And The Islanders Will Finish In....
The New York Islanders are in the middle of training camp; plenty of fresh faces are looking to surprise the coaching staff and crack the line-up while a few other seasoned and whithered faces look to continue their NHL career with an impressive tryout.
But what everyone is hoping for is a successful season that will result in the Islanders FINALLY making the playoffs after the slow and steady rebuild began three seasons ago.
Let's take a look at some of the major events that have transpired in Islanders country during the off-season thus far:
1. General Manager Garth Snow re-signed Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner to five-year contract extensions at an affordable pricetag. Fans were happy, the team is happy, KO and Grabs were happy; everyone's happy.
2. Bruno Gervais is traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for future considerations. Inconsistent play and well-cooked meals are shipped off into the sun for a later reward in return for Chef Bruno.
3. Several RFA's, including Micheal Haley and Ty Wishart, accept their qualifying offers for next season. Others, such as Jack Hillen, were let go to unrestricted free agency. Radek Martinek is let go as well.
4. Marty Reasoner is signed to a two year contract to become the team's new fourth line center and penalty killer as former Isles fan-favorite, Zenon Konopka was let loose for free agency.
5. Snow trades Trent Hunter to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Brian Rolston. You can try to slice it anyway you want, but it was mainly for salary purposes. Hunter was eventually bought out, increasing the Devils cap space while Rolston's $5 million brought the Islanders closer to the cap floor.
6. A new arena proposal was put before a public referrendum vote that failed, leaving fans, ownership and the team without an answer as to what will happen with the aging Nassau Coliseum. With the lease expiring in 2015, many became pessimistic about the team's future playing days in Nassau County.
7. Blake Comeau would sign a one-year contract extension despite the many rumors surrounding him in a possible trade that would potentially land a top-four defenseman.
8. The summer grows quiet without much activity happening on the Island as Snow continues to search for an upgrade on defense.
9. John Tavares signs a six-year contract extension that kicks in after next season, keeping him with the team beyond the expired lease and demonstrating his character and commitment to the Isles to the rest of the hockey world.
10. Josh Bailey signs a last minute, two-year deal with the Islanders in hopes that he will finally have his breakout season and become the number two center that they envisioned.
And in recent weeks, the Islanders have invited former New Jersey Devils forward, Jay Pandolfo and former Edmonton Oilers defenseman, Steve Staios to training camp on individual tryouts.
Although Snow didn't land a marquee UFA, the Islanders were plenty busy. But will all the subtracting, adding and extending be enough to assure the Islanders as playoff contenders?
Technically, Nino Niederreiter isn't a full-time Islander yet...but there is little reason to doubt that he is already etched into head coach, Jack Capuano's opening night roster. After a tremendous year with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, El Nino has no reason to return to Junior hockey and has the ability to compete for this year's Calder Trophy. But his presence will help create competition in camp as well.
Basically the bottom three spots are up for grabs between Matt Martin, Haley, Trevor Gillies and Jay Pandolfo. 2011 fifth overall pick, Ryan Strome has an outside chance of pushing for a spot in camp, but it's more than likely he will be sent back for another year of Junior hockey. With all this young talent ready to play, there is no reason to rush another 18-year old into a brand of hockey that he is likely not ready for.
Haley, Gillies and Martin can alternate in and out of the line-up since all three share the option of being sent back down to the minors. But with all of this traffic on forward, it seems unlikely that Jay Pandolfo will earn a spot with the Islanders in a full-time role.
On defense the Islanders are set with the starting six: Streit, MacDonald, Hamonic, Eaton, Jurcina and Mottau. Not the most intimidating slew of defenseman since that top-four pick-up was never found. This is why Steve Staios is skating around and trying to press his luck. However, Staios won't upgrade the defense much more than the current state it is already in.
Calvin de Haan can try to seize this opportunity to finally make the team, but my guess is that the organization plans on continuing his transition from Junior into the NHL with a period of AHL hockey in between. Don't be surprised if de Haan starts in Connecticut and later finds his way with the Islanders in a similar fashion that his World Juniors defense partner, Travis Hamonic did last year.
And who knows, maybe Snow will find a way to add a little bit more of an edge to the D-corps before the season starts via trade. But at this stage of the game, with most teams set with their rosters and only looking to make a few minor tweaks, it would be pretty tough.
The real story will be in net. With Evgeni Nabokov reporting to camp, things are getting pretty crowded between Al Montoya and Rick DiPietro.
There's even more crowding than people think since top goalie prospect, Anders Nilsson will be playing in North America this year and Kevin Poulin and Mikko Koskinen already share the pipes with the Sound Tigers.
This is a situation that almost seems certain to experience change at some point this year. How soon? Well that all depends on a variety of factors including how Nabby plays in the pre-seaosn; how DP's health is evaluated; if Montoya proves early on that last year wasn't a fluke; if Poulin displays the confidence and ability to return in an Islanders sweater.
The coaching staff certainly has their hands full, as does the rest of the teams in this league. But not every team has been working towards a rebuild.
As year four starts to turn the corner, the Islanders need to, at the very least, play themselves within contention up until game 82. If they finish in 9th, 10th or 11th, the season is a success as they would likely be out of the bottom five in the league and would have missed the post-season by only a few points.
But there is plenty of reason to believe that if this team starts off well with a strong start from Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo, as well as key goal scorers Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and John Tavares, and a strong performance in goal from whoever ends up playing, that this team can qualify for the playoffs.
Trust me, I am aware those are a handful of "if's," but they are all reasonable.
The real question is if this team is better than the Flyers, Penguins, Devils and Rangers. The Atlantic Division hasn't been an easy one to compete in over the past few years. But the Islanders were one of the best teams in the league over the second half of last season.
Can they start the year the way they finished 2011? Can they handle the pressure if they are close to playoff contention to steal a few games at the end of the year and earn those points that will make a difference?
This is the year that this young squad will be tested. This is the year that the league, the fans and ownership are expecting more. Consistency, determination and leadership will be the difference maker for this season. The Islanders may be young, but they are old enough to share the responsibility of moving this team up the ladder.
My prediction: The Islanders, at the very best, will finish in 7th or 8th place. But I won't be surprised if they fall on the cusp around 10th or 11th, which in my eyes, is still an acceptable season.
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