The New York Islanders haven't made the playoffs since the 2006-07 season, but that doesn't mean they aren't improving. Several bottom-five finishes have netted the Islanders players like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Nino Niederreiter, and Ryan Strome. General manager Garth Snow has also turned a couple of waiver signings into pure gold in Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner. The Islanders have the offense to compete for a playoff berth, but injuries, lack of depth on defense, and the inability to admit their mistakes with Rick DiPietro continue to hold the team back. Finances aren't a problem as the team is well below the salary cap.
The Islanders are loaded with young talented players both on the NHL roster and in the minor leagues, and may already be a playoff team if not for the fact that landing a premier free agent has been next to impossible. The team has been turned down time and time again by prominent free agents who don't want to play in an outdated arena for a team that is not yet on the cusp of Stanley Cup contention. This situation may not resolve itself anytime time soon as the Islanders couldn't get a referendum passed that would allow the team to build a new coliseum at taxpayers’ expense. Because of this, the team has no idea where it will be playing in 2015 and this will continue to cause top free agents to avoid signing with the team.
THE BIG GUNS
John Tavares (C): Tavares has proven the Islanders made the right choice when they selected him first overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. Tavares scored 24 goals his first season with the club, and 29 his second season. As the Islanders add more and more talent around him, approaching 40 goals shouldn't surprise anyone. Tavares does seem to score his goals in bunches and can go into prolonged slumps, but that is not all that unusual for a goal scorer. The Islanders are an improving bunch and although keeping the puck out of their net has been a problem, scoring them has not.
Matt Moulson (LW): There were those who may have doubted that Moulson could top his breakout season in 2009-10 when he had 30 goals and 18 assists after being claimed off waivers by the Isles, but Moulson put those doubts to rest with 31 goals and 22 assists last season, proving that he is not a fluke. Sure, we would like to see his helper totals get a little better, but in the fantasy world goals are what we pay for and Moulson can produce those at a price you can afford to pay.
Michael Grabner (LW): Grabner is where Moulson was a season ago; a player signed off the waiver wire that went out and produced a fantastic season (34G, 18A). Grabner seems to finally have learned how to use his speed as the Isles had set plays to get him the puck in the open last season. Once he has a step on you, he's gone. One negative for fantasy owners is that the Islanders didn't use Grabner on the power play as much as you might think. He had only two power-play goals, and though that total should rise, it may not rise enough for those of you who play in leagues that heavily reward PPGs. Grabner is, however, a threat to score shorthanded goals as his speed can get him in the clear quite quickly.
ON THE RISE
Blake Comeau (LW): Comeau had the best season of his career last year with 24 goals and 46 points, and he’s just another one of the Islanders’ impressive young forwards. He is unlikely to play on the top two lines as those spots have been reserved, but he is still a valuable member of the team that can play in all spots and still put up some decent numbers from the third line in addition to his power play time.
Frans Nielsen (C): Nielsen is the definition of a two-way player, someone who plays as well in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone. Nielsen has been talked about as one of the best-unknown players in the NHL for a couple of seasons now. He may have to stay that way as he is not as flashy as some of his leaguemates, and even with the Islanders he seems to play more of a second fiddle role -- with the exception of the shootout, where he seems to be close to automatic when going to his backhand.
Travis Hamonic (D): The Islanders have been waiting for Hamonic to develop enough to make the team and finally received their wish last season. Hamonic scored five goals and added 21 assists in 62 games and wasn't afraid to take on a physical role with over 100 penalty minutes. Hamonic is the first in what could be a long line of players to help out the Islanders on their blue line, something the team has been missing over the past couple of seasons.
TWO TO AVOID
Al Montoya (G): I'm not here to dump on what Montoya did for the Islanders last season. He played brilliantly for the team when acquired from Phoenix. The problem is Rick DiPietro is still on the roster. It seems the team still doesn't want to give up on DP, thus allowing him to stay on the roster and compete for the starting job even though he may be no better than the fourth-best goaltender in the organization as of now. As long as DiPietro is on the roster, it's hard to see any Islanders goalie being fantasy relevant in anything except the deepest of leagues.
Pierre Parenteau (RW): True, he plays on the top line with Tavares and Moulson and had nine power-play markers among his 20 goals last season, but the Isles have quite a few top prospects that could take over his top line status, not to mention steal power play time. Yes, Parenteau had a really good season and has earned a spot on the team, but he is not someone the Islanders are expecting to lead them in their Stanley Cup pursuit, so they won't feel amiss in removing him from the top line and those important power play minutes.
Nino Niederreiter (C): Rated as one of the top 10 prospects not yet in the NHL, Niederreiter looked out of sync in his first taste of the NHL, only scoring a goal and an assist in his nine NHL games. However, he didn't sulk when sent back to his WHL team, scoring 41 goals in 55 games. He will once again break camp with the team this season, but this time will be here to stay. He won't play on the top line with Tavares, but shouldn't be buried on the fourth line either. He is a player to watch as the Islanders are banking on him to be a big part of their future.
Ryan Strome (C): Strome was the Islanders’ first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and is the type of player the Islanders have been lacking since Pierre Turgeon was traded, someone fans will pay to see. Strome has as much talent as just about anyone and there is little to nothing he can't do on the ice. He is a highlight reel waiting to happen. Whereas in the past the Isles have rushed their top picks to the NHL, they won't feel the need to do so with Strome as they aren't as inept offensively as they once were, but it's a good bet that Strome will be on Long Island sooner rather than later.