Few teams are putting more faith into the NHL’s new rules than the New York Islanders.
After putting together what appears to be a quicker, more skilled club, the new-look Islanders face their first test when they open the season against the Buffalo Sabres.
Following first-round playoff exits in each of the past three seasons, the Islanders, with the help of the NHL’s new salary cap, reshaped their team with several players more suited to the league’s new up-tempo style.
General manager Mike Milbury brought in Miroslav Satan, Buffalo’s leading goal scorer last season, to finally give newly appointed captain Alexei Yashin a legitimate sniper on his wing. Milbury also dealt former captain Michael Peca to Edmonton for speedy center Mike York, sacrificing grit and character for speed and skill.
With the additions of Satan and York, the Islanders should be deep at forward with several players capable of reaching the 30-goal mark. Yashin has scored 40 goals twice, Mark Parrish has at least 20 goals in three straight seasons, Jason Blake has 47 the past two years and Trent Hunter tied for the team lead with 25 goals in his rookie campaign.
Where the Islanders underwent their biggest transformation is on defense, where they lost arguably three of their top four players. Roman Hamrlik signed with Calgary, Adrian Aucoin left for Chicago and Kenny Jonsson opted to remain in his native Sweden.
Being counted on to fill the void left by that trio is Alexei Zhitnik, who spent the past nine-plus seasons with Buffalo, Brent Sopel, acquired from Vancouver, and Brad Lukowich, a member of Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay in 2003-04. They join Janne Niinimaa and Radek Martinek on the Islanders’ blueline.
“You never like to say goodbye to good players and people like them, but you have to do what’s best for your team and forge on with your plan,” Milbury said. “That started with our signing of Alexei Zhitnik. This is an excellent player that we’re fortunate to bring on long-term.”
After Yashin, the Islanders’ most important player is goaltender Rick DiPietro, who solidified himself as one of the league’s rising stars with a strong season in 2003-04.
DiPietro, the top overall pick in the 2000 draft, is one of league’s most adept puck movers. It remains to be seen if that skill will make him a liability or help the offense as the league implements new rules to restrict where goaltenders are allowed to play the puck.
Satan and Zhitnik, two of the Islanders’ key acquisitions, had been two of the Sabres’ best players for years. Replacing them should make it even harder for Buffalo to end a streak of three straight last-place finishes.
Although they missed the postseason in 2003-04, the Sabres did finish above .500 and do have several young players that should only get better with experience.
Making up for the offense that Satan provided will be the biggest task for Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff.
Top center Daniel Briere led the team with 28 goals and 37 assists for a career-high 65 points in 2003-04. He played very well for Bern in Switzerland in 2004-05 and will be asked to carry much of the offensive load this season.
The versatile Drury had 18 goals in 76 games in 2003-04, Hecht added 15 goals and 37 assists in 64 contests and Dumont contributed 22 goals. Despite a great deal of talent, Afinogenov has yet to have a breakout season as he was limited to 17 goals and 31 points in 73 games in 2003-04.
Biron has been the starter the past three years and had a solid 2003-04 season, while Noronen has been a standout at the AHL level. Miller is coming off an outstanding AHL season with Rochester in 2004-05, posting a 41-17 record with four shootout losses and a 2.45 goals-against average in 63 appearances.
“I’ve worked hard to make myself a valuable asset to this team,” Miller said. “I want to establish myself as a consistent performer at this level.”
The Islanders won all four meetings in 2003-04, and have won seven in a row against the Sabres.
2003-04 STANDINGS: Islanders - 91 points, 3rd place, 10 PB, Atlantic Division. Sabres - 85 points, 5th place, 19 PB, Northeast Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Islanders - Hunter and Mariusz Czerkawski, 25 goals; Oleg Kvasha, 36 assists; Hunter and Kvasha, 51 points; Eric Cairns, 189 PIM. Sabres - Satan, 29 goals; Briere and Hecht, 37 assists; Briere, 65 points; Andrew Peters, 151 PIM.
2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Islanders - Power play: 16.7 percent (54 for 323), 12th in NHL. Penalty killing: 85.5 percent (307 for 359), 5th. Sabres - Power play: 15.8 percent (58 for 367), 18th. Penalty killing: 84.7 percent (295 for 348), 11th.
2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Islanders - DiPietro (23-18-5, 5 SO, 2.36 GAA); Garth Snow (14-15-5, 1, 2.80). Sabres - Miller (0-3-0, 5.06); Biron (26-18-5, 2, 2.52); Noronen (11-17-2, 2, 2.57).
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Islanders, 4-0.
LAST MEETING: Feb. 27, 2004; Islanders, 4-2. At Buffalo, N.Y., Kvasha had a goal and two assists, and DiPietro made 19 of his career-high 42 saves in the third period to lead the Islanders.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Islanders - 13-18-7-3 on the road; Sabres - 21-13-4-3 at home.