The New And Improved Isles Boast Their Best Lineup In 22 Years


By Daniel Friedman
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If their offseason activity is any indication, the Islanders fully intend to leave Nassau Coliseum on a high note.

This is going to be a bittersweet year for a lot of people. For GM Garth Snow, it’s going to be a very important year, because he surrendered his first-round pick in a deep draft and therefore can’t afford to miss the playoffs.

At least, those are the notes I’ve gotten. Personally, I think there’s more to it.

The draft pick is a factor, but one of several. First off, the Islanders will be under new ownership soon, which means Snow’s not guaranteed to hold onto his job.

Second, this didn’t come out of left field. The Isles had already acknowledged the need to improve in goal the year before, when they attempted to trade for Cory Schneider. It just happens to be that they succeeded this time around, trading for Jaroslav Halak’s rights and then signing him to a four-year deal.

Third, the Islanders were at a point where they now had a comprehensive understanding of their prospect pool and could identify who was expendable and who was part of the core. This was evident in the trade for Nick Leddy, when the Isles sent youngsters Ville Pokka and Anders Nilsson to Chicago.

We can debate this for an eternity, but I think the Islanders would’ve been plenty active this summer even if they hadn’t given their pick to Buffalo. The time was ripe; they had the cap space and the resources to improve.

To me, they’re not trying to make the playoffs just because they’re afraid of handing over Jack Eichel to the Sabres. They’re trying to make the playoffs because that’s what successful NHL teams do.

The bottom line is that, on paper, the Islanders are boasting their best lineup in 22 years — coincidentally, the last time they won a playoff series. Can they finally do it again? Well, they’ll have to make the playoffs first, and that’s something you have to believe this team is capable of.

Keep an eye on head coach Jack Capuano, who could be on the hot seat if the Isles struggle out of the gate. One might’ve felt that way last year, too, but now Snow isn’t just saying he won’t accept losing; he’s demonstrating it by working the phones and making things happen.

OFFENSE

John Tavares has been the centerpiece of the offense since the moment he was drafted, and heading into this season that hasn’t changed.

What has changed is his supporting cast. It’s deeper, more potent and more versatile than ever, even despite the departures of Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek. He’ll have Kyle Okposo on his right wing and, in perhaps a bit of a surprising development, Cory Conacher on his left.

Okposo’s coming off a breakout year, one that evidently did not impress USA Hockey but benefited the Islanders quite well. He’ll need to repeat that performance or produce similar results.

As for Conacher, he’s trying to resurrect what began as a promising NHL career. He impressed at training camp and meshed with Tavares, earning the spot that Brock Nelson was thought to be penciled in for. He’s had success riding shotgun with superstars before, having played with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis in Tampa Bay. I thought it was worth a shot to try him on the top line, and from the looks of things that experiment seems to be working.

The Islanders also signed free agent BFFs Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, adding to their plethora of forwards. Many (myself included) hypothesized that they’d be linemates, but Grabovski appears to be slated for second-line duty and Kulemin for a third-line role. That could be a temporary arrangement necessitated by Michael Grabner’s injury, but time will tell. Either way, it’s still a better situation for Kulemin than the one he had in Toronto after Grabovski left. He’ll be playing with Frans Nielsen, not Jay McClement or Peter Holland.

But perhaps the biggest questions revolve around two of the team’s youngest forwards, Ryan Strome and Anders Lee. The former is on the roster, for now. The latter was sent down to Bridgeport (AHL), simply because there was no room for him. Make no mistake: Lee will be knocking on the door from the get-go. If Strome impresses while Grabner’s on IR, he could make a strong case for a permanent gig as well.

What all of this means is that, if you’re Josh Bailey, you should be very concerned. Given the amount of years and dollars the Islanders have invested in him, it was to be expected that he’d make the team and get another shot to prove himself.

It could be his last. Bailey will be hard to trade, but at the end of the day the Isles can always waive him. They have no obligation to keep him in the lineup for eternity just because he happens to be under contract. Lee and Strome are just lurking, and one of them will replace Bailey if he doesn’t get his act together.

Nelson, who will play with Strome and Grabovski for now, held his own last season after a bit of a shaky start. Look for him to take the next step this year.

DEFENSE

From the start of training camp, most of the talk revolved around Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock. However, the Islanders wound up trading for Johnny Boychuk and Leddy, which shifted the focus and completely changed the team’s outlook on defense. Both have Stanley Cup rings and bring a winning mentality into the locker room. Leddy is young, fast and silky-smooth with the puck. Boychuk is big, plays just as big and has a cannon of a shot.

Add those two to a mix that already includes Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey, Calvin de Haan (injured), Lubomir Visnovsky (injured) and Reinhart, and you’ve got a real solid collection of rearguards (once de Haan and Visnovsky are healthy).

Because of the injuries to de Haan and Visnovsky, Reinhart will get an opportunity to show what he can do at the NHL level. Depending on how he looks, the Islanders might have a decision to make. Maybe they’ll have to waive a player, or perhaps they’ll have to engineer another trade. Regardless, his situation could be very intriguing. If you’re an Islanders defenseman, you better be at your best. As is the case on offense, there are kids in Bridgeport who will happily replace you.

Pulock is one of those kids, and sending him to the AHL was the right call. Given their newfound depth, the Islanders don’t have to rush anything with him. Let him continue to develop. This was a smart decision on their part.

No one’s going to confuse the Isles’ defense with the St. Louis Blues’ defense, but at the very least it should be more effective. That in and of itself represents a tremendous step forward, as does the fact that this blue line can withstand two relatively significant injuries. A year ago? Two? Three? Not a chance.

GOALTENDING

For the first time in quite some time, the Islanders have themselves a quality starting goaltender. Halak is an experienced netminder with good positioning and reflexes. He will keep this team in a lot of hockey games and help them weather storms they were simply unequipped to deal with over the past few years.

I think, from a defensive standpoint, that helps the blue line as well. Having more confidence in your keeper, maybe you don’t overcommit as much. Maybe you’re more composed in key situations. If you’re a forward, it’s probably good to know that you won’t have to score six goals to win every night, which is what you have to do when you’re giving up a lot of goals.

Chad Johnson’s a very capable backup, something else the Isles haven’t had in a while. More often than not, their chances of winning were drastically lowered with the second-stringer between the pipes. Not so with Johnson.

PREDICTION

If everything goes right and the team doesn’t sustain any major injuries, it’s perfectly fair to expect the Islanders to finish in the top three in the Metropolitan Division. Even a wild-card playoff spot would be a bit of a disappointment. I wouldn’t have said that last week, but with Leddy and Boychuk in the fold the stakes have been raised.

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