How Do The Isles Match Up Against The Atlantic Division?
The Atlantic Division is known for being tight and competitive, with four of the five teams battling for playoff position. The Islanders play a total of 24 games -- just under a third of their entire season -- against the other teams here, and usually their time is spent trying to be a speed bump to their rivals' postseason aspirations.
Last season wasn't such a great outing. The Isles went 8-13-3 all season against the Rangers, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh combined, and allowed 21 more goals than they forced. Their special teams were far from wonderful (save against the Rangers' PK -- the PP units for the Isles had a shocking near-26% accuracy rate there), and they were outshot in the tens by every other Atlantic team except the Devils.
This season might lead to a slightly more even playing field, depending on how this Isles team decides to come out.
The Devils have lost captain Zach Parise to Minnesota. Parise, an Isle-killer of sorts, is a welcome departure, but they still have stats leader Ilya Kovalchuk. Now the Devils will have to look at him, Patrik Elias, and other productive forwards like David Clarkson and rising star Adam Henrique to build off last year's Eastern Conference-winning season.
Against the Islanders, it's a toss-up. Sometimes they can roll over and play dead; other times, they can claw their way back into it and claim the two points. Also look at Martin Brodeur (who is also hot-and-cold against the Isles), who's coming back for just one more season.
Vs. New York Rangers:
The Rangers got what they feel is tremendous skill in Rick Nash and patched up a hole at left wing in Taylor Pyatt. The Isles' defense will have its hands full with Nash and Gaborik to worry about now, but thankfully it also has been upgraded, so expect some good matchups there. (Photo: CS Smith/flickr)
In adding Nash, though, the Rangers lost some grit. Brandon Dubinsky and Brandon Prust are gone, as is Artem Anisimov. This team is still fairly young and homegrown, and have a middleweight in Arron Asham joining the team; however, it will certainly be a different-looking Rangers team on the ice next year. They won't be quite so tough -- though a couple of bouts between, say, Asham and Matt Carkner or Mike Rupp and Eric Boulton might happen. Also watch out for former Isle Micheal Haley, who may or may not see some Garden ice time.
Henrik Lundqvist, meanwhile, is, you know, Henrik Lundqvist. His most recent stats show a .929 sv % and 1.97 GAA against the Isles, and as he's coming off of a Vezina win this past season, there's little doubt that's going to change. As for Marty Biron, while he didn't exactly dazzle as an Isles backup, he's always been effective at shutting the Isles down from the opposing net.
Vs. Philadelphia Flyers:
The Flyers tried hard to bolster its defense this offseason by signing an offer sheet with Predators blueliner Shea Weber. Nashville, however, said "No thank you, we like him very much," and matched the offer, leaving Philly back at Square One. (Photo: Rhys Asplundh/flickr)
Chris Pronger (still listed on IR with post-concussion syndrome) is a huge question mark at best. Newly signed Bruno Gervais (another former Isle) is not exactly a top-tier replacement, while Luke Schenn is good, but not on the same level. The Flyers also lost Matt Carle to Tampa Bay, leaving a couple of holes that it is uncertain their defensive additions can fill.
The offense also took some hits. Jaromir Jagr took the success from his comeback year and turned it into a big payday with Dallas, while James van Riemsdyk was part of the trade for Schenn. However, everyone thought losing Jeff Carter and Mike Richards would decimate the Flyers, too, and that didn't happen. So it's a safe bet that Peter Laviolette will look at his current roster and do what he has to in order to get the most out of it. The Flyers still have bite, too, so expect Flyers-Isles games to be rough-and-tumble. Ilya Bryzgalov's first year in Philly was... interesting, though he had strong showings late against New York.
Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins:
Crosby or no Crosby, Staal or no Staal, this Penguins team is good, and they proved as much to the Islanders over their six games played. They shut out New York twice, and every game saw three or more goals scored. This offseason saw precious little lost (or done at all), so expect more of the same from the Pens. (Photo: Mike Durkin/flickr)
Yes, Jordan Staal got traded, but it was for a good piece of the puzzle in Brandon Sutter. Sutter should be able to fill the third-line center role easily, as he is hardworking and a decent goal scorer (but also plays well on both sides of the puck). Thus, the Pens haven't lost much in terms of depth, which means the Isles will have to be extra tenacious in order to keep up with this high-scoring squad.
The Pens also added some toughness in Tanner Glass and defensive depth in (another) former Isle Dylan Reese (though he also may not see much of CEC depending on how the Penguins' defense holds up). Also, yes, Crosby expects to be healthy next season, and we know what happened when he came back, didn't we?
In net, Marc-Andre Fleury has been more than efficient against the Isles (.917% all-time vs NYI). Barring devastating injury or some miracle, he'll bring more of the same.
So where do the Isles fit into all of this?
While they've attempted to compensate for PA Parenteau's departure with Brad Boyes, and they've bulked up on D considerably, this team is going to have to start off strong and keep going for all 82 games (if we have that many).
Offensively, only Parenteau and his 49 assists were really lost; however, nothing was really gained either, which means we're banking on Matt Moulson, John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Boyes, and Josh Bailey.
Moulson and Tavares are reliable point scorers, and Okposo will likely build on what he finished off with last year. Bailey's move to wing is also meant to jump-start his production. Boyes and Grabner remain the question marks, and if either of them falter, that makes it much harder for the team to succeed. Without them, the Isles have very little (if any) scoring depth.
Defensively, the Isles have gotten bigger and tougher, which is good; however, they'll have some deep, tough offenses to deal with in the Atlantic Division, particularly in Philly and Pittsburgh. They need to jell quickly and stay healthy (which, as we all know, has been a problem in the past). They'll also need to keep it simple yet physical against stars like Kovalchuk, Nash, Gaborik, Crosby, and Claude Giroux, while keeping their eyes on players like Sutter, Scott Hartnell, and Henrique.
Evgeni Nabokov finished his season off strong, and there isn't much of a concern regarding either his commitment level or his abilities. At 37, he's still got it, and he'll bring it against every one of these teams. It's up to the skaters in front of him to give him support and keep the big names (and boy, there are a lot of them in this division) from knocking at the doorstep. But who will his backup be? Will Rick DiPietro finally be healthy for keeps, or will one of the kids (be it Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson) steal the bench spot?
Bottom line? This division has changed a bit, but it's still going to be tight. The Islanders will have to prove early on that they can stay with it. They cannot take games off or allow too much space to their opponents either on the ice or in the standings. It's a long shot for a playoff spot, but they don't need to make it harder on themselves by allowing six- and seven-goal games against the Rangers or Pens. Of course, this is true for any opponent in any division, but especially against the Atlantic, where all four rivals have made the playoffs nearly every year.
Until next time.