Of Course It's Early, But You Can See Already Huge Differences With This Club

By Steve Silverman
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It was fairly obvious a week ago that the New York Islanders were going to get a bump from the trades that brought aboard defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy just before the season opened.

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But what did that mean? It looked like the Islanders would have a good chance to stay in contention for perhaps one of the two wild cards in the Eastern Conference, and make a run at the postseason in their final season on Long Island before moving to Brooklyn next season.

However, nobody thought the Islanders were going to head right to the top of the Metropolitan Division and compete for one of the conference’s top seeds.

They might.

Just a handful of games into the season, it would be reckless to say that’s where Jack Capuano’s team is going to end up. But a 3-0 start that includes a 6-3 win over the Rangers is absolutely delicious for this affection- and attention-starved franchise. A look beneath the surface reveals that an excellent season could very well be on the horizon.

Let’s remember that the Islanders did make the playoffs two years ago, and gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a real scare before bowing out in overtime of Game 6. Both teams were troubled by shaky goaltending in that series, but the Islanders played Sidney Crosby and Co. on nearly even terms. If the Islanders could have tightened up the defense just a bit, the Penguins would have been beaten instead of just shaken.

John Tavares had come into his own well before that series, and he seemed to shine brightly under the Stanley Cup spotlight.

The Islanders were not a playoff team last season, as Tavares went down with a torn meniscus while competing for Canada in the Olympics and the team’s defense was largely in shambles. But the Islanders showed quite a bit of offensive skill and regularly were tied or had the lead going into the final period. Their inability to play effective defense cost them dearly.

While general manager Garth Snow waited until the last second to address that issue, he certainly did make huge changes.

Boychuk was a good player and one of the Bruins’ emotional leaders when he was in Boston. However, he was not a star, because the Bruins had Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as their lockdown defensemen.

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Boychuk stepped up last season after Seidenberg went down with a knee injury, but Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli was thinking more of the team’s future salary cap issues instead of its current welfare when he traded “Johnny Rocket.”

The Bruins are off to a slow start, and while they likely turn it around, it may not happen right away. Meanwhile, Boychuk has attacked his new assignment with the Islanders with a fire that has been badly needed around these parts.

He scored the first goal of the season in the opener on a booming slapshot, and he has two goals and four assists to go with a plus-4 rating over the first three games. Boychuk may have loved being a part of the marauding Bruins, but he is a true professional who is not letting his feelings of abandonment by his old team impact his play.

The presence of Boychuk appears to have bolstered everyone in the locker room The Islanders already have three other players who have scored multiple goals — Tavares, Brock Nelson and Mikhail Grabovski.

Tavares is likely to be in consideration for the Hart Trophy (MVP) and possibly the Art Ross (leading scorer) by the end of the season. Nelson is a good player who appears to be getting better. Grabovski is an enigmatic talent. He’s opening eyes right now, but eventually he is going to make the coaching staff and fans hit their heads in frustration with some of the mistakes he makes.

Fans know one of the Islanders’ big weaknesses over the years has been goaltending, but Jaroslav Halak may be the answer. He has had brilliant moments with the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues, but he has also had his issues with consistency. So far, Halak has the look of a player who knows he is on a contender.

The Islanders may not need Halak and backup Chad Johnson to play like Vezina Trophy contenders, but they are going to have to be goaltenders who come up with big saves at key moments.

There is still much to prove in this young season, but the Islanders are starting with promise and showing off their talent. This could very well be a season to remember.

Please follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy

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