Kevin Schultz, Islanders Point Blank:There’s been a lot written about the Islanders in training camp, and it’s been entirely positive. That’s for mostly good reasons and mostly deserved. The team has generally avoided serious injury to star players – sorry, Cal – unlike in past years when top players were lost for months or even the entire season during training camp. And for the Islanders specifically, last season ended on an especially high note despite the last game played ending in a loss. Plus, there are some young kids who could add to the team without necessitating the usual subtraction of other assets that are necessary for adding talented players.
But that’s really how it goes in training camp; teams can’t shoot themselves in the foot until the games actually mean something no matter how much we want to critique and dissect split squad lineups. Avoiding the injury bug – or like across town, the holdout bug – are about the only issues to really worry about.
Last year, the Islanders achieved what no one really thought they would; making the playoffs and hanging tough with one of the best teams in the league. But they struggled mightily for a good part of last season. Two months into last season’s four-month campaign no one really thought they would make the playoffs without a serious run – and then out of nowhere that run happened with an 11-1-2 record in the final 14 games.
But what if it was all too good to be true? After so many losing seasons, are we to believe that the Islanders have finally turned the corner? It was a shortened season after all with small sample sizes and less time for the cream to rise to the top. Are we so sure that last year wasn’t a fl… A fluke?
This is an Islander team that is still learning and evolving. They are all, generally, young – hell the captain is still only 23 – and are only getting their first taste of the playoffs. Surely, they are inspired by even last season’s six-game taste of playoff hockey and they’ve said as much.
A few things happened last year that the team will need to repeat, or in some cases avoid, if they wish to make it at least as far as last season.
- The team had very limited injury troubles in 2012-13, after some horrendously hurt seasons that saw them lose the most man games to injury in the league (even after accounting for the DiPietro factor). Whether the injury-free season or the injury-plagued seasons were the fluke is anyone’s guess, but in this rough and tumble sport, it’s always a matter of town before you have to pay the piper.
- Kyle Okposo and Evgeni Nabokov both had horrible starts to the season, and both finished the regular season strong. Both these players will need to put together solid, full campaigns or else the Islanders will only be on the brink of the playoff picture yet again. Nabokov is 38 and Okposo seems to be prone to slow starts, so neither’s success over the full season is guaranteed.
- Those first two points raise another question; what happens to the Islanders if Nabokov suffers from one of the two issues outlined above? Neither Kevin Poulin nor Anders Nilsson appears ready to make a push to become a full-time NHL goaltender.
- Speaking of bad starts to the season, Josh Bailey missed the first 10 games due to injury only to come back and have an excellent shortened season. Is his production a flash in the pan or is he, at age 23 (and yes, he’s still that young), figuring things out? The latter seems likely but again, we’re dealing with a small sample with which to evaluate.
These bullet points outline the major sticking point with this team; this is more or less the same group of players that qualified for the eighth playoff spot last season and they did it with a horrendous start and an excellent finish.
While the playoffs were a great experience for everyone involved and an achievement that deserves praise, given the last twenty years, let’s flash back to reality. It was still the eighth spot and a first-round exit. We’re not talking about the defending division champions here.
Sometimes, we need to take a step back and see last year for what it is; a great, two-month run that culminated in barely making the playoffs and in those playoffs a thrilling, edge-of-your seat playoff loss after years of missing the playoffs.
Success is far from guaranteed, although it is now expected as the fruits of a long and slow rebuild process have supposedly come to blossom. And that comes after what, for many teams around the league, could be considered a failure of a season.
As far as off-season transactions go, there wasn’t much to get excited about. Cal Clutterbuck is a nice addition and a good return for what could be called a bad asset but Clutterbuck not the different between eighth and a division title or long playoff run. Neither is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who when healthy is probably an upgrade over his predecessor Brad Boyes but arguably not an upgrade over Boyes’ predecessor PA Parenteau. Shuffling the deck chairs, I believe is the phrase that describes those transactions, namely that there still isn’t a bonafide solution for John Tavares’ right wing. Peter Regin, another off-season acquisition, could be good third-line player but he’s yet to be proven in the NHL even when healthy and his barely over the minimum contract is evidence of that.
The Islanders do have good things on their side, of course. The fact that these players did have hot finishes after a poor start, that they did stay healthy, that they likely learned something from the six-game playoff experience. There are young players who are looking to make an impact and could. There are some new additions who will certainly play key roles and might make significant contributions. They have a player who, when 82 games are said and done, will probably be agreed upon as the best player in the NHL.
But the last sentence of that paragraph is really the only one that I’d be comfortable wagering any money on.
To paint this team as a playoff lock or a team that has finally turned the corner or that Player X is definitely, totally guaranteed to have a break-out year is getting ahead of everything.
There’s still much work to be done and still lots of things to prove. Nothing should be taken for granted or assumed to be lest we forget that this year will mark the 21st anniversary of the franchise’s last playoff series victory.
It’s going to be a long season and it’s not going to be easy. Hopefully when all is said and done, we can say that yes, this team has turned the corner and the long, slow rebuild has paid off. But there’s still a long way to go.