Season Preview: Summer in Review

It’s the first day after Labor Day, so school is back in session and most people are home from vacation and back to their normal schedules. Here’s what you may have missed if you haven’t checked in with us over the past couple of months…

divisionsWeird and new: There’s a new divisional alignment in place for when the season starts up in October. Gone are the six, five-team divisions and instead we get four divisions: two of them with seven teams and two with eight teams.

The Islanders are in the Metropolitan, which is confusing because there is still an Atlantic division, and both of those are eight-team divisions. The Eastern Conference ends up with two extra teams in it, not for any specific reason but likely because there is some expansion or relocation coming down the pike. So now the Blue Jackets and Red Wings are in the East, Winnipeg has been shipped out West, and the Islanders are now in the same division they were, just with Columbus, Washington and Carolina added in. There will be a quiz on this later.

Who’s In: The Islanders had a very quiet summer when it came to adding new players, so you’re not going to be seeing a much different team than the one from April (save for some prospects, more on that in the coming days…).

Pierre-Marc Bouchard was a free agent winger brought in from Minnesota, who will probably find a place in the top-six, at least to start things off. He could even take a turn as the “new guy that plays on Tavares’ right wing.” Another free agent acquisition was Peter Regin, an oft-injured center who has some potential when healthy, and it’s not quite clear where he fits in. He could be the third line center, replacing Keith Aucoin, or that spot could go to Brock Nelson.

Also in is Cal Clutterbuck, a tough, hit machine similar to Matt Martin. Clutterbuck has a bit more of a scoring touch than Martin — career high of 19 goals a few seasons back — but now the Islanders have the two top hit producers in the league from last season. They surely won’t be short of toughness, hits and grit. Clutterbuck was acquired from Minnesota in a trade that sent Nino Niederreiter there on draft day.

Who’s Out: Well, Nino Niederreiter for one. Also Mark Streit (traded to Philly) and a whole host of players who were not re-signed, including: Brad Boyes, Jesse Joensuu, Marty Reasoner, David Ullstrom and, uh, Tim Thomas. Radek Martinek hasn’t been re-signed, but I wouldn’t bet against him at least getting a look in training camp as a depth defender.

Oh yeah, and the Islanders bought out Rick DiPietro. So we can all move on from that saga.

hamonicBuilding from within: One thing the Islanders did do a lot of over the summer was re-sign their own “core” players. Travis Hamonic is the big one that comes to mind, as he signed a seven-year deal in July. Josh Bailey also got a long-term deal, five years, and avoided arbitration. Cal Clutterbuck got a four-year extension before ever touching the ice in an Islander uniform and Thomas Hickey got two extra years. Kevin Poulin and Evgeni Nabokov both got one-year deals, meaning we’ll have to wring our hands over the goaltending position all over again in the spring.

What to watch this season: Now you’re all caught up on the summer, that’s excellent. What’s the story heading into this season? Well, the most important question that needs to be answered is can the Islanders repeat, and even build off of what happened last spring? Now that they’ve developed this core of players to build the team around and have them all in place on multi-year deals, they need to perform. While the playoffs were a bit unexpected last year and a feel-good story, the team still lost on the first round and not only that, they had to get a serious hot streak going late in the season to get there. So this year, can they reach the playoffs again and perhaps win a series? That’s the goal. We’ll discuss this in more depth over the coming weeks.

As we head into training camp, the Islanders have a number of prospects waiting in the wings that could make the team. There’s the stud of the group, Ryan Strome who has certainly outgrown the CHL. He will make for an interesting decision as to whether the team wants to keep him in the AHL initially and make him a mid-season callup, or if he will make the team straight out of camp. My hunch is that to keep the pressure off, the team starts him in the AHL and he comes up mid-season.

Then there’s also a pair of defenders, Matt Donovan and Calvin de Haan, who have both waited a long time for their shot at the big show. de Haan is coming off a shoulder injury while Donovan had a successful season in Bridgeport. There is likely one defensive spot open on the NHL roster, and it’s probably Donovan’s for the taking, but nothing is set in stone.

And there are some other forwards who have a shot at the roster; Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Kirill Kabanov are the front runners. But there’s also Johan Sundstrom and John Persson as well. Griffin Reinhart, Adam Pelech, Andrey Pedan and Scott Mayfield are four defenders waiting in the wings, but they will likely not be under consideration this year, barring injuries. The defensive race to make the team is going to be crazy next year.

Finally, one more thing to watch is that Matt Moulson’s and Andrew MacDonald’s contracts are up at the end of the season. For Moulson, it would be surprising if team and player didn’t reach a deal easily in 2014, as he’s been an excellent player on Tavares’ left wing for years now. For MacDonald, the team has to decide if they want him in their long term plans, as he is due a hefty raise from the $575k that he’ll be making this season. With all the defenders in the pipeline, and the fact that he should be looking for a big payday, it’s tougher to say what the outcome will be.