Questions For The Islanders As The Rebuild Pushes Forward

It's still a long shot, but the Islanders have pulled themselves back into playoff conversations with a 1-0 win yesterday over the New Jersey Devils that has put them within five points of the last spot in the Eastern Conference. But even so, there are plenty of questions that surround the New York Islanders hockey club, ranging from the uncertain future of the arena to whether or not Tim Horton's will ever return to the concession stands. The most important questions, the ones that impact the immediate future, are the ones that need to be answered first; GM Garth Snow has to figure out where certain players will fit on his roster as the rebuild pushes forward. (Photo Credit: Bleedin' Teal in AZ/Flickr)

I've already talked about the possibility of Evgeni Nabokov re-signing with the Islanders, as well as teammate P.A. Parenteau returning in an orange and blue sweater. But Snow will have to take a long look at some of his current regulars and decide where they fit with the team long term as some young, fresh faces are pushing for NHL jobs.

David Ullstrom has looked even better in his second time around with the Isles. He had one of the best games I've seen him play in his team's yesterday, making plays and generating scoring chances for himself and his line mates. His speed quite possibly rivals Michael Grabner's and he has some slick hands to go along with a willingness to drive to the net. He could definitely use a few pounds of muscle added on to his frame this summer, but Ullstrom's strong play has easily warranted him a serious shot to be with the Islanders at the start of the 2012-2013 season.

And if we're mentioning young guys, it would be a crime to ignore Casey Cizikas. Everyone has been dying to see him up from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and so far he hasn't disappointed. Playing on a line with Kyle Okposo and Nino Niederreiter (previously Grabner's spot before missing games with the flu), Cizikas has scored three assists in six games played. He's displayed grit and heart with his desire to battle along the wall and fight in the dirty areas in front of the net. Being that he is a center, a spot that is stocked with talent in the depth charts, Snow can start by looking at Josh Bailey when he does his evaluations.

Bailey went from being the typical scapegoat at the start of the year for his poor play and lack of offensive production to one of, if not the most reliable defensive forward on the ice. Fans began to back off of him in spite of his terrible statistics. But then Jack Capuano went digging through Scott Gordon's old coaching files and dusted off the one that said, "Moving Bailey To Wing For Dummies." This concept was used a few years ago and everyone got to see the offensive prowess that the Islanders scouting staff thought he would possess one day. The following year he was moved back to center and we returned to the same old song and dance. Well, Capuano has finally changed the tune and the 22-year old forward has four goals in his last four games played. (Photo Credit: MVerminski/Flickr)

Moving Bailey to wing permanently will not only improve his offense, but it will allow him to become one of the team's most versatile centers by combining his strong defensive play up the middle with his scoring capability on the side. It also will create room for guys like Cizikas in a permanent role. The problem that lies within is that Frans Nielsen is used as a second line center even though his stats, size and style of play indicate that he would be a better third line center. Could Cizikas outplay him for the number two spot? We shall see. But he will have company.

Ryan Strome is someone that many are hoping to make this team next  year, and he just might. Maybe he is what's needed to get Bailey and Okposo going on a more consistent basis.

After all, KO hasn't had the best year either. He was one goal shy of scoring 20 goals in 2010 but managed to score 52 points in his second full season in the NHL. This had everyone stoked for his 2011 performance, suggesting he was set for a breakout year. A torn labrum and half a season wasted later, the coaching staff had to wait and see what Kyle would bring in 2012. The year had a very disappointing start where he wound up in the press box as a healthy scratch. Then he became a top-line player with Moulson and Tavares but has been wildly inconsistent. Notching 20 goals by the end of the year would be a real boost to his confidence (he has 15 as it stands now), but Snow has to figure out if KO has officially reached a ceiling in his development. Maybe a new start next year with some new faces in the line-up will benefit Okposo, as well as almost everyone else.  

These aren't the worst problems to have, but Snow could certainly look to create a competitive atmosphere in training camp by signing some better talent in the off-season. I know, I know, top end UFA's don't come to the Island very often, but this might be the first year that Garth Snow could use the uncertain future of the facility to his advantage. Tony Stabile of Hockey Independent was talking with me in the press box a few weeks ago and was saying that Snow might be able to swing the Coliseum debacle in his favor. The lease will be up in 2015, but the three likely new destinations for the team are Nassau County, Brooklyn and Queens.  To my knowledge as it stands now, there haven't been any sales pitches made to owner Charles Wang to move the team outside of New York.

All three locations are within driving distance of each other and a guaranteed new, or updated facility is on the horizon. It would be even better if Nabokov re-signs, a player that didn't want to come here in the first place. Throw in that John Tavares has joined the elite class of All-Stars in the NHL and has helped his team come the closest they have ever been to the playoffs in a long time. This is why a strong finish is important, even if they miss the playoffs. Everyone wants to sign with a contender, but not everyone will. The Islanders will be in a better position to sweeten the pot if they are on the cusp of a playoff berth as opposed to sitting at the bottom of the standings.

I am very well aware that the unknown might be enough for any top UFA to look at these methods of persuasion and simply dismiss them. That's why Garth Snow has his hands full, and there are question marks surrounding a lot of players and plenty of holes to be filled.

It will be quite an interesting off-season

-Rob McGowan
F

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