Isles In 2011: End of Year Review
The season has been over for the Islanders now for the past several days, concluding their season on Saturday in a 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The team fielded a defense core that featured Radek Martinek as the only veteran but managed to keep the game close for the majority of play. P.A. Parenteau netted his 20th goal of the year and Travis Hamonic added another goal on the power play to his rookie campaign. John Tavares came one more goal closer to 30, but had to settle for 29 in an impressive sophomore season that saw him end with 67 points on the year.
Isles fans have almost forgotten the 20 losses in 21 games that started back at the beginning of the year. Instead, most fans will look back on the 2010-2011 season and think of players coming into their own such as Nielsen, Comeau and Hamonic. Nielsen may be a Selke Trophy candidate after leading the league in shorthanded goals and setting career highs in goals, assists and points. Comeau did the same and also joined the 20-goal category, finishing the year with 24. Travis Hamonic, who was an emergency call-up when roster spots opened due to injury, proved that he is an NHL defenseman. Although he had 26 points in 62 games played, Hamonic became a physical blue liner (leading NHL rookie defenseman in hits) and became relied upon like a veteran by the end of the year.
The list goes on when you look at guys like Andrew MacDonald, a defenseman who had not really contributed offensively in previous season, and ended up quarterbacking the power play in Mark Steit's absence. Matt Moulson showed the league that last year wasn't a fluke with an even better performance than last year. Parenteau was asked to be the new Moulson and finished with the same 53 points as his linemate.
The Islanders goaltending depth became evident when Kevin Poulin and Mikko Koskinen displayed their talents in their NHL show-casings and will end up applying for permanent jobs with the Islanders sooner rather than later. Al Montoya ended up being another one of Garth Snow's great, yet unexpected moves and earned a contract extension with the club next year because of it.
There was the famous Isles/Pens games that had numerous fights, brawls, scrums, penalty minutes and bouts that will be looked upon as the game that changed the youth movement; the game that was a turning stone and established an identity for a young Islanders team that didn't have one. Special thanks can be credited to Zenon Konopka, possibly the most influential leader in that young room, for looking after his teammates with help from character guys like Trevor Gillies, Micheal Haley and Matt Martin.
And who will look back on this season and not think of Michael Grabner; the kid who was a waiver-wire pick-up that could not crack the line-up of the Florida Panthers and ended up becoming the team's leading goal-scorer and the faster skater in the NHL. His expectations will rise next season, and he should meet them as long as he can convert on at least half of his breakaways that he creates on a nightly basis.
The team certainly turned themselves around after that horrible losing streak and never gave up, even after they were eliminated from playoff contention. A large part of that success is attributed to Jack Capuano, the Islanders new head coach. He came in relief of former coach Scott Gordon and was labeled the interim head coach behind the Isles bench. Due to his impressive finish, the Islanders have decided to officially keep Capuano at least for next season. And don't be surprised if you see Doug Weight next to him in a suit and tie at the start of the 2012 season either.
There is plenty of reason for optimism heading into next year. The addition of Streit back into the roster will indefinitely supply offense, defense and leadership that was missed from the start. A healthy Okposo will be a difference maker as well. The Islanders are maybe one or two players away from becoming a playoff bound hockey club. After three years of rebuilding with another top-5 pick (the draft lottery is tonight and the Isles sit with the fourth overall selection and have a 10.7% chance of moving up to the #1 spot) and the core of this team taking the next step without much veteran assistance by having milestone seasons, there's only a few reasons to think otherwise.
One of those reasons is the question in net. DiPietro only played in 26 games with a 3.44 GAA, .886 save percentage and an 8-14-4 record. Injuries prevented the 15-year man from re-establishing himself as a #1 goaltender, allowing the crease to become a circus of signings, call-ups and waiver pick-ups (even if they never put on an Islanders jersey, ahem ahem Nabokov ahem). Montoya, who carries plenty of confidence and potential, played in 21 games and posted a 2.39 GAA and .921 save percentage with a 9-5-5 record. There's reason to believe that he can perform in DP's absence, but the Big Cubano is still inexperienced when it comes to handling the full rigors of an NHL season. Will Montoya be up to the task if DiPietro goes down again?
The bigger question will be what happens to DP if he has another season like this one. How many seasons can the organization revolve around their rehabilitating investment? There's no question that Garth Snow is committed and serious about this rebuild. But it will continue to be increasingly difficult for this team to thrive if they have to adjust to a new goaltender every week or continue to search their depth charts and trade lines for help between the pipes.
The positives seem to outweigh the negatives when looking ahead to next season. But the few concerns might be equal in magnitude.
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