Islanders Season Preview — How Does This Team Get Over the Hump, Beat Division?

Kevin Schultz , Islanders Point Blank:

Saturday the Islanders kick off their season against the Devils at the Coliseum. It’ll be an odd season with 48 games over a three and a half month span that are played exclusively against Eastern Conference teams. The Islanders are, yet again, looking to make a jump to a point where they will be competing for a playoff spot at the end of the season. The team is coming off another disappointing season where they placed 14th in the Eastern Conference and more than a dozen points out a playoff spot.

To be competitive this year, they’ll have to do it by beating their Atlantic Division foes, finding a defensive core that stays healthy and keeps the team competitive, and finding secondary scoring from someone, anyone.

Probably the most frightening part of all this is that the Islanders are going to play 18 of their 48 games against the Devils, Flyers, Penguins and Rangers. Those are four teams that are tough, give the Islanders fits on the road, and are almost always damn good teams. I’ve said it time and time again; that for the Islanders to truly be successful they’re going to have to take care of business inside the divison. This year that will be especially true with just over a third of the entire schedule played against the divison. They usually play 24 of 82 against the Atlantic. This year that number is 18 of 48. This year, divisional play is much more important. Are the Islanders so much improved that they are clearly better than their divisional foes? Other than possibly New Jersey who lost Zach Parise, I don’t think so.

When you start to look at the Islanders roster offensively, it’s practically a spitting image of the one they iced last year that scored an Eastern Conference low of 192 goals. Looking at the roster, there’s not much different offensively where we can definitively say that this team will score significantly more goals. Gone is Brian Rolston (good riddance), which frees up a spot for a younger player such as David Ullstrom, Casey Cizikas, or possibly Ryan Strome. Any of those players are an upgrade over Rolston, who couldn’t wait to slam the door on his way out but will any of his replacements post significant numbers to help this team get over the hump? Probably not.

Another player that will be missed — quite a bit more than Rolston — is PA Parenteau who was the team’s third leading scorer with 67 points. Whether you credit that production to Parenteau playing alongside Matt Moulson and John Tavares or not, that’s a point total that will sorely be missed. To replace Parenteau the Islanders signed up Brad Boyes, who had 72 points… In 2008-09. The Islanders will need Boyes to find his form and possibly do it away from Tavares, as Kyle Okposo is now the early nomination for the right wing on the top line. The Islanders will have to find secondary scoring whether it comes from Grabner, Boyes, Bailey or someone else.

Speaking of that top line, expect to see John Tavares to take another step forward. Tavares returns to the club likely in mid-season form, having spent the last few months playing with Mark Streit in Switzerland. That could be a great advantage over NHL defenses who didn’t spend the lockout on the ice. Tavares will again have three-time three-time three-time thirty goal scorer Matt Moulson on his line, as these two will be once again expected to carry the offensive load with whomever happens to be on their right wing at the moment.

Will this finally be the year the Islanders return to the playoffs? Since there is no Niederreiter, Strome, or other young offensive weapon to possibly progress and score goals, they’ll need Boyes, Okposo, Josh Bailey and/or Michael Grabner to step up. One, or hopefully many, of these players to take a step forward and score more goals to give this team a fighting chance.

On the other side of the puck, there are more questions.

With the acquisition of Lubomir Visnovsky, the Islanders seemed as though they had finally — if only for a year — found a significant blueline player to round out their top four, already composed of Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald. Visnovsky is a serious powerplay threat that would be great to pair with Mark Streit on the man advantage and also at 5-on-5. He will give the team a legitimate top-four, if he ever shows up and plays hard. That’s not a given.

After Visnovsky, the Islanders have added toughness on defense with Matt Carkner and newly acquired via waivers Joe Finley. Both are big guys that the Islanders desperately needed to try and keep opponents in line that the team should benefit greatly from. The worry with these two — as it always is with big, tough defenders — is whether or not they will be defensive liabilities.

After that, there’s Radek Martinek, Thomas Hickey, and a trio of Jon Landry, Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan waiting in Bridgeport.

The good news is that this defense is deep and rid of the aging veterans of last year (OK, except Martinek but he’s a much better option than Mottau or Staios). This defensive squad will be better than last year if it has a motivated Visnovsky and stays healthy. Maybe Hickey will be a surprise standout or one of the younger players from Bridgeport will step up. But most importantly, the defense needs to stay healthy. Shoving a fifth, sixth or seventh defender into a top-four role due to necessity isn’t going to be doing anyone any favors. It’s a bit of a patchwork, but I feel confident in saying that the defense should be a bit better this year.

Finally, we can discuss the goaltenders. The Islanders won’t be wasting a roster spot carrying a third goaltender this year, which will certainly help their flexibility when it comes to other positions (remember how they couldn’t bench underperforming players last year?). They will also likely depend on Evgeni Nabokov to carry most of the load. We’re still not sure what kind of level of play Rick DiPietro is at and at this point, his body is sort of a ticking time bomb. The Islanders were, to the surprise of many and credit to the team, able to talk Nabokov into staying for another year and be a stop-gap until the wonder twins in Bridgeport are ready to go. It seems as though to convince Nabokov, you would have had to promise to get rid of the goalie merry-go-round and promise him solid playing time. Maybe that’s just what they did.

Overall, the Islanders have a lot of serious questions. The offense is extremely suspect as it wasn’t upgraded and, with the loss of Parenteau, may have been slightly downgraded from last year’s squad. A squad that couldn’t score much. There are questions on defense, too, but those have more to do with a certain player reporting and staying healthy. If those two factors work out in the Islanders’ favor, they may end up with a pretty good blueline squad. If nothing else, it sure is deep. If the defense works out, then that will ease the pressure on the goaltender position.

The Islanders should be better in their defensive zone this year. Whether the offense can step up and contribute more is something that I’m not confident of and reamins to be seen. The Islanders were a -52 goal differential last year, and a lot of that blame falls at the feet of the worst offense in the conference. They’re going to need to score more if they hope to have any chance of playing past April. Will they? It depends, as always, on if secondary scorers can step up. Two years ago, they did.

For my money, I don’t know if it will happen this year. There are too many questions on offense and it’s tough to tell just how much improved the defense will be, since most of the additions were for depth. The Islanders will be more competitive than last year. John Tavares will take another step forward and Matt Moulson will be right there with him. Evgeni Nabokov should be able to shoulder the load in goal for at least one year and I believe the defense will be better. But I’m not sold on Boyes, Bailey, Grabner, Okposo and the rest of the secondary scorers being there to create a second threatening line.

The Islanders will be better but without an infusion of youth or significant offensive upgrades, it won’t be a significantly better finish. To be specific, I’m going to pick them to finish 11th in the conference. There are too many questions on offense, a huge problem in net if the starting goalie gets hurt, and the huge weight of divisional play in the schedule will be a killer, with 37.5% of the team’s games inside the Atlantic Division. I hope the Islanders make a playoff charge, it has been too long and this fanbase needs something good to cheer about (and it’s a heck of a lot more enjoyable to cover). I don’t believe this team is there yet.