By Daniel Friedman
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It’s the dawn of a new era for the Islanders.
They’ve left Nassau Coliseum behind after 43 years and will now call Barclays Center in Brooklyn their home. It’s going to be a strange sight to get used to, but one that could ultimately be a major positive for this often-beleaguered franchise.
During this pivotal transition year, the Islanders will try and deflect all of the the questions and distractions off the ice by playing well on it. They’ll hope that by fielding a winning hockey team the fans will focus more on that, and less on the off-center scoreboard and Brooklyn-related marketing.
I think people will come to the rink to see them play, even if they complain about the experience. Hopefully, the aesthetic problems will be fixed over the next few seasons and this will prove to be a successful partnership between the Islanders and Barclays.
The 2015-16 version looks very much like last season’s squad; the only differences being the departure of backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth (replaced by Thomas Greiss), the signing of Marek Zidlicky (in place of now former-Islander Lubomir Visnovsky) and the absence of Michael Grabner, who was traded to Toronto for five younger players.
Ryan Pulock is on the roster for now, but you have to wonder if that will still be the case when Thomas Hickey’s off IR. Kevin Poulin, once considered a crown jewel goaltending prospect, was waived and picked up by Tampa Bay.
Otherwise, it’s mainly familiar faces. Perhaps Kirill Petrov finds his way into the lineup at some point this season, but for now, he’ll start out in Bridgeport (AHL), just like he should and just as I predicted he would.
Now that we’ve established who won’t be on the roster, let’s evaluate the puzzle pieces that are currently in place:
The Islanders were among the best goal-scoring teams in the league last season and are poised to be again. One might point out the lack of a superstar winger for John Tavares, but that is not a necessity in this writer’s opinion.
Between Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome and Anders Lee, Tavares will have at least two talented forwards to play with at any given time, barring a complete shakeup that sees someone like Josh Bailey move up, and even then, it wouldn’t be so bad.
I think the coaching staff tweaked that top line a little too often last season, trying to address that trio’s woeful performance without the puck, which is important.
However, I’d also argue that one of the best ways to prevent goals is by possessing the puck, so if you have three guys that can do that and can mount sustained scoring chances, you’ll be okay. I also think that if you make sure to have defensemen like Nick Leddy out on the ice with them — guys who can exit the zone effortlessly and are fluid in transition — that’ll certainly make a huge difference as well.
How much can we expect from Tavares that we haven’t already seen? Well, as we just mentioned, I don’t think he’s going to win a Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) anytime soon, but the Art Ross (most points) and Hart (season MVP) trophies were within his grasp last season and they will be again.
I think 85-90 points is an automatic, but I’d really like to see 90-plus. I don’t buy the idea that the 100-point player is dead in the NHL. I think he’s coming back, and I think Tavares can absolutely be one.
Expect continued improvement from Strome. I think 60-65 points is a reasonable projection for him. As for the other young forwards, I think Lee gets 25-30 goals and Brock Nelson gets around 45 points. I see him taking a bit longer to reach the next echelon in terms of point production, because he’s going to focus on improving other areas of his game and he also may bounce around between the second and third lines throughout the season.
Okposo is entering a contract year, and there’s some uncertainty regarding his future with the team (or whether he’ll still be on it after the trade deadline). My take is he’ll re-sign, but if he doesn’t, the Islanders won’t trade him unless the playoffs are out of reach. Obviously, that would be a colossal failure.
As far as his production is concerned, I think he’ll notch around 75 points and prove he’s worth the money.
X-factor: Mikhail Grabovski.
Whether he is healthy and productive could be the difference between the Islanders having a good offense or a prolific one. He needs to re-establish himself as a 50-plus point player and I think the move back to center will help him. He’s always been better playing in that role, and he’s proven he can win faceoffs, too, which is something the Isles have struggled to do in recent years.
There’s a lot to like, with steady and capable hands like Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Travis Hamonic on deck. Now that all three of those guys are locked up long term, they should be able to focus solely on hockey.
There is also some things to be concerned about. Calvin de Haan needs to have a bounce-back season or he could find himself on the outside looking in. Pulock could be a natural option to replace him, but until that happens, de Haan struggling would drag the defense down.
Newcomer Zidlicky has also looked a bit rusty, which might be expected given his age and the fact he’s adapting to a new system and set of teammates, but he has to settle in sooner or later or that’s going to be an issue.
I think Leddy will get at least 40 points this season, and perhaps more, depending on how much power play ice time he gets. Ditto for Boychuk.
X-factor: Ryan Pulock
If he becomes a roster regular, he could make a solid dent – especially on the power play. I think that could really provide the Isles with a boost on defense, because he can move the puck and also defend better than people might expect.
When Jaroslav Halak is healthy, he will keep the Isles in games. Greiss seems capable, but the defense will have to work harder when he’s between the pipes.
I still don’t think Halak got enough credit for how he played last season, because the statistics don’t really tell the whole story. There were several nights where he bailed his team out, and he was excellent in the playoffs. People will fixate on the brutal goal he gave up in Philadelphia towards the end of the season, but there were far more good moments than bad ones. He’s a keeper.
X-factor: Thomas Greiss
As we’ve already seen this season and we certainly did in 2014-15, Halak is unlikely to be 100 percent wire to wire (Greiss is officially starting Friday night’s season opener against Chicago). The Islanders need a backup they can trust, and Chad Johnson was the exact opposite of that last season. Greiss doesn’t need to be super, but he does need to be capable.
The Islanders have stuck with Jack Capuano, even though there have certainly been opportunities to hire more experienced coaches over the past few years. This is his last shot to get this team over the hump, in my opinion. If the Isles don’t win a playoff spot – or worse, they get off to a bad start – he’s out.
His offensive system works for this group and the players like him, but at the end of the day this is a business. As important as it is for a coach to have a good relationship with his players, you also need someone who can get the most out of them. I remain unconvinced that Capuano’s the right man to lead the Islanders to the next level.
The Metropolitan Division is going to be tight, but I don’t think you’ll have three or four teams really vying for first place. I think you’ll have two separate races: the Rangers and Capitals for the division title, and the Islanders and Penguins (perhaps Columbus works its way into that mix as well) to determine who gets third place and who ends up in a wild card spot.
As for how exactly they’ll finish, I predict the Isles to finish third in the Metro with a record of 47-26-9 (103 points), ahead of fourth-seeded Pittsburgh (102), and behind the Rangers (109) and Capitals (110). It’s going to be close quarters, so Tavares & Co. have little to no room for error.
This is a good team, and it’s going to be fun to watch (even from an obstructed view). A key trade deadline acquisition may be something to strongly consider as we go along, but at minimum, the playoffs are a completely reasonable expectation.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI