(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
The long-awaited trip back to the playoffs was in the cards for the New York Islanders in 2013. After years at the bottom of both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, the Isles grabbed the eighth seed after a 24-17-7 (55 points) season. They pushed the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the opening round, coming within an overtime goal of forcing a Game 7.
Despite the end to their season, it was evident that the future is bright and that the team is turning the corner after years in the NHL's basement. It was a season of leaving the past behind and focusing toward the future. A deal to move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the start of the 2015-16 season was finalized. John Tavares was a finalist for the Hart Trophy. And finally, the team bought out the remaining eight years of his 15-year, $67.5 million contract signed in 2006.
Can the Islanders continue their turnaround and push for a return date in the Eastern Conference playoff picture?
The new captain pulled off a lovely "Forsberg" against the Senators.
A draft day trade saw disgruntled forward Nino Niederreiter sent to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for hit machine and mustachioed Cal Clutterbuck. Fellow Wild teammate Pierre-Marc Bouchard joined him after signing a one-year, $2 million deal on July 5 and could find himself replacing the departed Brad Boyes alongside Tavares and Moulson.
From teammates moving on together to good friends joining up, Peter Regin left the Ottawa Senators to sign with the Islanders and play with his Danish pal Frans Nielsen. It was an easy decision for Regin, who agreed to the deal while in a cab on the way back from playing golf. After Boyes, also departing was captain Mark Streit, whose rights were dealt to Philadelphia before eventually signing a 4-year, $21 million deal. Forwards Keith Aucoin (St. Louis) and Jesse Joensuu (Edmonton) were also not re-signed.
Forward: It all starts with the one-two punch of John Tavares and Matt Moulson. With 28 goals and 47 points, Tavares earned himself a nomination for the Hart Trophy. Moulson, who keeps scoring and scoring for the Islanders, potted 15 goals. He's entering a contract year, which should pay him handsomely. A benefactor of that offensive combo is whoever is on the right wing. Enter Bouchard who will likely find himself taking over for Boyes, who occupied that spot last season. The Islanders finished sixth offensively (2.8 goals per game) in 2013.
After Tavares and Moulson, Frans Nielsen (29 points) Michael Grabner (16 goals) and Josh Bailey (11) helped carry the load. From there, the offense was spread out with eight other forward tallying goals. Bailey saw a spike in scoring last season, something fans have been waiting for. He'll be expected, along with Kyle Okposo (24 points) to help provide the secondary scoring. Bouchard and Clutterbuck were brought in to assist in that department, as well. Getting his shot to crack the roster will be 2011 first rounder Ryan Strome. After dominating the OHL, he put up 7 points in 10 games in the AHL last season. Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are also part of this next group of kids moving on up.
Defense: The top pairing of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic have been skating apart in preseason. The Islanders were 21st in defense last season (2.83 goals per game), so splitting up their shutdown pair will give Capuano a chance to see if that strengthens the rest of the group. With Streit gone, the hope is that Lubomir Visnovsky (14 points) can lead the offense from the back. Matt Donovan, who led the AHL in scoring among defensemen last season (48 points), has a good shot at making the team with an impressive preseason. Two early season waiver claims, Brian Strait and Thomas Hickey, played well enough to earn multi-year extensions. Potentially adding to the mix are top picks Griffin Reinhart (2012) and Ryan Pulock (2013). Reinhart has the better shot this year than Pulock, but another year in junior for both won't do them any harm.
Goalies: Instead of bringing in a new face or going with one of the youngsters like Kevin Poulin, the Islanders brought back Evgeni Nabokov (23 wins, 2.50 GAA, .910 SV%) on a one-year deal. Nabokov played 41 of the 48 regular season games in 2013. At age 38, how many games will Poulin spell him, giving GM Garth Snow an early look at the future of the team's crease?
Garth Snow is the Loui Eriksson of general managers: forever underrated, but finally at a place where people are recognizing just how good he is. On a limited budget, Snow has turned waiver wire pickups and low-risk deals into gold for the Islanders. What will he be able to do once the team is in Brooklyn with the ability to spend? The young players on the Islanders have bought into Jack Capuano's style. It's paid off, but now comes his biggest challenge: avoiding a step back. The team took a big stride in 2013 and with expectations rising, they can't afford to dig an early hole in the Metropolitan Division.
This fan goal song has a 1980s vibe to it, which is perfect with all the outpouring of Isles nostalgia last season. Tavares and Moulson are incredibly fun to watch, and whoever fills the third spot on their line will be the beneficiary on the stat sheet. The future is brighter. The kids are developing and the fans now know that the team won't be leaving the New York area. Team speed. We saw just how much trouble the Isles' speed gave the Penguins in the first round. The Isles may not be loaded with superstars, but their quickness has proven to give opponents trouble. Nabokov was good enough during the regular season to earn a third place Hart Trophy vote, but struggled mightily in the playoffs. Which goalie will we see? And is Poulin ready to take the next step, if needed? With the Islanders' previous group of young players taking the next step and becoming leaders on the team, a new crop of kids is pushing to make positive contributions. Should they pan out too, that will help make last season's success no fluke. If the secondary scoring comes through and Nabokov recovers from his poor postseason, the Islanders will be in the mix for a playoff spot in the East under the new realignment.