By Daniel Friedman
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We’re just days away from the start of training camp and about a month from the start of the NHL regular season.
The New York Islanders are coming off an impressive year, one they’ll be looking to build on in 2013-14. However, there are still plenty of questions and concerns. I caught up with Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, who offered his thoughts on some of the hot-button topics in Islanders Country:
DF: There are those — such as myself — who like Garth Snow, and there are those who don’t. Which side of that fence are you on?
JM: I was skeptical, like a lot of people, when he first got the job. He had no track record, so it seemed liked a bizarre signing at the time.
But if you look at the evidence and you look at what Garth Snow has put together, in an environment where it’s very challenging to be a general manager, with the rink situation and whatnot, where it’s difficult to attract free agents … If you look at the quality of athletes that he’s drafted and that he’s put on this team, you really have to tip your hat to Garth Snow.
Taking John Tavares first overall was a slam-dunk, but then they got Travis Hamonic, Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock. You really have to admire what this once-rookie GM with no experience — and not that far removed from having played in the NHL — and have to be impressed with what Snow has done.
DF: Kevin Poulin has had some ups and downs in his young career. At age 23, he’s probably the second-best goaltender in the organization and the likeliest to back up Evgeni Nabokov on opening night. If Poulin is the heir apparent to the Isles’ crease, should he be on Long Island as an understudy or should he be in the AHL, where he could get more starts and playing time?
JM: I think he’s ready for that transition to backup in the NHL, and you know, there’s no guarantees for Evgeni Nabokov, either. If we see the same Nabokov that we saw against Pittsburgh, Poulin is going to see a lot more NHL action than he bargained for.
He’s clearly ready for that next step, that transition to the NHL. The time for seasoning is probably done. It’ll be a battle between him and Anders Nilsson for that backup spot, and I fully expect Poulin to get that spot.
This might just be that right year for Poulin to take over the reigns as the No. 1 guy, should Nabokov falter.
DF: While we’re on the topic of goaltending, Nabokov has certainly gotten mixed reviews, despite the fact that he was probably as vital to the Isles’ playoff run as John Tavares was last year. Did the Isles make the right move in bringing him back?
JM: It’s an interesting question, because he didn’t look great against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have made a lot of goaltenders look mediocre.
However, there were two reasons why the Islanders made the playoffs last year. I still think the main reason was John Tavares and the second reason, if there’s a “1” to the “1A,” was the play of Evgeni Nabokov, who was outstanding and became that guy who helped propel the San Jose Sharks to all those playoffs, when many — myself included — had written him off and said he’d played his last significant hockey in the NHL.
There are question marks, for sure. I don’t put that much stock into one playoff series, but he’s 38 years old. At that stage, you’re always looking for that time when a goaltender is going to finally fall off.
Dwayne Roloson went from starring with the Lightning to being retired. So when a goaltender start to hit that 37-to-39 range, you’re looking for the first sign of wear and tear. We’re all expecting it at some point, we just don’t know when.
DF: A while back on Marek vs. Wyshynski, it was suggested that the Islanders needed to fire Jack Capuano to take that next step — something that I was glad to hear because I had felt that way for months. Having won two playoff games since that statement was made, do you still see Capuano as that coach who was “hired to be fired,” or has your stance on the matter changed?
JM: I like Jack Capuano and what he’s done with this team, and the players certainly like him. From talking to people around the industry, I just don’t know if he is the long-term coach for the New York Islanders.
I’ve been of the belief and have been led to believe that, eventually, this is going to be Doug Weight’s position. When he’s ready, Doug Weight will coach the team, whether it’s this year, next year or five years from now.
DF: When Mark Streit signed with Philadelphia, I felt that the Islanders were smart to let him go for that price. Having said that, I also believe the Isles will miss him on the power play. How big is that loss?
JM: It’s a huge loss, from the offensive-production side of things. They have a lot of good young defensemen that Snow has put in the pipeline.
Travis Hamonic is the next burgeoning star, that’s for sure. He was an excellent shadow last year in that series against Pittsburgh; every time Sidney Crosby was on the ice, Hamonic was all over him like peanut butter.
He was hampered by a shoulder injury last year, but we’re still expecting to see Calvin de Haan eventually make his way onto this team. Or, maybe this is finally the year that Matt Donovan, who put up nearly 100 points over a couple of seasons in Bridgeport, takes that next step.
For right now, there are no shoe-ins to replace what Mark Streit brought to the New York Islanders. From an offensive production point of view, this one kinda stings.
DF: 2013-14 is going to be somewhat of a transition year for the Islanders, in the sense that there a few rookies who are going to have the opportunity to compete for a roster spot in training camp — with Ryan Strome being the likeliest to make the cut. What do you think we can expect from him in his rookie year, what’s his ceiling and would you play him at center or on the wing?
JM: I’ve put this out there many times, but I love this kid. I love his game, the way he competes. I’ve watched him since he played with Marlboros in Ontario Midget AAA, right through to when he got drafted by the Barrie Colts in the OHL and was traded for Alex Pietrangelo of the Niagara Ice Dogs.
I love everything about this guy’s game. His hands are fantastic, I love the way he plays in traffic; he doesn’t get rattled. He’s really creative when there are lots of skates and sticks around.
It probably wouldn’t be the worst thing to put him on the wing for a couple of seasons. Historically, teams have done this with some great young centers in the past. Darryl Sittler played his first couple of seasons with Toronto on the wing before he became one of the best centers the Leafs ever had. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for Ryan Strome to start off on the wing with the Islanders.
As far as the ceiling goes, no one’s touching John Tavares, so Strome maxes out as the second-line center. I’ll tell you, man, if you have a battery down the middle of John Tavares and an experienced, mature Ryan Strome, you have one of the top-two center combinations in the NHL.
It’s tough to gauge how Strome will do next year, points-wise. If he jumps in on the wing and plays with Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner, or something like that, I don’t think you can expect more than high-end 40 points from someone like him who’s just dipping his toes in the water. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect much more than half a point per game from a rookie like him playing in the top six.
DF: John Tavares has successfully made the leap from stardom to superstardom. He is still young, though, so do you think he’ll get even better, or is what we see now more or less what we can expect to get from him in the prime of his career. And do you think he’s ready to take on the captaincy?
JM: Absolutely, hands down. The moment Mark Streit went to Philly, I said, “Well that’s it, John Tavares is the captain.” And I think what you’re going to see with Tavares is that he’s going to get better, the points are going to increase his defensive zone play is gonna get better as he gets more physically stronger.
When it comes to Tavares, he is one of the most overanalyzed hockey players in the history of the game. He came into the OHL as an underage guy, was granted exceptional status and scouts had one extra year to pick apart his game. The one knock on his game was always his skating, and you look at him now and you say to yourself, “How was this guy ever criticized for his skating?”
The great thing about Tavares is, dots down and the puck on his stick, it’s going in. Some guys just have it. But what John also carries with that high skill-set is a hard work ethic, a determination.
From an Islanders fan’s perspective, he really sort of calmed the waters when he signed that extension. He’s committed to that organization and believes in what Garth Snow is doing. If you’re talking leadership and captaincy, that’s what captains do; that’s what leaders do.
What John is probably thinking to himself now is, “I’m an elite-level player in the NHL; now I need to cement some type of legacy and I need to bring this team closer to winning a Stanley Cup, and the only way I’m gonna do that is by getting bigger, stronger, smarter and better in my own zone.”
He’s well on his way to doing all those things. There are very few players who work as hard as John Tavares does in the offseason; he’s right up there with Steven Stamkos in that category.
DF: Garth Snow has had a knack for taking on reclamation projects — the latest of which is Thomas Hickey. Formerly a top-five draft pick, he was very solid for the Isles on defense last year. Do you think he’s shown he can be a player in this league, and can he develop into a good offensive-defenseman?
JM: That’s gonna be tough, living up to that draft status. I remember when LA made that pick, everyone was expecting Karl Alzner to get selected there, and GM Dean Lombardi went off the board and drafted Hickey from the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The expectation, based on draft position, was too high. So I don’t think we’re going to see that version of Thomas Hickey, but I think he’s starting to demonstrate that he can play in the NHL, and that he can play in the NHL for a long time.
I don’t know that we’re ever gonna see him be a top-pairing defenseman or an elite-level quarterback for a power play, but I think we’re starting to see that Thomas Hickey can definitely play in the National Hockey League, for sure. But as far as living up to that draft status, not a chance.
DF: Let’s talk about one of the new guys — Pierre-Marc Bouchard. I think he could be the best linemate not named Matt Mouslon that John Tavares has ever had. He’s coming off a concussion, which is not an easy thing for any player to rebound from. Are his best days behind him, or do you think he could have a renaissance year, much like Brad Boyes did in 2013?
JM: If it were any other team, I’d say yes, his best years are behind him. But the Islanders, for whatever reason, whether it’s Michael Grabner, Thomas Hickey or whomever — players show up on Long Island and they become different players and younger versions of themselves, or better versions of themselves.
I don’t know what they put in the Gatorade bottles there, but for whatever reason, players just find something on the Island. I would like to think we haven’t seen the last of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, because when you break down his individual skill-set, it’s pretty high. I hope he can find it.
It’s the “Islanders” thing. I remember Grabner was a bust, Brad Boyes. All these players, when they get there, something happens to them. Because it’s the Isles, I’ll say I still think there’s more good things to come for Bouchard.
DF: I find it absolutely stunning that Matt Moulson’s never been invited to a Canadian Olympic orientation camp and that he’s never been on Team Canada at the World Championships. I wouldn’t, but there are those who will tell you that, without JT, Moulson wouldn’t be a good player. What would you say about that and why do you think Moulson never seems to be on Hockey Canada’s radar?
JM: I’ve been asking that question for years and I’m glad you brought it up. It’s one that’s left me scratching my head.
You could say that it’s easy to play with an elite-level player, but I might even argue the opposite; that when you play with someone like John Tavares, who competes at an elite level and thinks at an elite level as well, it’s tough to find complimentary players who can think at that level and can compliment Tavares.
You might say, “Well, all Matt Moulson has to do is keep his stick on the ice from the hash marks in,” but it’s not that easy. It might seem easy playing with a superstar, but he has to be able to think the game at the same level that John Tavares does, which is what Moulson does. And all he does every year is put 30 goals up.
I wish I had an answer for you, but I can’t understand why Hockey Canada is almost sour on Moulson. All he does is wake up in the morning, put his pants on and score goals, for crying out loud.
DF: In two years, the Islanders will move to Brooklyn. What do you think this means for the organization, as far as their ability to compete on the ice is concerned?
JM: It’ll be a sort of “starting over again,” but you’re not really starting over again; you’re starting over again with a team that, by then, should really be established.
Some of those players that were drafted, whether it’s Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Strome or Ryan Pulock, should be bona fide NHLers, or pretty close to it. It’s going to be a pretty exciting time to be an Islanders fan around the time they move into Barclays Center. They made the playoffs this past year, and they’re gonna build off of that.
I know it’s an old rink, but I loved going to Nassau Coliseum. I have so many great memories of going to that old barn that nobody liked and desperately didn’t want the team to leave. That Islander dynasty that won all those Stanley Cups, that’s my favorite team ever. Growing up, I was a huge Islanders fan.
That said, this is going to be a real shot in the arm from an excitement point of view, from a marketing point of view. They should be a good team on the ice and hopefully it translates off the ice as well.
DF: The Islanders are coming off an impressive breakout year in which they made the playoffs and were two overtime goals away from beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. What’s your prediction for the 2013-14 Islanders?
JM: I hope they make it, because they’re a fun team to watch. There are a lot of interesting personalities on the team.
It’s gonna be tough, though. You look at that division and that conference and you say to yourself, “OK, Pittsburgh is in, Washington is in and the Rangers are in.” To me, it’s gonna be a jump ball between the Islanders, Philadelphia (Flyers) and the Carolina Hurricanes.
I don’t think Columbus can repeat their heroics from last year and New Jersey is trending much in the other direction. So, to me, it’s going to be a three-team fight. It might just come down to who gets the better goaltending and which team can stay healthy and keep their elite players healthy.
Jeff Marek is the host of Sportsnet’s Hockey Central Tonight, and a co-host of the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @JeffMarek.
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