Islanders Forward Lines Breakdown
I know, I know – it’s only August and I’m talking about line combinations. However, for all those Islanders fans out there who believe that General Manager Garth Snow is still lurking in the shadows ready to pull off an absolute blockbuster of a trade, I’m here to tell you that I just don’t see that happening.
Despite my desire as a fan to see them try to go after the oft-internet-rumored Zach Bogosian or (dare I dream) Drew Doughty, I am confident that what you see on the Islanders roster today is what you will be cheering for come Opening Night. Below, I outline the players and line combinations that I believe will allow Head Coach Jack Capuano to put the most competitive team on the ice come October. So have at it everyone – agree, disagree, or tell me I’m crazy – but let me know what you think in the comments section!
Hockey fans, let’s hear it for your 2011-2012 New York Islanders:
Scratches/Call-Ups: Michael Haley, Trevor Gilles
Despite the coming out party that P.A Parenteau had last year, accumulating over 50 points in his first full NHL season, I believe that the added depth to the Islanders forward core allows Okposo to step alongside Tavares and Moulson to form an even more dangerous first unit. Tavares and Moulson had their greatest success as a line last season when they got pressure in the offensive zone and were able to cycle the puck. Despite the obvious chemistry that they formed with Parenteau, it is clear that a healthy Okposo is a more dangerous offensive threat – especially when working the cycle.
The 7th overall pick in 2006, Okposo gives the Isles first unit a more effective forward at running the offensive cycle, as well as a better all-around two-way hockey player to compensate for the offensive-mindedness of Tavares and Moulson. KO on the first unit will equate to more time spent in the offensive zone, likely leading to more goal scoring opportunities for the natural goal-scorer Tavares, and the mop-it-up in front man Moulson. Okposo’s defensive ability will also translate into less goals scored against this unit when facing other team’s top lines, something that should not be overlooked.
John Tavares, 1st overall pick in 2009 and franchise player for the Islanders, is heading into his third full season in the NHL. It is important that he is surrounded by the best players on his team in an effort to give him every chance to develop into the offensive juggernaut that he has the potential to become. And since Zach Parise isn’t wearing blue and orange (yet?), Kyle Okposo belongs on JT’s wing, alongside back-to-back 30 goal scorer Matt Moulson.
Moulson would also benefit from having Okposo on his line; a true power forward who isn’t afraid to dig the puck out in the corners, KO would allow Matty Ice to spend more time in front of his favorite spot on the ice surface – the crease. There is no doubt in my mind that by adding Kyle Okposo to the already dynamic duo of Tavares and Moulson, the Islanders become an instantly better hockey team.
“But wait!” you say. “The Grabner – Nielsen – Okposo line was the best one on the team down the stretch last year!” Don’t worry. I have not forgotten this. In fact, breaking this line up was the hardest decision I had to make when dissecting this lineup. However, like Coach Capuano will in a matter of weeks (is it October yet?), I am simply trying to put together four lines that give our team the highest possible chance to succeed every night.
Here’s why I split them up. Just a few weeks ago, the Islanders announced that they had acquired Brian Rolston in exchange for Trent Hunter. I admit, I had very mixed reactions to the deal. First, and most childish, I was upset that we had helped the Devils free up enough cap space to kill my pipe dream of somehow acquiring Zach Parise. Next, I was sad to see Trent Hunter go – who despite his many injuries and not being a post-lockout rules style player, was one of the best men in the organization, as many have attested.
Finally, I was excited that in return for a struggling, slower player like Hunter, that we had acquired the still speedy, still ridiculously hard-shooting Brian Rolston. Despite a rather pedestrian 14 goals and 20 assists last season, Rolston came on furiously towards the end of the season, perhaps demonstrating to other teams that even at 38 years old he still had plenty left in the tank. Most importantly, on a line with speed demon (speed Gremlin?) Michael Grabner and smooth skating Selke candidate Frans Nielsen, Rolston can provide additional speed on the rush that the not-as-fleet-footed Kyle Okposo could not last year.
Rolston will fit right in with the speed of this line, but is even more dangerous as a trailer in a 3-on-2 rush situation than Okposo because he can still fire the puck 100+ mph. Rolston can also take the “veteran leadership” role from Doug Weight on the ice, and will be a valuable resource to a youngster like Grabner coming off a monster rookie season. I believe Rolston will provide a level of consistency that will help this line perform on a nightly basis – above and beyond what Nielsen has brought to the team for the past few years. Frans Nielsen takes a step forward this year in his point totals because of this line’s ability to create space with their speed, as he will be dishing the puck to Grabner ahead of the play or Rolston trailing it for several premium scoring opportunities each game. I am excited to see this line flying all over the ice in October.
No surprises here. Blake Comeau, coming off an impressive 24 goal campaign, plays alongside fellow youngster Josh Bailey, who is primed to finally have his breakout season this year. And El Nino, who will be given every opportunity to make this team – and then some, will play the other wing with these two talented, hard-working youngsters who both will be seeking to prove themselves even further this year and earn contract extensions later this season.
It speaks volumes about the progress the Islanders’ rebuild has made that a 24 goal scorer last season will start the season on the third line. Comeau earned the deal that he was given prior to his arbitration hearing with his efforts last season, and was challenged – as Matt Moulson was a season ago – with a 1 year deal and the opportunity to prove that he can consistently play at the high level that afforded him 24 goals last season.
Rest assured, Comeau will be out to earn a similar contract extension that Garth Snow extended to Moulson last spring (3 years,$ 9.45 mil). Josh Bailey will sign a 1 or 2 year deal in the coming weeks. It will be a similarly priced contract to Comeau’s ($2.5 mil), and similarly will afford Bailey the opportunity to have the breakout season that the 9th overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft should be due for. Should Bailey take a major step forward this season and assert himself as a legitimate top-six NHL forward, he will provide the Islanders with a slew of options – including trades – but more likely would be added to a second line in future years that could provide more scoring punch, alongside Grabner and perhaps some of the Islanders top prospects as they develop.
Such prospects include 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome, Russian phenom Kirill Kabanov, or Swiss star Nino Niederreiter. Niederreiter will likely play alongside Bailey and Comeau in the upcoming season as he works his way into the NHL game. A strong, physical power forward, Niederreiter is touted as one of the top prospects in hockey – which led to the Islanders selecting him 5th overall in 2010. As his only options for the upcoming season are to play in the NHL or back in juniors with the Portland Winterhawks (where he absolutely dominated last year), Niederreiter will be afforded every opportunity during training camp to earn his spot on the team and begin learning the game at the NHL level. Islanders fans should be excited to see one of the key picks of the rebuilding efforts step onto the ice this fall.
With the offseason loss of 4th line center and fan favorite Zenon Konopka, the Islanders were able to upgrade their 4th line by adding veteran centerman Marty Reasoner. Reasoner provides a similar – albeit likely less vocal – form of veteran presence in the locker room to help mentor the young forwards that the Islanders have assembled. Reasoner also provides a similar level of face-off reliability and adds more scoring punch than Konopka ever could. Overall, I like the upgrade, and though many fans were reluctant to let Konopka go because of his outspoken-ness defending the young team during their rough patches last year – and of course, the Pittsburgh fight night game – I think Reasoner will quickly become a similar favorite of the fans with his style of play. He will remind some of a Claude Lapointe-type blue collar forward that every fan can appreciate.
On Reasoner’s wings will be P.A Parenteau and Matt Martin. After a 50+ point effort last season, Parenteau has earned his way onto an NHL team for good. I believe he will play 10-12 minutes a night between 4th line minutes and manning the half wall on one of the Power Play units. While I seriously doubt 50 points is anywhere within his reach without playing full-time next to Tavares, between Power Play time and the occasional 4th line goal here and there, I do think 30-35 points is well within reason for P.A next season. The reason that I have Parenteau on the 4th line instead of Niederreiter is that I believe the Islanders coaching staff will make a conscious effort to ensure that Nino is getting plenty of ice time each game to help his development – ice time which he would not see on 4th line duty.
On the other wing is Matt Martin, who has also earned a full-time role with the big club next season based on his body of work the last two seasons. Martin has proven to be a great teammate in a number of ways, but perhaps none more visible than when he drops the gloves to defend a teammate by taking on an opposing team’s player in good ol’ fashioned hockey fisticuffs. For a big man known primarily as a fighter, Martin’s offensive skill set is often overlooked. He developed a great set of hands while playing on Steven Stamkos’ wing on the Sarnia Sting in junior hockey, and has shown flashes of translating that to the NHL level. If he can improve his skating, it is possible that one day he could even work his way onto the third line. For 2011-12, I am more than content with him as a quality 4th line winger.
Michael Haley – most famous for his role during “Fight Night” against the Penguins – showed last year that he is a fearless hockey player who will do whatever it takes to help the team win. A smaller forward, Haley is not quite in the heavyweight division of fighters, but he will back down from no one. He also showed he is capable of highlight reel goals with a sweet dangle piece goal during the same “Fight Night” game. I highly suggest youtubing it. Haley will be a very serviceable member of the team next year as a player who can step in on any line for a single game and have an impact.
Trevor Gilles was one of the most controversial players in the NHL last season for his role in two hits that earned him lengthy suspensions. Despite his tough-guy demeanor on the ice, Gilles has proven to be an excellent NHL player off the ice with the work he does in the community both during the season and the offseason. He was rewarded with a 2-way deal and will likely only be called up for games when the Islanders need some additional muscle to protect their rising young stars. After Haley and Gilles, there are a number of prospects in Bridgeport and junior hockey who have the chance to make an impact in training camp and challenge for a roster spot, but I am fairly confident that we have covered the lines that will make up your 2011-12 New York Islanders.
The team’s stated goal is to take a step forward this year and make the playoffs. Is this combination of forwards strong enough and deep enough to get the job done? You decide below in comments.
About Me: I am proud to be a new contributor to The Checking Line team. I look forward to writing about the Islanders all season long and perhaps even some other teams or general hockey articles along the way. Please let me know what you think of my articles by reaching out to me on twitter @bbock77 or on gmail – firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope you enjoy! Is it October yet?!