The Islanders made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2006-07 and that was not the only piece of good news for the organization. They also signed a long term lease to start playing their home games in Brooklyn (Barclay's Center) beginning after the 2014-15 season (although there is some thought that they could move there after this season). Why is this good news? For years top notch free agents seemed to be avoiding the Islanders because of the uncertainty of where the team would end up (Kansas City, Ontario, Quebec). Now they are playing in a brand new arena in New York City, which should only help the franchise attract prospective free agents.
As for the team on the ice, there is no denying they are getting better, but they are still far from a Stanley Cup contender. The defense remains woefully inadequate and it was no secret that the team was looking for an upgrade in goal during the offseason. Former captain Mark Streit is now in Philadelphia after the two sides could not come to an agreement on a new contract. Although Streit is not the defenseman he used to be, especially in the defensive zone, he was still a highly valuable member of the Isles' defense that they now hope to replace from within. At this point in time, it remains to be seen if any of the Isles' young defensive prospects can step up to fill that role.
The Islanders gave the Penguins all they could handle in the first-round of the playoffs last season but ended up going down in six games. The biggest reason for the loss to many, was goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. A team like Pittsburgh will score plenty of goals on their own without any help from a goalie that looks, old, tired, and slow. The Isles wanted to take a run at Ray Emery but he decided to sign a one-year deal with Philadelphia in order to go for a big contract next summer. They tried to trade Nino Niederreiter to Los Angeles for Jonathan Bernier, but the Kings liked the package they received from Toronto more. In the end, the Isles settled on re-signing Nabokov. The team is gambling that one of their young netminders (Kevin Poulin, Anders Nilsson) will be able to take over this role, sooner rather than later.
The Islanders elected once again not to spend money in the free agent market this offseason but rather going the trade route to try and upgrade the team. The question is, did the trade of Niederreiter (former fifth overall pick) to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck, really improve the team or was this the definition of selling low on a player? Niederreiter was banished to the AHL last season after criticizing the organization and how they used him the season before. Whether he was right or wrong in his criticism really doesn't matter, you just don't trade away a high upside player, one you never really gave a chance to, for a bottom-six forward, granted, one who will do all the dirty work you need. This once again wreaks of owner Charles Wang and the extreme stubbornness he possesses.
One big question for the Islanders and Wang is whether or not he will spend money on free agents when they do move to Brooklyn? Will he want to make a splash in order to gain fan and media support?
As for this season, the Islanders will more than likely be in the playoff hunt, but an argument can be made that they are worse, not better than they were last season. The offense is pretty much the same with the exception of Pierre-Marc Bouchard and he would hardly seem to be a difference maker. The defense and goaltending are huge question marks as mentioned above and with the addition of two extra teams to the Eastern Conference (Detroit, Columbus), plus the season going back to 82 games, the Isles could very well find themselves on the outside looking at the playoffs this year.
The Big Guns
John Tavares (C): Tavares announced himself loud and clearly last season as one of the best players in the NHL. Tavares scored 28 goals in 48 games and surely would've potted 40+ had this not been a lockout-shortened season. He is a sniper that seems to be getting better and better each year and that should continue as the Islanders build up the talent around him. If Ryan Strome were to play on his line, it will give defenses another highly skilled forward to worry about and should give Tavares even more room to work his magic. A first-round fantasy pick in almost all leagues.
Matt Moulson (LW): You can say whatever you would like about Moulson, how he is just riding on John Tavares' coattails and that he really doesn't possess all that much talent. Bottom line is he knows how to be in the right spot at the right time and puts the puck into the back of the net. That is called hockey sense. Playing second fiddle to Tavares doesn't bother him and he's not afraid to go to the front of the net and score the ugly goals. They all count. Moulson seems a lock to score somewhere in the vicinity of 30 goals once again this season and seems to be the perfect complement to Tavares on the top line.
Lubomir Visnovsky (D): Once the Islanders traded Mark Streit to the Flyers, Visnovsky became the Islanders' number one offensive defenseman and it's not really even close. Visnovsky will anchor a power play that should continue to be dangerous and it would be an upset if he didn't produce double digit goals this season. Visnovsky had some issues during his first season on Long Island but once he started to play everyday, both he and the team were very happy with the results.
On The Rise
Josh Bailey (LW): Bailey had 11 goals and 19 points in 38 games for the Islanders last year, by far his best season to date, and it was enough to earn him a long-term contract from the Isles. What was even more impressive was that Bailey finally started to look like a true offensive threat during the second half of the lockout-shortened season. Bailey will remain on the second line and there are no plans to give him playing time with John Tavares but he can still make an impact offensively playing with Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. Where top prospect Ryan Strome plays - if/when he makes the team - could also help Bailey's value as Strome is the kind of player that the defense will have to account for when he is on the ice. This could make life even easier for Bailey if those two play on the same line.
Kyle Okposo (RW): Okposo had a terribly disappointing regular season for the Islanders, scoring only four goals in 48 games. His name was rumored to be on the block at the trade deadline, letting you know how far his stock had fallen. What makes matters even worse was that he started the season playing on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson but was removed for questionable play. Now the good news. The playoffs seemed to light a spark under Okposo as he netted three goals in six games. The Isles will be hoping he will use that as a springboard to the 2013-14 season as he will play on a line with Josh Bailey and either Frans Nielsen or Ryan Strome.
Travis Hamonic (D): The trade of Mark Streit now leaves Hamonic as the Isles' best all around defenseman. The problem is Hamonic is still much better on defense than he is on offense. Lubomir Visnovsky will anchor the power play but Hamonic should get a chance to partner with him which could be a boost to his fantasy value.
Two To Watch
Ryan Strome (C): Strome is the Islanders top offensive prospect. He has the tools and the talent to be a top-line player. With Niagara of the OHL, he scored 34 goals and added 60 assists in 53 games. He is a player worth watching and is expected to break camp with the Islanders. Another interesting tidbit is that the Isles are toying with the idea of moving him to wing. This transition would allow the team to pair him on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson, forming what could be one of the top 10 scoring lines in the NHL.
Kevin Poulin (G): This could be a make-or-break season for Poulin as the Islanders will need to find out if he has the talent to be a starting NHL goaltender or if he will be a career backup. Poulin should play about 20-30 games this season as the understudy to Evgeni Nabokov allowing the Islanders to get a better read on his future. Should Poulin stumble this season, he could find himself back in the AHL.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard (LW): Bouchard was the Islanders' biggest free agent addition this offseason and could be rewarded with a spot on the top-line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. Bouchard has always been a player who looks like he should perform better than he actually does. He has also had injury problems (concussion) that have kept him off the ice for a considerable amount of time. Bottom line, he may get first crack at playing with John Tavares, but if he doesn't perform well in camp or in the early season, the Isles aren't invested in him enough to keep him there.
Evgeni Nabokov (G): Nabokov was not the Islander's first choice to start in goal for this upcoming season. Ray Emery was, but Nabokov was re-signed when other options fell through. He had a solid regular season in 2012-13 but is not the type of goalie who is going to bring you to the next level, not at this point in his career. Problem for the Islanders is that they just don't have enough trust in any of their young goaltenders to just hand them the job. Nabokov struggled mightily in the second half of back-to-back games and fell apart in the Islanders' first round playoff series loss to Pittsburgh. Was his poor play due to the Penguins explosive offense or was Nabokov just tired from the amount of work he had during a shortened season? Look for the Islanders to pay careful attention to his workload this season.
Matt Donovan (D): Donovan is the closest of the Islanders' defensive prospects to being ready to make the team. That being said, with all of the signings, the Islanders might have room to carry one or two prospects. If the Islanders feel he won't get the necessary minutes to continue to improve at the NHL level, they may feel it is best for his future that he continue in the AHL, even though he doesn't really have anything to prove at Bridgeport.
Anders Lee (C): Lee actually played in two games for the Islanders at the end of last season, scoring a goal and assist. Lee proved offensively that he may be ready to play in the NHL, but he did have problems in the defensive end. Coming out of college, Lee may need a little bit more seasoning in the AHL to get used to professional hockey before he is ready to become a full-time member of the Islanders.
Calvin de Haan (D): The knock on de Haan ever since he was drafted by the Isles has been that he is undersized and wouldn't be able to handle the defensive rigors of playing everyday in the NHL. Unfortunately for de Haan and the Isles, those prophecies seemed to have come to fruition as he has had multiple surgeries. Although de Haan will once again be given a chance to make the team out of training camp, another season - hopefully an entire one - at the AHL level is much more likely.