"Stay In The Net, Rick" A 2011-12 New York Islanders Preview

For the first time since 2006-07, the New York islanders season will have endless possibilities and playoff expectations. Islanders fans have suffered long enough, this HAS to be the year we see the fruits of our labor. I’m going to start my first blog on The Checking Line with the following statement..............

I guarantee that the New York islanders will make the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.
The average person may have stopped reading after my previous statement. How can you say a team without a sniff of playoff hockey in five years has any shot of being relevant this year?
If you watched the first half of the 2010-11 season and only the first half then I'd completely agree with you. No shot this team even has any fighting chance. In sports, life, what have you, there is something I like to call ‘turning points’. When Mark Messier guaranteed a win agains the Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals and then went out and scored a hat-trick, that was a turning point.
When the NHL.. I mean the ping pong ball lottery gave the Pittsburgh Penguins the number one draft pick after the lockout to select Sidney Crosby, that one point in time turned a team that could barely afford to pay their players into a perennial powerhouse franchise with a state of the art building and rabid fan base.
The Islanders turned the corner during the second half of the season, from simple personnel moves to having healthy players return from injury. This will be the year for Islanders fans to see how these little turning point can change a franchise.
Turning Point #1: The Hiring of Jack Capuano
The first turning point for this franchise was on November 15, 2010  The ‘reclassification’ of coach Scott Gordon after a 4-10-3 start and the ‘interim’ hiring of the feisty Jack Capuano was paramount in the team’s turnaround late last season, where we saw flashes of excitement and buzz around the franchise. Sans the interim tag and with a new two-year contract, Capuano has a great opportunity to build on last year.
He has brought on Doug Weight as an assistant to work on their anemic power play conversions, and will now have the opportunity to fully implement his up tempo style for an entire season. The guys last season really bought into what he was selling, if the trend continues, Capuano’s hiring will be the best move of the 2011-12 season as well.
Turning Point #2: Keeping homegrown at home
"O man the Rangers got Brad Richards!" 
"Did you see what the Flyers did today?"
" Five years $33 million for a defensemen that couldn’t even hack it on Long Island?"
The Islanders, intelligently, made no major splashes in free agency like their divisional rivals. There were no Rick Dipitero-lite contract given out to post-prime centers or middling players with some playoff success getting similar money to Steven Stamkos. 
Instead of throwing money at Brad Richards or Ilya Bryzgalov; General Manager Garth Snow opened his (Wang’s) wallet for ‘his guys’.  He gave long term extensions to John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner, and brought in high character veterans in Steve Staios and Jay Pandolfo.  
Snow addressed long-term goals and short-term fill ins that will help mentor the younger players. Pundits would say that free agents don’t want to play in the antiquated Nassau Colliseum and want to win right away. To be fair, that is sometimes the case. Money talks however and if the Islanders thought a top tier free agent could have helped their cause, they would have make an attempt to acquire them.
Snow did take a run at Christian Ehrhoff, now of the Buffalo Sabres. He obtained his rights from Vancouver and tried to negotiate a fair market deal for a guy coming off a career season with 14 goals and 36 assists. Unfortunately, Ehrhoff thought he could win more with the Buffalo Sabres and took their similarly structured contract offer.
Playing it smart and not forcing a bad signing will be a huge turning point for this franchise. Snow has the pulse of what the fans expect and deserve; a winning team on and off the ice
Turning point #3: Islanders naming Mark Streit Captain
On September 27, 2010 in a preseason scrimmage, Mark Streit and Matt Moulson got tangled up in a seemingly innocuous manner. One player left no worse for wear, one player tore his labrum and had season ending surgery. That player was the man who would eventually become the 13th captain of the Islanders, Mark Streit. Streit's absense throughout the entire of the 2010-11 season was clear evidence of how important a player he was to this team. The power play was a constant struggle, even with the development of blueliners Andrew Macdonald and Travis Harmonic. Turning point number three is captain Mark Streit.
Streit will bring stability and leadership to an up and coming defense core. He is a power play general and will not only help the offensive numbers, but also the penalty kill. Simply put, the Islanders are a better team with Mark Streit. If you watched any preseason games, you saw the confidence that Streit's presence brought to the defense. You think Aaron Ness and Calvin De Haan didn’t make huge strides this preseason? Both guys looked like totally different players from last season’s training camp to this year’s.
Andrew Mcdonald and Travis Hamonic were the go-to d-men last season. Having a bona fide number one defensemen will only help their growth and allow them to join the play offensively. The key for the Islanders defense is staying off the Injured reserve. For the better part of the last two seasons Mcdonald has spent long stints on the IR. Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau both has serious injuries, cutting their 2010-11 campaigns short and Milan Jurcina had myriad bouts with the injury bug as well. One would think it’s safe to say we will have a De Haan sighting this year, he looked ready and it’s a matter of time till he is playing alongside Hamonic for the next 15 years.
Turning point #4: You can call me Al...RIcky..Nabby
The goaltending situation last season was interesting to say the least. We saw SIX starting goalies over the course of 82 games. Dwayne Roloson, Rick Diptetro, Mikko Koskinen, Kevin Poulin, Al Montoya and Nathan Lawson all saw action. It got so difficult for them that they put in a waiver claim for KHL retread Evgeni Nabakov. Controversy ensued with the latter as the Detroit Red Wings initially signed him before the waiver claim was placed, blocking the impending deal. For the 2011-12 season goaltending should be a strength, but it still hinges on an all too familiar right handed number one draft pick.
Ever since Rick Dipitero was signed to a 15-year $67 million dollar contract, the expectations have been immense, but his presence on the ice has not. 
Countless injuries and surgeries have frustrated fans of the team and well as the man himself. Watching his preseason outings, it looks like his lateral movement is back to where it was pre surgery. The issues with DP stem from positioning and puck movement. His health issues contributed to many mental gaffs. He looks like he is back to his 2006-07 form and even with three goalies in camp, he was the clear cut top performer. He has a lot to prove though, as this is probably his last chance with the Islanders, so he will have to make it count.
DP is obviously important as a number one goalie, but what about Al? Al Montoya was another brilliant addition by Snow, nabbing him for a 7th round pick. In 21 games in 2010-11, he went 9-5-5 with a fantastic 2.39 GAA and a .921 SV%. He was solid, but did have issues with puck control. But as a guy getting between 25-30 starts, he will keep you in games and you will not see that drop between number one and number two.
Signing Montoya also allows prospect Kevin Poulin to rehab from his knee surgery last season and develop in the minors. He will get to play the bulk of the games in Bridgeport and will get valuable coaching and seasoning. Having him sit on an NHL bench would be the worst decision, and fortunately, with the job Montoya did for them, it will be a non-issue.
Nabakov, on the other hand is an insurance policy at best. He didn’t show enough in the preseason compared to DP and Montoya. He could be a good trading chip if injuries or performance warrants it. If DP can give a representative 50-55 starts and stay on the ice and leave the fighting to Trevor Gillies their is no reason the Islanders goalies can’t help this upstart team to a playoff spot. 
At the beginning of this article I said the Islanders WILL make the playoffs. I will go as far as saying they are top 6-7 team in the Eastern Conference, possibly having more points then their interstate rivals, the New York Rangers. The Islanders have three solid lines and a veteran fourth line that will make fewer mistakes and will play tough against the opposing top lines in road games.No one is going to look past the Islanders this season, they are to be respected and will be a tough out for anyone in the Eastern Conference.
Game 1 vs Florida Panthers
The 2011-12 starts Saturday night as the Florida Panthers claw into town.  The Panthers bring a completely revamped lineup into their first contest of the season. They signed free agent forwards Scotty Upshall and Sean Bergenheim to help their offensive production and brought in veteran defensemen Ed Jovanoski and Brian Campbell. Kris Versteeg was acquired in a trade and brings his 21 goals last season to a team desperate for scoring. In net, a platoon of Scott Clemensen and Jose Theodore will likely occur until someone takes hold of the starting job, and/or until 21 year old prospect Jacob Markstrom is NHL ready. Florida poses a unique challenge to the Islanders on opening night, both teams need to start the season quickly and this game is a huge two points. I
Players to watch: 
Stephen Weiss- Even with an off season in 2010-11 with only 49 points, he is someone you need to make sure doesn’t beat you. Weiss plays with an edge and will only benefit with a better supporting cast around him. If you can keep Weiss in check it’s a major plus.
Erik Gudbranson- The Panthers 3rd overall pick in 2010 has made the squad this year. He is known for a punishing style of defense and has really  worked hard on becoming a complete player. He is solid in his own end and  it will interesting to see what matchup he is given in his 1st game with the big club.
Jose Theodore- The likely starting goalie for the Panthers had a difficult preseason and will likely be a weak spot for them. Theodore has won the Vezina trophy and can be a high caliber goalie, but at 35 years of age, the soft goals have been adding up. He will get his chance to proof the doubters wrong starting Saturday Night. The Islanders need to test his resolve, early and often.
The opening game for the Islanders is a celebration of the 40th year of the franchise and will be a litmus test on where the fans think the team ranks. I expect a capacity Pro-Islanders crowd Saturday night. The old barn will not know what hit it! Expect a high energy, fast paced game between two desperate teams. I know it’s only one out of the 82 games on the schedule, but you can’t get these points back in April, every game matters. Does anything sound better than ‘First Place New York Islanders’?
I know there are plenty of ‘season previews’ to go around, and everyone has their ideas on what/will/should happen. I hope my preview brought a little different viewpoint. I am a diehard Islanders fan. I am also realistic. I can guarantee I will tell like it is for better or worse. If even one person can relate to how I feel and write, then I did my job.
The goal of our Islanders coverage here at The Checking Line is to be your first stop each day for the most up-to-date news, opinions and coverage. We are anchored by Rob McGowan, please send all complaints to him and compliments to my email jmadmmd@yahoo.com. This is my first ‘official hockey blog’, I take criticism, constructive or not, seriously and it’s the only way I can improve. Thank you to George and Rob for giving me the opportunity to speak my mind and bring my insight and thoughts. I look forward to covering the Islanders this year, lets enjoy the ride.



George Prax's picture

Great read. Can't say I disagree with any of your individual points but I'm not exactly sure the Isles are ready to be a top 8 team in the east. Thing is, just about every team around them outside of the Sens also improved, so it's going to be a crapshoot for a lot of these teams, especially ones like the Isles who look to come out of struggling these last few years. I can see them being better than the Rangers or Leafs, but are they better than the Habs, Sabres, Hurricanes, etc? Not sure. That said, I am looking forward to seeing this team play this year.