I. Prologue (Michael Willhoft):
When compiling the insights and analyses that often comprise a season recap, it’s important to start with the facts.
The New York Islanders finished the 2013 NHL regular season 24-17-7 (54 points) good for eighth in the Eastern Conference and their first postseason berth since the 2006-07 campaign.
The Isles also put a scare into the Pittsburgh Penguins, widely considered to be a Stanley Cup co-favorite with the Chicago Blackhawks, by forcing them to a sixth – and nearly a seventh – game in their opening-round series.
The Islanders spent the better part of their season announcing to the league that the term “also-ran” would no longer apply to them. This team made the playoffs ahead of schedule and generated interest in the franchise from the national media, dispelling preconceived notions about their quality of play.
All in all, it was a successful season in Uniondale, especially when it’s judged against the template laid forth in recent years. Finally, the once-maligned rebuild is bearing fruit.
One of the most difficult things to do as a sports fan is to stay balanced and resist the urge to overreact in situations concerning your team. That being said, it’s a great time to be an Islanders fan. The future of the team is bright; perhaps more so than any other franchise in the league.
There were several pleasant surprises over the course of the lockout-shortened 48-game season, not least of which was the “arrival” of centerman John Tavares. (The air-quotes are facetious; this kid arrived the second the Isles selected him No. 1 overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.)
Fans of the Islanders have been watching Tavares grow into a legitimate NHL superstar since his arrival on Long Island, and having the rest of the country be made aware of his skill-set was the icing on the cake that was the Islanders’ season in 2013.
In terms of league-wide relevance, the Islanders also arrived on the national stage this season. Vindication, thy name is [team general manager] Garth Snow.
Courtesy of Snow’s adherence to his five-year plan, the Isles are well positioned to build on the momentum in the wake year’s unexpected playoff run. In the following sections, we’ll break down the different areas of the team and put a bow on the season.
You can stop looking; your long-awaited EyesOnIsles year-in-review is here…
The Islanders had a fantastic year at the forward position when all was said and done. Early in the season, when the team was languishing through February with an 8-11-2 record, it was all about superstar John Tavares. But then suddenly things started to click as head coach Jack Capuano shook some things up within his line combinations. Secondary scoring started to produce, Kyle Okposo transformed into absolute beast mode on a line with Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey and the third line turned into one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
The maturation that we saw before our eyes of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald was so evident in their work ethic night in and night out, leading the forechecking pressure style that Capuano implemented. Martin led the league yet again in the hits category with 234 and would have been on his way to smashing his league record of 374 set just last season. Matt Moulson was on pace for yet another 30 goal season and Brad Boyes quietly earned his 1mm salary by projecting to 65 points over a full season of play. Michael Grabner also was back on his rookie goal scoring pace, tallying 16 in 45 games.
All told, the Islanders finished 7th in the NHL in goals scored with 135 and a 2.81 average per game. They placed 6th in shots per game at 30.9 and were tied for 4th in the league in fewest penalty minutes. Discipline, hard work and maturation were all key words that could be used to describe the Isles forward ranks this season.
And it all looks bright and rosy on the horizon as well. With Boyes the only major unrestricted free agent at the position this summer and the expected arrivals of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome, the Islanders are poised to be atop the league goal scoring ledger for a long time.
Position Grade : B+
Defensemen (Rich Diaz):
On the Fence About: Thomas Hickey
Matt Carkner would prove a ‘valuable asset’ this postseason, bringing the physical play Thomas Hickey could not; and on the two occasions Carkner was scratched in the playoffs, the Isles would see a downtick on the backcheck. Truth be told, by the time game 6 rolled along, Carkner was somewhat overshadowed by the more ‘dominant’ Penguins forecheck. Carkner wasn’t the best of defensemen this year (22 GP, 3 A, 2pts) and his lackluster speed doesn’t help the Islanders solve their defensive issues, but his grit, when in full gear, can come in handy in a pinch. But for my money, he’s a disappointment this year; I would add Joe Finely to that list, who at 6’ 8”, is just one inch shorter than Zdeno Chara but light-years away from the former Isles’s d-man’s talent. With Carkner we haven’t the soldier we need to help out throughout a regular schedule.
Radek Martinek played 13 games during this truncated season, but did manage to tally 3 goals and 1 GWG, which oddly enough, puts him in a 12-player tie for said distinction (Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, Travis Hamonic, and Thomas Hickey are the other defensemen with 1 GWG). But here’s a player who needs to stay healthy to give the Isles some stability after Hamonic and MacDonald. When you think about it, the Islanders have only 2 ½ defensive pairs (when healthy) of which to roll out on any given night: Mark Streit (who played all 48 games—more on him later) and Lubomir Visnovsky; Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald; Radek Martinek with Thomas Hickey? with Matt Carkner? with Brian Strait? I like a Martinek-Strait combination but they both have to stick around for the majority of the season to make any kind of impact. So, for Radek I cannot say he’s a disappointment as a player, but I’m disappointed that he’s still somewhat periphery (for whatever reasons) rather than a full-blown protagonist on the back-end of things.
Andrew MacDonald and Lubomir Visnovsky are ‘pleasant’ surprises regardless of postseason botches and/or injuries. Lubo tied Hammer for average ice time at 22:48 and finished the regular season with 14 points in 35 games; one must wonder what production could’ve come out of this new defensive acquisition had he not dilly-dallied his way to the Island. It’s enough to know that at a mere 5’ 10”, Lubo handles himself well on the offensive side of things; yes he’s lacking the size and grit necessary to hold a blueline and wreak havoc in the corners and along the boards. But again, I’d much rather have a smaller Lubo in there night after night than a Joe Finely, simply because Lubo can actually play hockey. A-Mac, on the other hand, leads all Islanders, with the exception of Mark Streit, for total ice time at 23:31 and his block shot percentage rivals any top d-man in the league. His injury crippled the Islanders chances to regain footing in the postseason, but most assuredly Mac will build upon the success. He finishes the year with 12 points (3 g and 9A) and most importantly, played all 48 games this season.
Travis Hamonic had a ‘strong’ year, all things considered, but his stat sheet doesn’t show his worth to the team. Hammer played with lots of courage and heart (he played hurt early on in the season, by the way) perhaps not with as much astuteness as he would like (remember those own-goal deflections mid-season? Remember his miscues in the playoffs?), but that has everything to do with a player who either does too much too fast, or one who approaches the sport wearing his heart on his sleeve, so that when having a bad game, is the first to come down harsh upon himself. Travis finished the year with 10 pts (3 g 7a).
Let me end this so-called analysis with Mark Streit. In few words, he ended the season at 27pts (6g 21a), played all 48 games, some of them poorly, and again, clocked in 23:31 of total ice time. He stands at 5’ 11’’ tall and sometimes looks like he’s 5’ 2’’. He doesn’t check nearly enough for my liking. Simply put: our Captain is not nearly as tough as Travis, or as fast as Lubo, and not nearly as nasty as Carkner. But he’s all that we have, and without his quarterbacking on the PP, the Isles would be up a creek without a paddle.
Position Grade : C+
Goaltending (Chris Triantfilis):
For the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Islanders had one, clear-cut starting goaltender. There were no question marks over the position. There was no Rick DiPietro carousel. DP was on the bench, but even before the NHL locked out its players, Islanders’ fans knew Evgeni Nabokov’s play would be key if the Isles expected to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 NHL season.
With no reliable back up, Nabokov started 41 out of 48 games for the Islanders in 2013. It proved to be a struggle at the beginning of the season for the Islanders workhorse, who didn’t play during the lockout. Through the first two months of the season, Nabby posted a record of 8-7-2, but the Islanders were winning in spite of Nabokov’s sub-.900 save percentage and above-3.00 goals-against average.
Fortunately for New York, Nabby re-discovered the magic that made him so popular on the Island by the middle of March. Over the final two months of the season, Nabokov went 15-4-5 in his 24 starts. His .928 save percentage and 1.76 goals-against average during the month of April proved to be a key factor to the Islanders’ first playoff berth six years.
The postseason didn’t go as planned for Nabokov, but what can you do? Without Nabokov, the Islanders don’t make the playoffs in 2013. If you disagree, Kevin Poulin and Rick DiPietro started a combined 7 games for the Islanders in 2013, but only one win (Kevin Poulin, April 2nd) came from those. Nabokov earned 23 of the Islanders’ 24 wins.
Position Grade : B
Coaching (Eric Bordin): It was an up and down season for Islanders Coach Jack Capuano. He started out this abbreviated season in his third year as Islanders head coach. Now, it’s hard to blame everything that has gone wrong in the past few seasons on one guy, but clearly with elongated losing streaks seemingly every season, he wasn’t exactly the savior the Isles were looking for. He was always an intense guy, and you can tell he cared. But, was he the answer?
But, unlike in previous seasons, Cappy’s boys started to turn to things around. With the help of assistant coaches Doug Weight and Brent Thompson, the Isles began to click. They were playing with an intensity and a heart we have not seen on Long Island for years. They were dominating with the heart on their sleeve mentality that, love him or hate him, Capuano has shown throughout his tenure on Long Island. The Islanders had an incredible April, going 8-1-4. Although they did falter a tad during the last few games, dropping them from the 6 spot to the 8 spot, they brought the playoffs back to Long Island, and jolted the once dormant fan base back to life.
Coaching Grade : B
What The Season Meant To Me
Michael Willhoft : My hopes for this team weren’t necessarily high, especially since the players had relatively no time to practice before the season started (thanks, lockout). I’m always excited to see the Isles take the ice at the beginning of the NHL season because there’s always the hope that this would be the year we could see something special.
Unfortunately, over the course of the past six seasons the team hasn’t played the caliber of hockey the fans hoped for. In response to a half-decade of relative mediocrity, I tempered my expectations in advance of the 2013 season, knowing that next year was supposed to be the one in which this young team broke out.
This year they were supposed to struggle, but next year they’d definitely be good. (Or so I tricked myself into believing.)
I’m glad that the boys proved me – and the oddsmakers – wrong over the course of the past four months. After opening the season as 85-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup, the fact that the Islanders made the playoffs and took the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins to six games was proof that they’re ready to contend for the foreseeable future.
I’ve always been proud to be a fan of the New York Islanders, terrible seasons be damned. It was almost like a badge of honor, liking a team that all too often found itself at the bottom of the NHL standings at year’s end.
Now it seems like I’ll be discarding that badge in favor of being able to root for a team that has the capability to win games in May, and hopefully, in June.
For those interested, I’ll no longer be running that support group – Islanders Fans Anonymous – in the church basement on Tuesday nights during the season anymore. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t really see the need.
Now that John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic and the rest of the homegrown talent have arrived on the national stage, I’m glad I stuck around even when the ship seemed to be sinking.
When – not if, but when – the Islanders finally hoist the Cup, the victory will be that much sweeter. And I have this year’s Islanders to thank for that.
Rich Diaz: My highlight of this season? The entire month of April, with the apex being the gutsy victory against Toronto April 18th. New York’s April domination reignited most if not all of Isles country, but most importantly, rid of us any doubt about the worth of John Tavares and Michael Grabner, and the future of this young club. Couple that with Game Four against the Penguins this postseason (a game I was fortuitous enough to have attended) and you have an memorable season, filled with much hope and excitement.
Andy Graziano: The Islanders return to relevance has meant so much to me this season. I bore witness to the glory years of the early 1980s and also had to survive the long drought that the franchise suffered, not only from the playoffs but from relevancy and respect. The heart and soul that this club showed this season made all those emotions come rushing back to me again and I am grateful. The Nassau Coliseum was rocking again, the Islanders were front and center in major hockey publications and on television. My faith never wavered with the plan that the front office implemented but there were times, honestly, where I wondered just how long I would have to wait. My question was answered this season. The waiting is over and I truly believe this team is ready to take the next step.
Chris Triantfilis: For years, I understood “the plan.” The New York Islanders were a rebuilding team, starting with the selection of Josh Bailey in 2008. John Tavares followed, and then we saw the additions of other prospects to the organization. It was exciting. I was always optimistic (see Islanders Op-Timism), but it was going to take a lot of patience to get this team where it needed to be. Every year, it seemed like I was saying, “just wait two-to-three years.”
Finally, those “two-to-three” years have arrived. John Tavares has emerged as a true superstar. Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Nino Niederreiter, and others finally made it to the AHL. The future is now.
The best part is, the Islanders made the playoffs without the future fully arriving. Key pieces such as Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, and Matt Moulson stepped up during the Islanders’ surge towards their first postseason appearance in six years. Homegrown players such as Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin solidified the Islanders’ core, and new additions Colin McDonald, among others, created the best supporting cast on the Island since the days of Claude Lapointe and Shawn Bates.
What I’m trying to say is that this season meant everything to me. It brought the Islanders back to relevancy. It revived a fan-base that was at each other’s throats. Most of all, it meant that the Islanders have finally turned the corner that they hadn’t been able to turn throughout the rebuild. Ray Shero told Garth Snow that he wished we were moving to the West. No, Ray, but we will be moving up in the East very soon. The Isles are here to stay.
Eric Bordin: Every season is filled with ups and downs. Being an Islanders fan the past two decades has certainly seen more downs than ups.