The New York Islanders that have gone 34-37-11 in three of the last four 82 game seasons have a definite chance of finishing in the top two of the division and the top five of the Eastern Conference thus rounding out the last season at the Coliseum with a play off run and hopefully a chance to end the winless streak that has lasted since the 1993 Patrick Division Finals victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, success this coming season is by no means a guarantee and if things go wrong then we could very well find ourselves back propping up the division, but for the first time in a very long time there is genuine reason to be excited about a team that has the potential to be a major force again.
Pretty much every early prediction about possible standings in the upcoming season point to a fairly set top 3 in the Eastern Conference with Pittsburgh, Boston and Tampa Bay predicted to top 100 points but behind that there is a large question mark over who’s gonna finish behind these teams and the Islanders have a legitimate shout of being runners up in the wide open Metropolitan Division. In the 2013/14 season the Islanders finished 17 points behind the 2nd placed New York Rangers and 15 points behind the 3rd placed Philadelphia Flyers, both of which who have regressed badly over the off season while the Islanders have made potentially the biggest step forward in the Metropolitan Division by addressing (so far) two of the three key problems that they ended the season with; Goaltending and top 6 wingers.
It is beyond question that the biggest reason why the Islanders took a step back last season was in net, something that was apparent after Nabokov’s inability to stop a beach ball in the 2013 play offs. Although following the play offs Garth Snow decided to bring back Nabokov and have young goaltender Kevin Poulin as back up leading to cries of derision from fans already realising that Nabokov was injury prone and declining along with the fact that Poulin was just not ready to be a regular goaltender on this team. Surprise Surprise the goaltending sunk very quickly and the Islanders finished with the worst goaltending record in the league, prompting Snow to finally address the situation and traded a 4th round pick in the 2014 draft for pending UFA Jaroslav Halak and then signing him for a very cheap four year contract. I firmly believe that Halak is criminally underrated around the league with some thinking that his excellent stats are down to playing behind top defenses. However I disagree with this and anyone who has watched Halak, especially when he practically took the Habs to the 2010 Eastern Conference finals single handed, will say that he is a very good goaltender and one that can be expected to have a save percentage towards .920, a stat which we haven’t had since a healthy Di Pietro. Of course Halak has his own health concerns but a training regime change before last season could well alleviate those concerns as he played 52 games for the Blues and Capitals last season. With the signing of Chad Johnson we won’t have to rely on Halak to play 60/70 games and thus we may well have the best goaltending tandem in decades and possibly one of the best in the Metropolitan division.
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The other big off season move by Snow was the signings of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin to 4 year contracts. While Kulemin has had a few down years, this could partly be put down to mismanagement in Toronto and the subsequent trading of close friend Grabovski to the Capitals. It is no secret that Grabovski and Kulemin enjoyed their most fruitful years on the same line as each other and it is extremely likely that these two will be playing together on the second line, possibly with Ryan Strome alongside as the right winger and moving Frans Nielsen to 3rd line center. This creates one of the deepest and most dangerous top 9’s in the East when you have a third line containing a previous 50 point scorer along with a previous 34 goal scorer in Michael Grabner, if he’s not traded anyway. Therefore that would leave a vacancy on the top line for Brock Nelson who will get the first chance at training camp to play alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Nelson, who amassed 14 goals and 26 points last season, seems a good fit on the first line where his defensive capabilities could be the perfect benefit for Tavares. One reason why the Islanders slumped in winter was because of a slump in secondary scoring with long goalless streaks from Grabner and Bailey while even Nielsen had a cold run. With the signings of Grabovski and Kulemin alongside the development of Nelson, Strome and Lee we will no longer be relying on one or two people for secondary scoring and this could help someone like Bailey to get out of his rut, although at this point I would be very surprised and I doubt that he’ll be an Islander come opening night.
While there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the team, especially on defense and any future trades to cut down the roster, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the way the teams headed. With a solid goaltending tandem and one of the best and deepest forward groups in the East, the Islanders aren’t too far off being a team that can put together a play off run in a very weak Conference just as the Rangers showed last season. With next years first round pick going to Buffalo and it being the final season at the Coliseum it is beyond critical that the Islanders make the play offs this coming season and going into the 2014/15 season there is no reason to think that the Islanders won’t return to the dance come May. If everything clicks and we avoid bad luck with injures we have a legitimate chance of finishing runners up in this division, we certainly have as much chance to do so as any other team. But one thing is for certain, the rebuild has to be finished now, the time for winning has come and very belatedly at that.