pieces will be enough to step this team forward. Will it be enough? Not likely. To me, this will be another bottom 10 finish and high draft pick campaign unless big years come from those who have yet to make their mark, and Lubomir Visnovsky does finally decide to report. The tune and tenor of that song and dance changed once again as of Tuesday night. Will it mean the end of that drama or will there be something else to come from this guy? I haven’t seen this much drama since the Real Housewives of New Jersey burst upon our television screens.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Yes, it will be another cap floor season, but venue certainty finally arrived. The Islanders, however, still don’t have the funds to buy. As we have seen with the waiver wire, this team is always looking to improve itself, granted in ways that don’t excite fans, but nobody can expect sweeping changes until after this season is in the books.

Since they have yet to trade one rebuild chip, we should watch the kids that are in this season’s plans carefully, because the Islanders are putting a lot into those baskets. That, along with health, key call-ups, and coaching will be key attributes that will truly tell the tale of this shortened season. Those factors will be the true indicator of whether or not this team can make the playoffs, not rookies or NHL dead weight or phantom trades concocted by GM armchair quarterbacks.

Until then, I’d study the draft lists carefully. I think we will see more development from the Isles, but not enough to hold onto a playoff spot. Even if they get off to a hot start, I can’t see them holding fast with so many teams that much more advanced. And let’s not forget that the Atlantic Division will be a killer.

PREDICTION

I think the Islanders get one more key draft pick before changes are made and growth is fully assessed. To me, what’s left of 2012-13 will be more about next season. I just hope to see enough development.

That’s how I see it, anyway. Make your own predictions in the comments section below.

Before I go, here’s one last look at who I see as the heroes and goats of the Islanders this season:

Goat: The erosion of DiPietro’s skills has been tough to watch. Even healthy, in my mind, he is no longer an NHL-caliber goalie, not even if he has moments of solid consistency.

Who takes the fall?: I think this will be Mark Streit’s last season with the Islanders. He will be a valuable piece to a contender come the trade deadline and could bring back a nice talent to the Islanders. Another player who could get dangled is Grabner, who I think needs to show that last season was an aberration and that he’s really the player we saw two seasons ago.

Hero: A kid. Perhaps he will be among the call-ups from Bridgeport who are already in game shape. Maybe someone like Niederreiter or Donovan comes up and takes someone’s spot and makes it his own. Perhaps Josh Bailey, in what might be his final year with the Islanders, finally puts it all together as a winger.

But even with the emergence of a few of the young guys, it won’t be enough to offset this team’s serious gaps on defense, offense, and in the net.

The Isles will end up 20th to 22nd, overall, in the NHL. That finish could be more like 18th if Visnovsky shows up and Nabokov turns back the clock to his days of dominance. Either way, they should challenge for the eighth spot in the East most of the season before likely falling short.

What say you?

Read more columns by B.D. Gallof and follow him on Twitter at @BDGallof

Please offer your predictions and thoughts in the comments section below …