The 2010-11 campaign for the New York Islanders opened in a way that would foreshadow the main storyline of the season. Days into training camp, defenseman Mark Streit injured his shoulder in a scrimmage and would miss the entire season. Two days later, news came out that Kyle Okposo would be out indefinitely with a shoulder injury of his own. Okposo would return in late January and play 38 games.
By the end of the season, the Islanders would lead the NHL in man games lost to injury with 586. The next highest was Colorado at 474. Fans would watch 15 different defensemen and six different goaltenders dress in a season that could be seen in two halves: the Scott Gordon days and the Jack Capuano Era.
Under Gordon, the Islanders were hampered by their early injuries and skidded out of the starting gate that saw the team post an 0-11-1 winless stretch that would get Gordon dismissed. Capuano was brought up from the team's AHL farm club in Bridgeport and over time, the Islanders' play improve dramatically.
From December on, only the Boston Bruins had more points in the NHL than the Islanders. Capuano was rewarded with the removal of the "interim" tag after the season ended.
Goaltending was once again an issue as Rick DiPietro played just 26 games, the most for him since 2007-08. Then there was the Evgeni Nabokov saga that saw the Islanders snag him off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings only to see the 35-year old Russian refuse to report to the team and be suspended in January. Nabokov changed his tune over the summer and like a good soldier showed up to the start of camp. What his impact will be is anyone's guess after playing just 22 games in the KHL before the Islanders debacle happened.
February's brawl with the Pittsburgh Penguins that saw 346 penalty minutes, a second goalie fight between the teams in a week and an end result of 23 games in suspensions and a $100,000 fine for the Islanders was a turning point in the season and for the fans. The Islanders fought back and their fans loved them for it even more.
A fourth straight last place finish in the Atlantic Division (30-39-13, 73 points) and the 14th spot in the East resulted in the payoff of the selection of forward Ryan Strome with the No. 5 pick in June's entry Draft.
Can Capuano's magic continue and should the Islanders manage to remain healthy, is this the year they can find themselves back in the playoffs?
Considering the number of injuries that affected the Islanders last season, getting those guys back (and keeping them) healthy will be the biggest additions to the 2011-12 lineup.
GM Garth Snow kept a quiet summer on the signings front bringing in veteran faceoff specialist Marty Reasoner (54.5-percent success rate) on a 2-year deal replacing Zenon Konopka, who brings his own skills in the dot and toughness to the Ottawa Senators.
The trade of oft-injured forward Trent Hunter to the New Jersey Devils for veteran Brian Rolson was a win-win for both sides. New Jersey, who would later buy out Hunter's contract, freed up needed cap space to help fit in Zach Parise's 1-year deal and the Islanders received help getting to the salary cap floor with Rolston's $5.062 million hit.
Defensemen Bruno Gervais and Jack Hillen, both of whom had spent their entire careers on Long Island were not brought back and signed in Tampa Bay and Nashville, respectively. Another blueliner, Radek Martinek, who had trouble staying healthy during his Islander tenure, inked 1-year, $2.2 million deal with Columbus.
Finally, team captain Doug Weight hung up his skates in favor for a coaching position within the organization, opening the door for some of the team's younger leaders to step up.
At forward ... The Islanders were one of 10 NHL teams (and 3 non-playoff teams) to sport two 30-goal scorers last season. Had John Tavares (29 goals) potted one more, they would have joined the Anaheim Ducks as the only teams with three 30-goal men. Matt Moulson hit the 30-goal mark for the second straight season and Michael Grabner broke out with 34-goals to lead all NHL rookies and also finished with six shorthanded tallies.
Another castoff-turned-productive forward for the Islanders is P.A. Parenteau who potted 23 goals and recorded 53 points in his first full NHL season.
With a full-season ahead of him, Kyle Okposo will provide some offensive support up front. He's also one of the younger leaders on the roster that could be in contention for the "C".
Brian Rolston's offense may have dwindled over the years, but he's still an asset on the power play with 40 points with the extra over the past three seasons, including 21 goals.
While Blake Comeau (24 goals, 46 points) has progressed since coming up four years ago, Josh Bailey has regressed. After a 16-goal season in 2009-10, Bailey finished with 11 last season; a season that included an 11-game demotion to Bridgeport. Late Thursday, Bailey finally re-signed for two years hours before a deadline that would have saw him sit for the season while the Islanders retained his rights. Snow traded down and nabbed Bailey at No. 9 in the 2008 Draft. He's yet to pay off and this contract squabble is sure to up the pressure.
Newcomer Nino Niederreiter played the rookie minimum of nine games last season before being sent back to Portland of the WHL where he put up 41 goals in 55 games. The Islanders first round pick in 2010 will be given every opportunity to cement a roster spot.
Every year the Selke Trophy gets awarded and every year Frans Nielsen's name doesn't seem to be part of the conversation at the end of the season. Nielsen led the NHL in shorthanded goal with seven and, along with Grabner, finished a plus-13. He should get even better as this Islanders team improves.
On defense ... Mark Streit's return will be a welcomed addition to a blueline that had only one player score more than four goals. Streit has scored 27 in his two seasons with the Islanders and not only will be the leader on the power play, he might wind up with the team's captaincy.
Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald emerged as a solid partnership and ended up as the top two defensive scorers and TOI leaders on the team.
Part of the 586 man games lost came from Mike Mottau and Mark Eaton who saw both of their seasons end prematurely. Motteau -- who along with Eaton and MacDonald underwent hip surgery -- is expected to be fully recovered after taking a puck to the eye against Atlanta in November.
In goal ... After Dwayne Roloson was dealt to Tampa Bay on New Year's Day, it was a revolving door of goalies on Long Island. Between Rick DiPietro, Mikko Koskinen, Kevin Poulin, Nathan Lawson and Al Montoya -- who was acquired in February from Phoenix -- it was another year of net issues.
Montoya seemed to win the starting job for this season after going 9-5-5 in New York in the final two months and earning himself a contract extension.
But with the presence of Evgeni Nabokov, the competition for the No. 1 is up in the air. And if Nabokov plays well, but the Islanders stumble and fall back in the East, what kind of deal can Snow get for a guy making just $570,000 this season?
DiPietro and his contract aren't going away (for another decade), but until he proves his durability, he can only be considered as a backup and asked to keep away from the goalie fights.
"Miami Vice." A young, hip remake of a 1980s classic. Good potential, but went on a bit long and wasn't exactly a hit with the public.
Jack Capuano took over an Islanders team in November that was 4-10-3 and turned them into a respectable bunch, getting his charges to respond by the end of the season. The play in the final 65 games has turned some heads and makes the Islanders a team to watch this season.
Five years after the jokes began about the Islanders hiring their backup goaltender as their GM, Garth Snow's plan is slowly coming into place sticking it to his critics. He's locked up the team's young stars in John Tavares (to the bewilderment of of Toronto columnists), Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, and Michael Grabner, while stockpiling high draft choices with young talent waiting in the wings and slowly making their way into the regular lineup. Dealing with financial restraints, the plan of developing home grown talent and plucking castaways-turned-producers from waivers and free agency is working.
It's probably time that Frans Nielsen was given some love outside of Long Island. The 27-year old Dane has been a top two-way forward the past two seasons and an undergound Selke Trophy candidate by some in the media. He made a major leap last season leading the NHL in shorthanded goals and led all Islanders forward in shorthanded time on ice (2:59) and blocked shots (63), while his goals (13) and points (44) total rose from the 2009-10 season.
"I miss the Fishsticks jerseys. Who's with me?"
Rick DiPietro is too easy of a choice and considering he did play 26 games last year after 13 the previous two, we'll mark that as progress. Instead, we'll go with Josh Bailey who signed a 2-year, $2.1 million deal last week and took a giant step back in development last season. Can he now handle the pressure of needed improvement or does the AHL beckon again?
We're looking forward to a lot of this from Ryan Strome in future shootouts and NHL All-Star Trick Shot competitions:
The Islanders showed in the second half of last season that their development is heading into the right direction. The only question is whether or not they can remain healthy to sustain continued growth. The situation in goal also needs to be sorted out and a clear winner must stand out to take the reigns. Was Al Montoya's play down the stretch a fluke? And what sort of effectiveness will Evgeni Nabokov have after almost a full year off from playing hockey?
- Evgeni Nabokov