Isles 2014 Year End Review

The New York Islanders have ended their 2014 season by finishing 26th in the league, good enough for the fifth overall pick in this year's draft lottery and a 34-37-11 record.

At this time last year, the Isles were 24-17-7, a record that was good enough to place them eighth in the Eastern Conference and allow them to play the Pittsburgh Penguins in a first round playoff series match-up.

Clearly, this was not the direction that the Islanders and their fan-base expected them to travel this year.

Fingers can be pointed at many as to why this season concluded with these results. But looking back, there are also several positives that can be taken away from an otherwise disappointing year.

Kyle Okposo emerged as a top line power forward this year. Playing alongside John Tavares, Okposo became much more confident with the puck, stronger in the corners and a true leader on this team. He even managed to keep up with his stellar play despite JT missing the rest of the season after the Olympic break. KO, who is still only 25 years old, finished the year with 69 points in 71 games played (27 goals and 42 assists), a new career high. There is plenty of reason to believe that Okposo can continue to lead his team offensively and build on his progress next season (Photo credit: bridgetds/Flickr).

Frans Nielsen had the best year of his career and was arguably the most improved Islanders forward. Scoring 25 goals and 33 assists in 80 games played is by far the best season that he has had in his NHL career. Nielsen has always been noted as being a spectacular two-way forward who excels when playing the defensive side of the game. This year, without neglecting his defensive responsibilities, Nielsen became a creative offensive threat that put up numbers consistently from start to finish. He has always had the number-two center position behind John Tavares, but this year he officially earned it.

Brock Nelson finished his rookie campaign with 14 goals and 12 assists and became a steady, reliable forward for this team down the stretch. When injuries to the top-six forwards began to mount, Nelson stepped up his game and consistently found scoring chances and offense for himself and his line-mates.  He will certainly provide depth at center for this team down the stretch and will look to have a strong sophomore season next year with the Islanders.

Late bloomers Anders Lee and Ryan Strome also proved that they are ready to accept full-time NHL roles and could compete as top-six forwards. Lee scored 14 points in 22 games played, while Strome tallied 18 points in 37 games played. The majority of Strome's points came with his second tour of duty with the Isles and while playing with his Bridgeport line-mate, Anders Lee. Together, the two established chemistry at the NHL level and were a persistent threat on the ice. The Islanders coaching staff will have a hard time cutting either of these two in training camp next year as they will both provide intense competition to future newcomers and regulars on this roster.

On defense, Calvin de Haan flourished as one of the most reliable defenseman on this team. With Andrew MacDonald traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, de Haan's workload increased and he handled the pressure like a seasoned veteran. With 16 points in 51 games played, de Haan will likely try to increase his offensive output next year. But at the very least, de Haan proved to be a steady defender that should be a lock on this team's six-man unit for next year.

Matt Donovan, who appeared to begin the year with little confidence in his play, turned his game around over the second half of the year. He turned the puck over less frequently and started to display his offensive potential by joining the rush and firing pucks on net. Still young at 23 years old, Donovan has plenty of time to improve on his decision making and on-ice awareness in order to make him the top-four defenseman that he has the potential to be.

Travis Hamonic continued to be a leader on defense throughout the year. He also had great help from Thomas Hickey, who despite his small stature, played big in many situations and finished the year with 22 points and a +5 rating from the blue line.

But like any season, you have to take the good with the bad - and there was plenty of it.

Goaltending continued to be a glaring issue in last year's playoff bout with the Penguins and was not resolved before the start of this year, and it showed. Evgeni Nabokov would have his season plagued by injuries and was not the steady hand that he was for much of last year. Kevin Poulin continued to be inconsistent in the crease and Anders Nilsson struggled for most of his starts.

With Poulin spending much of the second half of the season in the AHL, it appears that the organization may feel that he is incapable of being this team's back-up goalie next year. Nilsson's numbers do not indicate that he is capable of that role either, boasting a poor 3.11 GAA with a .896 save percentage. Poulin's numbers were even worse, holding a 3.29 GAA and a .891 save percentage.

The poor defense in front for the majority of this year's campaign is also responsible for the poor play in the crease.

Defenseman Matt Carkner proved to be more of a liability than a tough presence. Brain Strait, who has been injury prone since joining the Isles, was a -14 in only 47 games played. Lubomir Visnovsky only dressed for 24 games due to concussion issues and was not the offensive d-man this team needed him to be when he was able to dress. And we can't forget about Radek Martinek, although we actually can being that he only was healthy for 13 games this season.

When discussing players that are typically relied on for offense that struggled to find the back of the net, Michael Grabner is the first player that comes to mind. His ability to get breakaways each night and fail to score on all of them has become an overplayed joke. One would almost think it was a curse from the hockey gods to give this kid the fastest set of wheels but the worst scoring touch when one-on-one with a goalie. Since his breakout season in 2011, his goal scoring stats have dropped consistently from 34 to 12 (bridgetds/Flickr).

In fact, the only other player to have an equally bad season was Josh Bailey, who remained to be the most ineffective top-six forward on this team. He finished the year with a career high of 38 points, but went widely unnoticed for the first 50-60 games of the season. As usual, Bailey found his game when the Islanders season meant less as they fell further down the standings. It's hard to believe that he has already played in 406 games and still has less than 100 goals. Although he is only 24 years old and can one day turn into the player that this organization envisioned him becoming, patience has definitely worn thin on the fan base and has to be a concern for the coaching staff as well.

With players like Strome, Lee and Nelson ready for prime playing time, players like Bailey and Grabner may be deemed expendable in the off-season.

The Islanders will once again be looking to make some significant changes this summer if they intend on returning to the playoffs next year. However, making these changes has never been easy.

Unrestricted free agency has continued to rear its ugly head at the Isles year after year, proving to be a challenging environment to find new players to improve the roster. Additionally, the Isles are already short one first round pick in either this year or next year's draft due to the Moulson/Vanek deal.

There are going to be an abundance of goaltenders this year on the market, and not many teams aside from the Isles will be looking for a new number one-goalie. So there may be some hope in free agency after all.

But that doesn't fill the void on the top line left by Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson, or the lack of experience and consistency on the second and third lines. Or the gaping holes on defense for that matter as well.

With the Islanders currently holding the fifth overall pick in this year's draft (which will ultimately be decided in the draft lottery), GM Garth Snow may choose to hold this year's pick and trade it for an upgrade somewhere on his team. With an overwhelming amount of prospects and youth, Snow has the luxury of not needing to hold onto this pick. With that said, he may also consider moving some of the young talent that has proven themselves ready for the NHL.

Or there is the possibility that players like Grabner and Bailey may also be moved, before their stock completely drops to nothing more than late round draft picks (if it hasn't already).

To sum up this year in one sentence, a rebuild that concluded with a playoff berth was followed up with another lottery draft pick and infusion of youth to end the season; regardless of how you slice it, this year was a complete failure by the New York Islanders.

Snow and Co. have their work cut out for them and will have to be willing to make some significant moves in order to allow this team to once again have successful results on the ice.

-Rob McGowan

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