Sunday, August 5, 2012

Atlantic Division Preview: New York Islanders

John Tavares and Evgeni Nabokov lead the way for the Islanders in 2012-13.

Last season, the Islanders finished 34-37-11 with 79 points finishing last in the Atlantic Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference. It was another retooling year under Jack Capuano, whose club endured some growing pains before recovering. Perhaps expectations were too high for a team that didn't have enough scoring or defense.

One of the issues that's plagued the Islanders has been Rick DiPietro's health. Fortunately, Evgeni Nabokov decided to play on Long Island instead of causing more headaches. The veteran netminder was solid in his first year for the Isles, winning 19 games while posting a 2.55 GAA, .914 save percentage with two shutouts over 42 contests. Even with Garth Snow removing DiPietro from the injured reserve due to the CBA, Nabokov is expected to carry the burden. You can't expect much from youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, who are still in the development stage. Our guess is as good as anyone's on what DiPietro has left. If the Isles are to be taken seriously, they need consistency in net. At 37, Nabokov can't be expected to start over 60. Even that's a stretch.

Aside from goaltending, the Islanders need stronger support for top scorer John Tavares. In his third year, the 21-year old former first overall pick improved from 29 goals and 67 points in '10-11 to career highs in goals (31), assists (50) and points (81). Most encouraging was his minus-six. An area he struggled in. JT91's stronger skating and magic touch soon could put him among the game's best. If he can get off to a better start in '12-13, the sky's the limit. Consistency will be the key. He and sniper Matt Moulson (36-33-69) have formed a dynamic duo with both combining for 67 of the Isles' 203 goals. They accounted for a whopping 33 percent. If you include former Islander P.A. Parenteau (signed with Colorado), the cohesive trio connected just under 50 percent of the team's power play goals (Moulson-14 Tavares-7 Parenteau-6). As a team, New York totaled 45 including five from Frans Nielsen and three apiece from Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit.

With Parenteau cashing in with the Avalanche, Snow gambled on former 40-goal man Brad Boyes. He once totaled 76 goals and 137 points over two seasons with St. Louis. The trouble is he hasn't been the same since with the Blues dumping him on Buffalo where he frustrated Western New York. In an injury riddled '11-12, he had only 23 points (8-15-23) over 65 games. At 30, can a player with his skill set really be done? Boyes isn't overly big (6-0, 204) but has something to prove on a one-year contract. He has to do better with Tavares. The Isles need him.

Aside from Boyes, it's up to ex-first rounders Okposo and Josh Bailey to perform. They've been around too long to go through prolonged scoring slumps. Even with better finishes, neither cracked 50 points. Capuano needs a consistent second line. He knows what he'll get from Nielsen, who's developed into a solid player who's a third liner on a contender. The jury's still out on Michael Grabner (54 goals in 2 years). Second seasons are usually tough. I'd put more stock in the gifted Grabner lighting the lamp than either Okposo or Bailey. He's more of a finisher. At least Bailey became a fixture on the penalty kill netting a team best three shorthanded goals. Sooner or later, Okposo has to fulfill his potential. He once scored nine power play goals. Only three of 29 the past two seasons (117 games) have come on the man-advantage.

One area Snow addressed was team toughness, adding defenseman Matt Carkner and enforcer Eric Boulton to a roster that features Matt Martin. Martin is the Isles' toughest player who can not only fight but also contribute as his seven goals and seven helpers suggest. He finishes every check and is a great teammate. Like Devil David Clarkson, he needs to become more disciplined. There's no reason why he can't double that output. With Carkner around and Boulton, he can become a better player under Capuano. The kind who'll be a pain in the ass for foes.

Aside from adding Carkner to beef up the blueline, he also went out and got Lubomir Visnovsky. Even though the offensive-minded vet is having an arbitrator decide if Anaheim violated his no-trade clause with the Slovak entering the final year of a five-year deal originally signed with Edmonton, expect him to be an integral part of a D that has Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic. Visnovsky's experience should prove instrumental in allowing the organization to ease prospects Ty Wishart, Matt Donovan, Calvin de Haan and Aaron Ness along. If they're lucky with health, the top five should include Carkner, meaning two spots are up for grabs. Defensemen take patience. How they're handled could prove pivotal to the club's future.

The Islanders will also keep a close eye on 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome, who one day could fill a void as back up for Tavares. Strome is very talented with great wheels and vision. He's only 19 and shouldn't be rushed like Nino Niederreiter, who must be handled differently in his third pro year. El Nino has great two-way potential along with physicality. The forgotten man looms large. David Ullstrom should be back.

Other kids include Casey Cizikas, Johan Sundstrom and Brock Nelson. On paper, depth isn't a problem. But it's still a long-term project with the Islanders in the best division. The Devils, Flyers, Penguins and Rangers are all better. Is this the year they make a dent? Stay tuned.

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