The Islanders 2011-2012 Preview – Commitment to Long Island

Note:  This is a combined collaboration of all three writers of Eyes on Islanders:  Gary Harding, John Panarese, and Rob (Doc) Finkelstein.

(Gary Harding)The Islanders 2011-2012 slogan is not just four words.  It is going to be the culture of the team.  With the issues of the new arena, and the subsequent defeat at the polls in the summer,

40th anniversary logo - courtesy of the New York Islanders

along with the constant rumors of the team going somewhere else, I can state with all certainty, that the Islanders WILL be on Long Island this year. They will be at the Coliseum for the next three years after that, and I know that they will be ready to commit themselves to take on the best of the NHL head on.  This team has every intention to prove to the pundits and naysayers that Long Island is NOT an inferior place to play and this team that is a solid hockey club, ready to move up the NHL ladder.

When you look at the Islanders 2010-2011 Season, you see a tale of two halves.  The first involved lengthy trips to the disabled list to two key players. Mark Streit’s shoulder at the first team practice at last year’s training camp that lost him for the entire season and  Kyle Okposo’s shoulder issues, kept him out of the lineup for over half the year. Then, the most troublesome item was the ‘one win in 20’ scenario which led to the firing of Coach Scott Gordon.  This was a hockey team that, at times, appeared to just be going through the motions; looking listless and tired.

Then along came a “Gremlin” to save the day and the second half of the season.

The man, who was unceremoniously dropped from the Panthers during training camp and was traded from Vancouver three months earlier, was this year’s find by Garth SnowMichael Grabner stole the show at the All-Star skills skating competition blowing out every competitor.  Then he could not stop scoring, as well as tweeting. 

Mr. Gremlin - photo courtesy of cbc.ca

Grabner, in my opinion, the Rookie of the year had the most goals by a freshman with 34.  It seemed like every game, number 40 would have at least one breakaway, if not 3.

Grabner, along with P.A. Parenteau, was last season’s version of Matt Moulson. The two, along with the improvement of Blake Comeau, Moulson and John Tavares, were instrumental in giving the Islanders the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference during the second half of the season. 

Then the Islanders started a new game show on Long Island called, “Wheel of Goaltenders, starring Dwayne Roloson and Rick DiPietro, then Kevin Poulin, Mikko Koskinen, Nathan Lawson and finally Al Montoya. (Note – which one gets the role of Vanna White???)  These six guys all had serious positives and minuses on the season.  With a 100% healthy DiPietro, Montoya, and now Evgeni Nabokov, it will be quite a camp to see who goes where.

Jack Capuano, who comes to his first full season as NHL coach, will be given a good young group of players to motivate and develop into an exciting group, who we feel can compete with the rest of the NHL and not be an easy two points for opponents.

As we preview the 2011-2012 campaign, we will analyze what the team saw leave the organization, as well as who they acquired, how each group of players will be set up – the intangibles that the Islanders will deal with, our predictions and conclude with how we think the team will stand up with the rest of the NHL.

New Players and Departed Players

(Robert Finkelstein) Heading into the 2011-12 season, the Islanders will be without the services of several players who made key contributions over the past couple of years:

  • Defenseman Radek Martinek signed a one-year, 2.2 million dollar contract to play with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  
  • Center Zenon Konopka inked a one-way, one-year deal with the Ottawa Senators.  The pugilist led the NHL with 307 penalty minutes.  His new teammate Chris Neil was second with 210. Konopka also ranked fourth in the league as the Islanders best face-off man last year with a 57.7 face-off percentage (620 FOW/455 FOL).  
  • Bruno Gervais signed a one-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  He will probably be the team’s sixth or seventh defenseman. 
  • Rob Schremp will play overseas as a center for MODO of the Swedish Elite League.  He will look to rejoin the NHL again in 2012-13.
  • Doug Weight officially announced his retirement in May.  The 19-year veteran will stay with the Islanders as an assistant coach and special advisor to GM Garth Snow.  
  • Trent Hunter was traded to the New Jersey Devils for Brian Rolston.  Hunter, who missed most of last season with a torn MCL, then had his contract bought out by the Devils.  The veteran right-winger is currently an unrestricted free agent, and is attending the Los Angeles Kings training camp on a tryout basis. 

The Islanders acquired three key additions during the off-season:

  • Marty Reasoner was signed a two-year, 2.7 million-deal.  He will add a veteran presence to the Islanders crop of young talent.  Last year he tallied 14 goals and 32 points for the Florida PanthersThe Islanders plan to use him as a fourth line center and a face-off specialist, two roles of need caused by the departure of Konopka
  • Brian Rolston

    Rolston changes his red for Islander Blue - photo courtesy of nj.com

    was acquired in the deal that sent Hunter to the Devils.  He too was brought over to provide a veteran presence to the club. In addition, his 3 million dollar contract which brought the Islanders closer to the salary cap floor played no small part in his acquisition.  It will be interesting to see what exactly will be Rolston’s role.  He believes he can be a top-six forward, but it is hard to believe the Islanders not giving these positions to the youngsters.  Most likely he will man the point on the power play and may end up opposite Mark Streit on the first unit.

  • Tim Wallace signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Islanders.  He played the past five years with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organization, spending most of last year in the minors with their AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team.  There he registered 20 goals and 37 points in 62 games.  He was held scoreless in the seven games he played with the big club.  Wallace, who plays right-wing, will likely be used as organizational depth for the Islanders.

The Islanders have put together a group of outstanding young prospects that many consider second to none.  The youngsters most likely to have impact in the next couple of years are:

  • Ryan Strome was the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.  He is a plus puck handler and has great passing skills.  The center is considered an average skater but is expected to get better as he grows.  Strome has a good wrist-shot and is not afraid to go to the goal-mouth area.  Scouts are pleased with his work ethic.  The 18-year old projects to be a first line center who will probably make a number of All-Star appearances.  Strome still needs to fill out his lanky six foot, 175 pound body and prepare physically for the next level.  He most likely will spend the 2011-12 season in major junior hockey.
  • Nino Niederreiter was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.  The power forward works hard on both ends of the ice and has an above-average physical game.  His 6’2’’, 205 pound frame has filled out well and he is considered strong for his young age (18).  Some scouts questioned his work ethic after being sent down to the Portland Winterhawks last season, claiming he looked disinterested.  However, he is safely projected to be a good second line forward.  Niederreiter is almost certain to start the season with the Islanders.  However, he may initially have a tough time cracking a top-six role.  He should at least garner third line minutes so that his development and progress will not be stunted.
  • Calvin de Haan was selected in the first round as the 12th overall pick by the Islanders in 2009.  The 20-year old is considered a smooth-skating defenseman although he is does not exhibit above-average speed.  He is especially known as a plus passer who has great distribution skills.  He rarely gets rattled when under pressure and has good hockey sense.  His weakness is his lack of physical play and physical growth.  He still has yet to fill out his 6’1’’, 189 pound frame despite his age. Thus de Haan will most likely spend most of this season in Bridgeport (AHL) where he can get used to the rigors of the pro game.  There is no reason for the Islanders to rush him at this time.
  • We have also found out the Steve Staios, formerly of Calgary and Edmonton was invited to camp and could provide an additional piece of defensive depth.  Also – former Devil Jay Pandolfo was given a tryout as well.

Forward Outlook

 (John Panarese) Without a doubt, the offensive production for the Islanders is going to be a major contributor to the success or lack of success of the team this season.  Having 3 guys who scored 20 or more goals (PA Parenteau with 20, Blake Comeau with 24, and John Tavares with 29) and 2 with 31 or more goals (Matt Moulson with 31 and Michael Grabner with 34) certainly made a big difference, but we will need them to have repeat or even better performances as well as other guys stepping up to find the twine in order for the team to make the playoffs.

I expect to see the line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and PA Parenteau to continue to be kept together and develop their chemistry and skills further.  To me, unless newcomer Brian Rolston, is put on a line with JT and Moulson, the top line from last season should continue to be the “bread and butter” line for the Islanders.

If the Isles are short handed - look out for Frans Nielsen - photo courtesy of zimbio.com

Without a doubt, Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner should also be a duo that will pick up where they left off, and I see no reason why Kyle Okposo should not remain on wing with them.  Those three complimented each other in so many ways, and brought enough diversity to a line to make them a serious scoring threat and a solid defensive trio out on the ice.

Some of the questions, to me are, exactly where Brian Rolston will fit, aside from most likely, the power play.  Will Blake Comeau duplicate or improve on what he did last season, and can Josh Bailey really have a break out season to establish himself as a true part of the “core” of the team?  How big of an impact will Marty Reasoner’s presence have on the younger guys, his calming influence and face off skills aside?  Will Nino Niederrieter have a strong enough showing in camp and make the squad, and if so, exactly where will he fit in the lineup?  Might we see a surprise forward emerge from our prospects pool or will Garth Snow manage to snag another jewel like Matt Moulson or Michael Grabner who will surprise and delight the fans?

An additional question would be the possible contribution of former Devil Jay Pandolfo.  He was invited to camp, and he could cause an interesting dilemma for Mr. Snow, if he proves to be worthy of a spot.

 Overall, I feel we will see great things from our compliment of forwards.  I think, barring injuries, there will be an increase in the team’s total goal production.  Brian Rolston, I feel, is going to have a bigger impact then some might expect, and I am of the mind that Marty Reasoner’s contributions will go beyond the intangibles.  Whether or not we get an unexpected surprise from a prospect or by way of a trade, I firmly believe that Islander fans have a LOT to look forward to from the 4 lines Jack Capuano will put out on the ice for the blue and orange this season.

Defense

(Gary Harding)The makeup of the Islanders defensive corps resembled the triage room at the 4077th M*A*S*H.  When you look at the final stats for last season, you will

Mark Streit will get the chance to play this year and be 100% healthy - photo courtesy of NYI Booster Club

see 14 players with the letter D next to their name.  The number is 15, as Mark Streit did not see any playing time at all.  Last season, no backliner played more than 64 games (both by the departed Radek Martinek and Jack Hillen). 

With the veterans being healthy, this defensive corps is not a bad group.  Mark Streit will be counted on for 27-30 minutes a game, and be involved in all three assets of the game.  The two other 30+ defensemen, Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau are solid citizens, play a smart and stable game, and can provide experience and solidification of the back line.

Then you have the emergence of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic.  At the beginning of the season, AMac was destined to be number 6 or 7 on the depth chart; and Hamonic was expected to play a full season in Bridgeport to further develop his game.  But with Mottau and Eaton out of the roster by mid-season, numbers 47 and 38 (now Hamonic is number 3), were not only up full time, but playing major minutes in all three zones.  Not only were they featured, but were thriving; at times looking like major veterans, rather than the youngsters that they are.  MacDonald, only 25, and Hamonic, just 21, are going to be relied upon to be stoppers and studs, for which I feel that they are ready for.

The sixth defensemen on the club will be Milan Jurcina.  I don’t think that this is a direct result of him, but this team was well over .500 when Milan was in the lineup.  At 6 foot 4 and 240 pounds, the Islanders need at least one BIG man on the blue line, and he fits the bill.  He has a great shot as well as his strength in the neutral zone.

If we get any injuries that will take major time to heal, we can expect Dylan Reese and Mark Katic (he did get a shoulder injury in the rookie game, and is going to have surgery) to be the first to be called up.  Former first round pick Calvin deHaan will be relied to provide Bridgeport with major minutes and get his professional skills in order.  Could he be this year’s Travis Hamonic
Matt Donovan – who excelled at the University of Denver, will also be relied upon to give the Sound Tigers some serious minutes and be ready, just in case.

 Goaltending Outlook

 (John Panarese) Having used six different goaltenders and having dealt with significant injuries to their goaltenders, this is an area where the Islanders need consistency and solidity.  Although they did get great games out of just about all of the guys who were put between the pipes, the Islanders simply need their goaltending to shine and be an anchor for the team as a whole.

Islander fans hope DP will do this a lot this season - photo courtesy of Islanderspointblank.com

Goaltending will certainly be the most interesting development during training camp.  Besides Rick DiPietro and Al Montoya as expected candidates, the decision by Evgeni Nabokov to join the Islanders after his controversial decision to stay in Russia after he was claimed on wavers when reentering the NHL, will now add a third potential starting goalie to the mix.  This doesn’t even include considering the statements Kevin Poulin and Mikko Koskinen made with their play last season.  DP’s health, of course, is going to be quite telling for his role on the club, and the competition alone will be something he will have to deal with for possibly the first time as an Islander.  Frankly, I think it is going to be a real battle and an interesting process to see how this all plays out by early October.

 To me, I think goaltending can end up being one of the strongest facets for the Islanders this season.  It’s never a bad thing to have too many guys who can literally start at a position.  It also opens the door for a potential trade should, for example, Nabokov ends up playing well enough to attract interest from other teams.  Then again, since he is under contract for the season, Nabokov could also be that unexpected factor that could enable the Islanders to grab the 7 or 8 spot in the Eastern Conference when April comes along.

Special Teams

(Robert Finkelstein) The Islanders showed noticeable improvement in their specialty teams last year as compared to their dismal 2009-10 season.  They ranked 17th in the league recording a 17.2 power play percentage in 2010-11 after ranking 27th with a 16.0 percentage the year prior.   Their penalty kill percentage also improved to 83.2 percent (12th in the league) from 77.1 percent (29th in the league) in 2009-10.

Frans Nielsen led the NHL in 2010-11 with seven shorthanded goals.  Michael Grabner was second with six.

The Islanders were involved in 24 overtime contests last season resulting in an 11-13 record.  In those that involved the shootout, they were 4-6.

The Islanders will depend on Marty Reasoner to be their face-off specialist.  Last year he led the Panthers with a 54.5 percent face-off percentage (700 FOW/784 FOL).  The Islanders will also lean on John Tavares who ended last season with a 52.5 percent face-off percentage (693 FOW/626 FOL).

Until roles are defined in training camp, it will be difficult to speculate the exact make-up of this season’s power play units.  Most likely, Streit and Rolston will get first crack at the points since the Islanders have shown they are not afraid to use a forward back there.  I personally would like to see Travis Hamonic man the point, but it is probably Rolston’s position to lose.  The first unit will probably be a mix of Tavares- Matt Moulson- PA Parenteau-Streit-Rolston, and maybe Kyle Okposo-Nielsen-Hamonic-Andrew MacDonald with Blake Comeau or Josh Bailey on the second unit. The team added and enjoyed Parenteau’s right-handed shot for the power play last year, so don’t expect him to be demoted without a fight.

Coaching and Intangibles

(Gary Harding) Jack Capuano took over the coaching reigns from Scott Gordon in the middle of a one win in 20 stretch.  For any coach or manager, that is the most difficult time to get a team, especially when he was in Bridgeport before the change happened.  Not to say that Gordon was rigid, but you would get a feeling that he was stiff and regimented, and in many times, looked like he was using a poker face.  It does not make him a bad guy, in fact, the couple of chances that I got to talk to him, and he was quite nice and congenial.  I think this was just not the right environment, and Garth Snow realized that a change had to be made.

Enter Capuano.

Good sense of humor – that great New England accent, and was a lot more loose and relaxed than his predecessor.  He changed a little of the team culture, and that was readily noticed when I went to the locker room during post game interviews.  He was tough when he had to be, and from what I heard, was a crack-up in other moments.  He was a good fit, and the turnaround of the team’s fortunes was shown in the second half.  The hole was so far down, that if they had played just a few games under .500 before the coaching change, the Islanders would have been a playoff team.

Getting a full year under the belt will be just what the doctor ordered for the team, and the Islanders will benefit from that.

The GM's signature has done well for the Isles - photo courtesy of NYI Booster Club

As far as the General Manager goes, I can not say enough about what a great job that Garth Snow gets.  In many cases, he has done it almost in anonymity.  Each of the past few years, he has plucked a diamond in the rough.  Moulson, Grabner, Montoya, Parenteau are some of said examples.  Will Rolston or Reasoner be this year’s version?  Also – the fact that Snow has secured the core guys not only locking them up, but for multiple years.  He has a foundation on which to tinker and tweak to improve even further.  Given the fact, that the Islanders just cleared the salary floor, it can only mean that if the right move could be made in the late portion of the season, it can just happen.

Lastly, to the arena that Islander fans call home.  Yes, the vote was turned down.  However, in the grand scheme of things, there will be a new building in our future.  This team is not going away, no matter what these hockey experts and mayors of other cities think.  With expectations of an improving team, the fans will return.  Unfortunately, this area is known for supporting the Islanders when they are winning.  When they are not, the building is hollow and less than enthusiastic.  I really think that the team will improve enough to see people want to come back.  I know that the Islanders are aggressively making ticket packages to attract the fans back.  Let’s just hope it succeeds.

Predictions 

(Robert Finkelstein)  I leave the prognostications to my friends John and Gary.  However, I do see a team that is on the rise and can no longer be ignored.  The Achilles’ heel for the Islanders remains the potential revolving door at goal.  Will Rick DiPietro be able to extricate himself from the disabled list?  Will Al Montoya also recover from injury, and if so, will he be able to match his success from last year?  Will Evgeni Nabokov be able to shake off the rust after being two years removed from the NHL, and if so, will he then soon be traded? 

The Islanders look potent up front and if Streit can keep healthy, I like the mixture at the blue line. I see the team earning 85 points in a difficult division.  They will battle for the eighth and final playoff spot until the last game of the season.  Unfortunately, I see them losing a heartbreaking, overtime shootout decision on a dreary April 7, 2012 night in Columbus.  However, 2012-13 will then be the season that the hockey world will attribute to the origins of the next New York Islander dynasty.

(John Panarese) Can the Islanders make the playoffs?  Will the Islanders make the playoffs?  I am not one who is comfortable making predictions at the beginning of the season.  Usually, I end up being quite wrong, and sitting here scratching my head after the fact.

 However, I will go out on a limb and toss out a few early expectations or “beliefs” that I have “formulated” in my mind with the predictions based on a full season of relatively injury-free play.

1. The Offense:

John Tavares 35 goals (75 plus points), Matt Moulson 32 goals (50 plus points), Michael Grabner 38 goals, Kyle Okposo 20 goals (60 plus points), PA Parenteau 23 goals (55 plus points), Frans Nielsen 17 goals (50 plus points), Blake Comeau 25 goals, Brian Rolston 14 goals, Josh Bailey 17 goals, Matt Martin 12 goals, and Nino Neiderrieter (yes, he will make the team) 15 goals.

2. The Goaltending 

I’m not going to predict wins and losses at all.  That, to me, is too difficult a task.  I will say that Ricky will be able to play in 40 plus games and that Evgeni Nabokov will be traded to leave DiPietro and Montoya as the season tandem in net for the Islanders by the conclusion of the campaign.

3. The Team

I believe that if a trade of some kind is made by Garth Snow at the last minute or there is an unexpected surprise player who emerges onto the scene, the Islanders can grab a playoff spot in the conference.  However, all things being equal and me being the conservative in nature, I will predict a 9th or 10th place finish in the conference standings with 85 plus points and a record 2 to 5 games over .500.

(Gary Harding) I am going to stick with the summary report.  John likes to stick his neck out there, and I will allow that to happen. Ha!

The whole equation to their success is their health.  The first thing fans will do when a team has a lot of injuries it to blame the training staff.  Like the trainers are inside the players (literally) and telling them what to do….  Injuries in some cases, just happens.  Look at Jack Hillen getting whacked by an Ovechkin slapper?  What about Mark Streit out for the season on a harmless check. 

Simply put, if this team can stay healthy (significantly under the over 600 man games lost last season), this team can contend for a playoff spot.  There is NO doubt in my mind.  The more time that this nucleus stays together, the better they will get.  The offense will definitely improve with Okposo having a full season under his belt.  To have good solid vets like Rolston and Reasoner on the team will help the PP and PK respectively. 

With a stable defensive corps, the goalies will know what to expect and have easier decisions to make.  As for the netminders, do we carry 3?  And if we do – how does the playing time get split up?  We still have to believe in Ricky.  But if he falters, can Nabokov regain the form that got him 47 wins in San Jose?  Can El Cubano Montoya regain the form that shocked the league last season?

I think JT has a good shot for 40 this year.  The pressure off on the contract, he knows where he wants to be, and I think that will show.  It will be tough for Grabner to repeat his performance, but he has a great attitude and it is not out of the realm of possibility.  I also believe that Rolston is a key.  If he can get his scoring touch, and be the presence that he was in Minnesota, he could be the next Garth Snow success story in the making.

Bottom line, it usually takes about 92 points to make the playoffs.  I think the Islanders can get there.  I really do.  That is where I stand.

CONCLUSIONS

(Gary Harding)I remember a scene from a not so successful, but good ‘sports related’ movie, called “Cool Runnings”.  This was about the Jamaican Bobsled team making it from obscurity to the Olympic Games.  In one particular scene, the Coach, played by the late John Candy was giving a beat down to some of the team, for having a fight in a Calgary bar before the Olympics.  This was the dialogue:

Now maybe you haven’t noticed, but we aren’t exactly winning any popularity contests here. They hate me; they hate you; they hate us! Now if we’re even gonna think about qualifying, we’re each gonna have to sit down and take a nice deep look inside.”

 In my case, the word qualifying can be replaced with playoffs.  To many hockey fans, and a lot of hockey experts, the Islanders are has-beens; a perennial losing organization that doesn’t have the facility or the support to deserve a team, or win with the one that they have.  I don’t know about you in Islander Country, but that only gets me more enraged.  I think that Garth Snow has slowly, but surely built himself a stable of young players, and solid veterans that are ready to take their game to the next level.  He has a coach, Jack Capuano that is liked by the team, and will get the most out of every player that comes his way. 

 Then there are the players.  They are enthusiastic, they are passionate about the game, and are about each other.  I can not compare it to other locker rooms, because I have only been in this one after games, but there are 20 people in there that will go through hell, fire and brimstone for their teammates and that is the type of attitude that you want from your team.  They are not happy when they did not win, but they do not let it get them down.  They bear down, and get their thoughts back to the ways that it takes to win hockey games.

 On this 40th anniversary season of hockey on Long Island, this Islander club has the culture in place that can make losses in the past turn to victories, which just might turn people’s heads and take notice.  Just the formula that could possibly bring back the fans and the passion for a team that desperately needs them.

C’mon you Islanders.  Time to get to work!

Next up on the 30 previews, are our friends from 33rd Street and 7th Avenue.  Check in tomorrow, and see what they have to say about the Rangers.

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