COMMENTARY | Last season the New York Islanders took a huge first step on their way back to respectability by not only qualifying for the postseason, but giving the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins all they could handle in a slugfest first round series.
Sure it was a big moment for the players and staff, but it was also a great moment for long-suffering Islander fans, who were chomping at the bit for a reason to pack Nassau Coliseum again.
The Islanders hope that last season's playoff berth was just the first step of many going forward, ultimately ending with the return of Lord Stanley's Cup to a place that it was well acquainted with in the '80s.
The players entered camp saying all the right things. They aren't looking at what happened last year as an accomplishment, because it wasn't.
In an interview with Islanders TV, Travis Hamonic made a point to put any talk of last year to rest.
"Last year is last year. We have to stop talking about it, to be honest. New goal in mind as a team, as a group, as an organization this year."
Here are the five burning questions that need to be answered if they want to make good on Hamonic's word.
1. What Do The Isles Do About Their Goaltending Situation?
Islander fans went into the offseason hoping that management would address the team's goaltending situation. Instead, the Islander front office decided that they were confident enough in their current crop of netminders to not bring in anybody from outside the organization.
The team relied heavily on Evgeni Nabokov during his second season on Long Island. He played in 41 of the team's 48 games, posting a 23-11-7 record, with a very pedestrian .916 even strength save percentage. Despite mediocre numbers, Nabokov's play was good enough to backstop the Isles to the postseason.
It wasn't until the team's first round series that the Isles' goaltending issues really began to haunt the team. They gave top-seeded Pittsburgh all they could handle, but Nabokov never stepped up and may have cost the Islanders a chance to win their first playoff series since 1993.
Nabokov's even strength save percentage was an abysmal .863 during the playoffs. That was last among all qualifying netminders.
What may even be more startling than that is the fact that Nabokov let up at least three goals in each of the six games during the series.
Nabokov's poor play was compounded by the fact that the Islanders really had no other option in goal.
Their backup goaltender was young Kevin Poulin, a 2008 5th round draft pick who is in only 21 games into his NHL career.
The Islanders brass didn't believe Poulin was ready to start an NHL playoff game, putting Jack Capuano in between a rock and a hard place.
Capuano kept going with his veteran, hoping he would correct his form, but it never happened.
This offseason was a good time to be in the market for goalie help with a lot of teams looking to move goalies.
Isles fans watched helplessly as the Maple Leafs and Devils struck while the iron was hot, landing Jonathan Bernier and Cory Schneider, respectively.
It began to look more and more likely the Islanders would turn to Nabokov once more.
The team decided to bring him back on a one-year-deal, hoping that he would be motivated to better his play in what very may well be his NHL swan song.
Isles fans half-expected Snow to go out and grab another proven goaltender to at the very least provide some internal competition for Nabokov, but as training camp drew nearer it became obvious that Snow and Co. believed that one of young goaltenders -- Poulin and/or Anders Nilsson would be ready for the role of an NHL backup goaltender.
Of the two it is believed Poulin has the best chance to win the gig, seeing that he is the more experienced, however, Nilsson remains an intriguing option.
The 6'5" Swede missed most of last season due to a B-12 deficiency. He has the size and the raw ability to be an NHL goalie, but his lack of experience makes him a risky option.
Both Poulin and Nilsson have enjoyed ups and downs with Bridgeport of the AHL. They've shown flashes of dominance coupled with signs of inexperience, but the team believes that they both are good enough to play in the NHL.
The Islanders are an interesting case. They have the potential to score a lot of goals, so they won't necessarily need a top-10 goalie between the pipes. But it was evident they need their goalies to be better than they were last year if they want to make a run.
There is, of course, the chance that the Isles would be able to snag a goalie (Ryan Miller, anyone?) via trade.
But for now, the Isles will lean on the 38-year-old Nabokov and hope that they didn't waste a golden opportunity to upgrade this offseason.
Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey have written similar narratives in the first chapters of their NHL careers. They were both taken in the top 10 of their respective drafts -- Okposo went 7th in 2006 and Bailey went 9th overall in 2008 -- and neither has put together a full season's worth of contributions heading into training camp.
Bailey and Okposo also struggled mightily out of the gate after the lockout ended. Bailey was hurt for the first few weeks and Okposo was out of form.
Islander fans began to voice their displeasure with the two talented forwards as the team looked destined to miss the playoffs, again.
Okposo had just two goals in his first 21 games of the season and looked out of shape. Bailey was injured playing overseas during the lockout and took a while to get back into NHL shape.
It wasn't until Jack Capuano shuffled things around a bit and moved Bailey and Okposo to Frans Nielsen's second line that things started to look up.
At last Okposo was using his size to wear down defensemen and Bailey began playing with confidence and showed some flashes of brilliance with the puck.
Bailey finished the season with 10 points in his final 13 games and had the best game of his career in Boston when the Islanders upset the Bruins 2-1 in a huge game during the last days of the regular season.
Not only was that a statement game from Bailey, but for the entire team as the rest of the league began to recognize the Isles as a playoff contender.
Okposo followed his hot end to the regular season with a coda that made Islander fans forgive his earlier inconsistencies.
Okposo scored three goals in the Islanders' first round series, but his most memorable moment came during his first career NHL fight.
Okposo bested his opponent, cutting him under the eye and breathing life into an Islanders squad that was down 3-1 in a crucial game two.
Okposo's teammates responded by knotting up the score and then it was Okposo who grabbed the game winner, leveling the series at one game apiece.
The two Islander forwards looked like monsters over the last month, but they will need to find a way to give that same effort for an entire season.
Until they do, Islander fans will be hard-pressed to believe that the two can be depended on to be top-six forwards on a Stanley Cup contender.
3. Is Ryan Strome Ready?
Islander fans have long been salivating over the prospect of having an elite talent like Ryan Strome joining John Tavares up front.
The Isles' prospect pool is currently ranked second in the entire league, and Strome is ranked as their best prospect -- so it is easy to see why Islander fans are chomping at the bit for him to make his debut.
The team didn't rush Strome, wisely letting him finish his career with Niagara of the OHL. In his final season with Ice Dogs Strome dazzled and posted 94 points in 53 games.
Strome will be a force to be reckoned with in the offensive zone. He has all the tools one looks for in an offensive juggernaut. His creativity is excellent thanks to his high-end vision. His puck-skills are elite and his shot, deadly.
The only thing that may hold Strome back is that the Islanders have taken so long to develop him, that they will want to be 100% sure he will be able to handle the grind of NHL hockey.
A good sign was that Strome made the transition from Junior to the pro game last year by featuring in 10 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Even though it was a small sample size, it was paramount for Strome to get some time in the minors before making the leap.
He looked good during his short stint with the Sound Tigers, posting seven points in 10 games.
The Islanders spent the offseason bolstering their depth up front so that they wouldn't have to rush any prospects along if they didn't feel they were ready.
Cal Clutterbuck was brought to Long Island in exchange for Nino Niederreiter, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin were brought on board via free agency.
These new arrivals won't hinder Strome's chances of making the team out of camp, if he's ready he will be in uniform on opening night. But they do provide some important insurance in case he needs more time to come into his own.
It is crucial that the Islanders get it right with Strome, especially after the Niederreiter debacle, so fans will just have to trust the team's coaching staff to make the right call.
4. What Do the Islanders Do About Matt Moulson & Andrew MacDonald?
Matt Moulson has been one of the NHL's best stories since he burst onto the scene in 2009-10. In each of his first three seasons with the Isles, Moulson scored at least 30 goals and formed one of the league's best partnerships with John Tavares.
On the back end the Islanders have relied just as heavily on Andrew MacDonald. A minute munching defensemen who doesn't get enough credit, MacDonald has formed quite the partnership with Travis Hamonic, becoming the Isles' shutdown pairing.
Both MacDonald and Moulson are entering the last years of their contracts and are not automatics to be brought back next year.
All Moulson has done since joining the Isles in 2009 is put up three consecutive 30 goal seasons, followed by a 15 goal performance during the lockout shortened 2013 campaign.
Moulson's consistency doesn't end with his goal scoring. He also has missed only one game since he made his debut with New York.
He also plays in one of the most desirable spots in the league, next to John Tavares. If Moulson, who grew up down the block from Tavares, wants to give up that spot for more money, then he can -- but he'd be hard pressed to find a better situation in the entire league.
It will be interesting to see what Moulson decides to do. The market price for a consistent 30-goal threat who doesn't miss games is very high. Just this past offseason David Clarkson signed a 7-year-deal worth more than $35 million dollars with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Clarkson has scored 30 goals once in his career.
MacDonald is also due for a sizable raise. Despite his low profile around the league, the Nova Scotia native has been nothing short of dependable for the Isles since his debut in 2008.
MacDonald led the team in ice time last season and played against the other team's best players on a nightly basis. Not bad for a guy drafted in the 5th round and making $500k.
Like Moulson, MacDonald is set to go from being one of the NHL's best bargains to being a highly sought after free agent.
The two fan favorites will have to make the tough decision on whether they want to see this long rebuild through or cash in on their success with the Islanders by taking big money to play elsewhere.
It is not like the Islanders to overpay for any player. In fact, Garth Snow has been insanely good at signing his players to affordable long term deals.
Look no further than John Tavares' contract that will see him have a cap hit of only $5.5 million dollars over the next five years.
Just how good is that contract? So good that Tavares doesn't even have one of the top-50 highest cap hits in the league. Which is insane, considering Tavares is considered to be one of the five best players in the league.
The Islanders also will have plenty of reinforcements coming in that could fill in for Moulson and/or MacDonald if it comes to that.
It would be bittersweet to see two fan favorites get paid big money by other teams, but the Isles organizational depth is so good that these players could become expendable if they become expensive.
5. Will Matt Donovan and/or Calvin de Haan Crack the Opening Day Lineup?
When the Islanders let Mark Streit go it signaled the end of an era on the Isles blueline.
Streit signed with the Islanders in 2008 and was named captain in 2011. The Swiss-born puck mover was a steady force for the Islanders during some of the toughest years in the franchise's history.
Not only did Streit quarterback the power play, he also played in every situation for the Islanders, eating a ton of minutes.
Streit's departure also leaves a void in the Isles defense corps, which means there will be a chance for a young defenseman to step up.
Many believe that young defenseman should be Matt Donovan.
The Oklahoma-born Donovan has been rock solid for Bridgeport the past two seasons, posting 44 and 48 points, respectively.
Donovan has great offensive upside and is a tremendous puck mover, but his play in his own end will determine whether or not he wins a roster spot.
If Donovan doesn't seize this opportunity, Calvin de Haan will have the chance to sneak into the opening night lineup.
The former 12th overall pick has had injury trouble the past two years, stunting his development. If de Haan wants to break through with the Islanders he is going to have to show that he can stay healthy for a whole season.
After a solid and relatively healthy season with Bridgeport in 2011-12, de Haan looked like he was on the verge. Unfortunately hopes of cracking the post-lockout roster were dashed when his season was cut short by a shoulder injury.
Either one of these young defenseman should make a positive impact on the Isles going forward.
Donovan's game has more pizzazz than de Haan's but de Haan is the more stable of the two in his own end. The question isn't whether the two of them are good enough to make the roster -- they are -- the question is, what do the Islanders need more of going into 2013-14. Donovan's offensive jolt or de Haan's heady all-around game?
Whomever the Isles decide to keep up after camp, it should be reassuring to Islander fans that the days of relying on veterans like Steve Staios or Mark Eaton have given way to training camp battles featuring two bonafide NHL prospects.
Michael Leboff is a freelance hockey writer currently covering the Islanders for Yahoo! and MSG. He also covers hockey and soccer for Next Impulse Media. Follow him on Twitter @TheBigLeebowski.
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