COMMENTARY | This season the New York Islanders go into training camp with something they haven't had to deal with in almost a decade -- expectations.
Last season John Tavares led the Isles to their first post-season birth since 2007 when Ted Nolan's squad performed a mini-miracle to snatch the last play-off berth.
It was the breakout season Islander fans knew was coming from Tavares, who was nominated, along with Sidney Crosby and eventual winner Alex Ovechkin, for the Hart Trophy.
What may have gotten overlooked by those who don't normally pay attention to the once-left-for-dead Islanders is that Tavares has a heck of a supporting cast.
After a disappointing finish in 2007-08, the Islanders decided to abandon ship and completely rebuild the organization. The Islanders got right to work, by having one of the best drafts in recent memory in 2008, followed by winning The Tavares Sweepstakes in 2009.
Pundits will point to Tavares' arrival as the turning point for the franchise, but the 2008 draft class is really what started the Isles' ascent.
The most impressive of the bunch is Hamonic, who very may well be the NHL's most underrated rearguard.
The St. Malo, Manitoba native plays against the opposition's top performers on a nightly basis and has some offensive upside to boot.
He, Bailey, and Martin all were huge for the Islanders last year in their return to the post-season tournament.
Bailey is finally piecing things together after being rushed along by the Islanders in the beginning of his career. He seems comfortable at wing and can play for Jack Capuano in any situation.
Both Bailey and Hamonic signed long-term extensions this off-season.
Last season also saw the emergence of Casey Cizikas, the Isles fourth round pick in 2009. Cizikas' offensive numbers may seem modest, 6 G, 9 A in 45 games, but he brings all the intangibles desired in a professional to the rink everyday. The former Mississauga-St. Michael's Major works hard in dirty areas, scores big goals, and kills penalties with aplomb.
This season should also see the advent of Ryan Strome, the Isles first pick in the 2010 Draft. Strome is insanely talented with the puck and draws comparisons to Jayson Spezza and Patrick Kane.
If Strome is as good as they believe he will be, a partnership with Tavares could give the Islanders one of the most lethal 1-2 punches in the entire league.
Aside from building through the draft, Islander GM Garth Snow has been somewhat of a mad-genius in his free agent and trade acquisitions.
He plucked Michael Grabner off waivers from the Florida Panthers, only to have him turn into one of the league's best penalty killers and a 30-goal scorer.
Snow is also the one who gave Matt Moulson and PA Parenteau their first real chance to prove that they are legitimate NHL players and boy did they prove him right.
Moulson has scored at least 30 goals in each of the last three full NHL seasons and Parenteau cashed in on a 67 point campaign with a four year contract with the Colorado Avalanche.
Last season, Snow made another shrewd move by taking a flyer on career AHLer Colin MacDonald. MacDonald is a prototypical bottom six forward but like Cizikas, scored some huge goals for the Islanders during their stretch run. He was rewarded with a multi-year extension.
Snow also traded a second round pick for defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who at first balked at the idea of playing on the opposite side of the country for a team he thought was not going to compete. Visnovsky's appeal was denied and the Slovakian puck mover kept his word by coming to the Islanders and making a huge impact.
Visnovsky was vital in aiding the development of another one of Snow's waiver wire acquisitions, Thomas Hickey.
Hickey was left exposed after the Los Angeles Kings thought the former fourth overall pick was not going to figure in their plans on the blue line. In a case of one man's trash is another man's treasure, Hickey formed a great partnership with the similarly built Visnovsky.
The Islanders were relatively active this off-season bringing in Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard from Minnesota and Peter Regin from Ottawa.
These moves will help bolster the team's depth and also provide options in case Strome, Anders Lee, and/or Brock Nelson need seasoning in the AHL.
For the first time in over a decade, the Islanders have the ability to roll four competitive lines and three solid pairings on the back end. They figure to be one of the team's to watch in 2013-14, not just because of Tavares, but also because their depth is where it needs to be if they want to contend in a tough division that includes Washington, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers.
Of course they are going to need Tavares to continue his mesmerizing play, but they will also rely just as heavily on the rest of the team to pick up where their new captain leaves off.
Michael Leboff is a freelance hockey writer currently covering the Islanders for The Fischler Report and MSG. He also covers hockey and soccer for Next Impulse Media.
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