Are The New York Islanders Still A Playoff Team?
There are a lot of questions surrounding the New York Islanders as they head into next season. The biggest one will be whether or not they are capable of making the playoffs for the second year in a row.
The NHL Facebook page recently asked this same question, and many fans were either skeptical, positive or found the idea downright absurd (and these weren't just Rangers fans).
Despite an intense, hard fought playoff series with a very inexperienced roster against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that has been one of the most dominant forces of the league for the past few years, many critics are still not convinced that the New York Islanders are a guaranteed playoff team.
And they shouldn't be.
Evgeni Nabokov, who was superb for the majority of the regular season, struggled against the Pens in the first round. Fortunately, Marc-Andre Fleury was not any better in the other net, who barely saw any ice time after getting pulled in the first round. But Nabby did finish the regular season with 23 wins, tied for second place with Fleury and Braden Holtby and only one win from tying Henrik Lundqvist, Niklas Backstrom and Antti Niemi for the league lead (Photo credit: spotboslow/Flickr).
Therefore, it's hard for fans to get a clear reading from their Magic-8 ball when it comes to predicting Nabokov's performance for next year.
Throw in that Kevin Poulin, who has yet to get consistent NHL ice team in his career, is slated to be the back-up, barring that Anders Nilsson does not outwork him for the job in training camp. But either way you slice it, the Isles do not have a veteran goalie to turn to if Nabokov starts next year the same way he ended in the playoffs.
If the Islanders are in playoff position by this year's trade deadline, GM Garth Snow might want to consider going after a veteran back-up. The reason why the Penguins made it to the Conference Finals was because they had Tomas Vokoun backing them the rest of the way. The Isles did not have a similar luxury and will struggle again if they do not find one come playoff time.
But now we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. Poulin and/or Nilsson do need NHL ice time behind a veteran goalie. Nabokov should be able to handle a regular season case load, but the back-up, whomever that may be, will have to give the 38-year old a break from time to time.
The Islanders' offense was pretty solid last season, but improved production from some key players will be vital for this team's repeated success. John Tavares might clip finally the 40-goal mark this year (he managed to score 28 in only 48 games last year, good enough for third best in the league), and Matt Moulson should be another 30-goal scorer as well.
The question is who will be scoring the 50+ assists they'll need on the other wing? Pierre-Marc Bouchard? He is definitely capable, judging from his numbers over the past few years.
Or could it be Josh Bailey? He was on pace to set career highs last year, had the season been a full 82 games. It was even good enough to earn him a five-year contract extension. But he needs to be that type of top-six player for the entire year and not just the last three months before the playoffs.
Kyle Okposo is another player who showed that he has the character to be a true leader on this team. Just watch the playoffs over again and you will see the kind of beast Okposo can be. But where is that beast at the start of every year?
KO has been notorious for a slow start over the past few seasons and will need to change that if he really wants to help his team climb in the standings at the start of the year.
Michael Grabner also looked like he had regained a bit of his 2011 scoring touch, putting up 16 goals and 21 points in 45 games in 2013. He is not noted for earning a lot of assists, but no one will really mind as long as he can score goals at the same pace as his feet hit the ice.
Other players, such as Colin McDonald, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin will have to prove that last year's production as a fourth line was not a fluke. Not only were they serviceable role players on a defensive checking unit, but they were also able to contribute offensively as well.
Cal Clutterbuck's addition to the line-up should make this team stronger on the bottom two lines, but that shouldn't take any of the pressure off of the aforementioned three players' shoulders; they still have to play each game the same way that they did each night in 2012-2013.
The defense was decent last year, but definitely not the strongest point. Many have eluded to Matt Donovan as the replacement for the recently departed Mark Streit. But Lubomir Visnovsky, who is very gifted offensively, will more likely have his work cut out for him in Streit's absence. Donovan should absolutely get his shot at the NHL, as there is nothing left for him to prove in the AHL. But Lubo has certainly become the go-to offensive d-man.
Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have continued to play well together over the years and will probably do so again next season. It's clear that they have emerged as the top-two defenseman on this team, which they have earned. Both should expect an increase in minutes and being matched up against an opponent's top line. The question is if they will be able to handle the added pressure (douglasgallery30/Flickr).
The other defenders, Thomas Hickey, Matt Carkner and Brian Strait, have a lot of proving to do next year. Carkner is a strong sixth defenseman that can clear the crease, but the same cannot be said for Hickey, who lacks in size. He at times plays bigger than he actually is by being fearless along the walls, but what is his actual role with this team? The same thing can be asked for Strait, a defenseman who earned a three-year contract extension after a very short time with the club just before being injured until the post-season.
This year's core of defenders on paper is decent, but not great.
And then of course, there is head coach Jack Capuano.
It wasn't that long ago that many fans were crying for Capuano to be fired and for someone else to replace him. Doug Weight, one of Capuano's assistants, was someone many Isles fans wanted to see in charge.
But when has inserting an inexperienced coach to replace another relatively inexperienced coach behind the Isles bench worked out well in the past? Did it work with Brad Shaw, Scott Gordon or Steve Stirling?
Weight is an excellent assistant coach who works well with this young core as he was their former captain; they look up to him and respect him and his passion is impossible to go unnoticed every game (OneTigerFan/Flickr).
And once this team started to win, Isles fans suddenly were fine with Jack Capuano as coach. Obviously winning changes everything, but what are his plans for the upcoming season? Where will he use Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson or Bouchard? Who will he use on his power play units? Will goalies still be pulled with three minutes or more left in the third period?
The Islanders did give the Penguins everything they could handle in the first round of the playoffs and Capuano absolutely deserves merit for that. However, that doesn't mean that his questionable changes to his line-up in that series should be ignored.
Why would he dress Marty Reasoner and scratch a regular forward who had helped his team get to the playoffs? Did Reasoner's experience really make a difference? (As an FYI, he was back in the press-box as a scratch right after that one game.)
He also scratched Carkner, who dressed for the previous game, to play Hickey instead, which resulted in a loss. Did Hickey lose the game for the Isles? Of course not. But Carkner's physical presence against a speedy Pens team was missed, so much that the two were swapped back out for each other the following night.
Capuano wasn't hesitant about messing with a winning formula, which was something that raised a few eyebrows.
He is still a relatively inexperienced coach who did not have any NHL coaching experience in the playoffs before last year. But this proves that Capuano is still tweaking and molding his coaching style and techniques.
What type of coach will the Islanders have in 2014?
All of these questions can be rolled into one that asks, will the Islanders make the playoffs again in 2014?
There any many reasons to be skeptical, but the potential is there. This is a team that feels they deserve to be respected; a team that finally got their first taste of the playoffs; a team that finally got to see how passionate their fans really are; a team that fianlly experienced the intensity of a packed out Nassau Coliseum.
This team will be hungry for that again. They'll have to be if they want to get it back.