Islanders 2013 Preview

The lockout heard ‘round the world ended when the NFL and its referees agreed to an 8-year deal in late September.  The lockout heard ‘round Canada and by a few people in the US ended just two weeks ago when the NHL and its Players Union finally agreed to a 10-year deal that will save the 2013 season.  The NHL and its teams will have an uphill battle to gain back the momentum and profitability the league was gaining in the years since the last lockout.  Casual fans have lost interest and sponsors lack trust and viewers that they have had in recent past.  Coming out of the last lockout, the league had a new product to showcase that was determined to increase scoring and become more fan friendly.  This time around, it’s the game and the rules are unchanged, making it harder to market to disheartened fans and casual followers.  The loyal fans will return of course, and for the loyal Islanders fans, I present a 2013 preview.

 

The Islanders were perhaps the only team to have positive news during the lockout, announcing in October that they will move to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn starting in the 2015-2106 season.  The move ends a period of uncertainty around the Islanders future on Long Island, as owner Charles Wang’s efforts to replace the Nassau Coliseum were repeatedly shot down by the Town of Hempstead.  The news is a welcome piece of good news that the Islanders and their fans have not had in a long time.  The Barclay’s Center is a state-of-the-art facility (although not built for hockey), that combined with its location in Brooklyn, will hopefully attract free agents that have not wanted to play in the oldest arena in professional sports in the Coliseum.  The new stadium, along with the Islanders prospects in their system have fans eager to enter the franchise’s next era, but for now, let’s look at what to expect this season.

 

The Star:

John Tavares.  The former #1 overall pick will once again be called upon to shoulder the offensive load for the Islanders.  JT has increased his offensive output in each of his first three seasons in the NHL and has yet to hit his ceiling.  The 22 year old, who received a fresh 6 year, $33 million deal this offseason, has been lighting it up for Bern in the Swiss-A League during the lockout, racking up 42 points in 28 games.  JT remains paired with his partner-in-crime, Matt Moulson, who has been a rising star in his own right, reaching the 30-goal mark in each of his first three seasons with the Isles.  The departure of PA Parenteau shouldn’t hurt their production this year as the Islanders have worthy replacements in Kyle Okposo, Brad Boyes, and dare I say, Nino Niederreiter.  Kyle Okposo is the heavy favorite here and has been playing on the top line during training camp.  Of course, it’s not all positives with a young player like JT.  Tavares needs to step it up in games against his Atlantic division rivals.  In 12 road games against the Atlantic, Tavares had 1, yes 1 goal.  And in the 24 total games against the Atlantic, JT was a -12 in the plus-minus department.  For the Islanders to make strides in this division, Tavares needs to play big in these games going forward.

 

The Kids:

The Islanders have had a number of Top 10 picks in recent years, and with that comes some sense of hope that the Isles will return to relevance.  Two key pieces of their future are Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart.  Strome has been a star in the OHL and on the international stage for Team Canada in the WJC.  This year he seems to have outgrown the OHL, currently with 62 points in 32 games (1.94 points per game), but has also shown in the WJC that his maturity level is not there yet, taking senseless penalties that hurt Team Canada.    Reinhart, the 4thoverall pick in the 2012 draft is a big, physical presence at 6-4, 202lbs, and like Strome, has also gained experience on Team Canada.  However, Strome and Reinhart have both been sent back to their junior clubs for further development.  While I think a 5 game tryout couldn’t hurt, I think this is a smart move: The Islanders rushed Josh Bailey and Nino Niederreiter to the NHL, and rushing Strome in a shortened season will not turn this franchise around or bring them to the playoffs, so it is not worth eating into his entry level contract (like the Rangers did last year by activating Boston College standout Chris Kreider for the playoffs).  Niederreiter was handled particularly poorly last season, as he was stashed on the 4th line and barely saw the ice for the first ¾ of last season.  He would have been better off logging lots of ice time in juniors or for the Islanders AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.  During the lockout, Nino has been playing for Bridgeport and has been scoring at a point-per-game clip.  Being able to translate this to the NHL would be an important step for the Islanders prospect, and the team’s hopes of getting any sort of secondary scoring that they have been lacking for a dogs age.  The big issue here: Niederreiter is not on the Isles opening day roster.  Looks like they’re leaving him in the AHL one season too late…

 

The Rest:

Frans Nielsen is perhaps the most underrated player in the NHL.  Nielsen played in every single game for the Islanders last year and was a rock solid two-way forward who excels on the penalty kill and in shootouts.  The Islanders will be counting on the same steady play from the Danish center once again.  The aforementioned Okposo will get the opportunity of his young career, starting the season alongside Tavares and Moulson.  This is his chance to capitalize and prove his worth the Isles and their fans.

 

On the blue line, Mark Streit returns as the Islanders captain and will anchor the Power Play.  Lubomir Visnovsky, the Isles “big” offseason acquisition, has done just about everything he can to avoid playing for the Islanders, but it appears as if his draft-dodging attempts will prove futile and he will be joining the Isles in early February.  He is starting off on the wrong foot for many of the loyal Orange and Blue fanbase, but let’s be honest, beggars can’t be choosers.  Matt Donovan should be called up from Bridgeport at some point this season, once the myriad of waiver pick-ups prove why they were on the waiver wire in the first place.

Evgeni Nabokov kept the Islanders in a great deal of games last year and will be relied upon heavily.  A healthy (cough, cough) Rick Dipietro can hopefully relieve Nabokov every few days to keep his 37 year old frame healthy, that is if the Islanders don’t buy Dipietro out of the worst contract in sports in the near future.  The Islanders have two promising young goaltending prospects in Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin, but ideally they can keep both in the AHL where they will get plenty of playing time.

 

The Outlook:

If the future’s so bright they have to wear shades, then the present requires a pair of night vision goggles.  JT and Moulson will be fun to watch, and we will likely see some young prospects get a shot (Donovan, Niederreiter, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Kevin Poulin), but the Islanders seriously lack depth.  Their secondary scoring will be an issue again, and the lack of meaningful additions to the blue line will prevent them from entering the next step of their rebuilding.  Combine that with playing in the best division in the NHL in the Atlantic, and the Islanders are likely to be in the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and likely have a Top 10 pick to look forward to once again.  One thing in their favour is the shortened season which levels the playing field a bit, especially if they can avoid the injury bug and others catch it.  But in reality, the wait to return to relevance continues, but a light appears to be forming at the end of the tunnel.  Or is that a train?

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