This past season may not have seemed like an improvement for the New York Islanders, but in quite a number of ways, it really was.
Let's put things in perspective: this team was eliminated from playoff contention fairly early last year, but they stayed alive until the final month of this past regular season.
In this first segment of my Isles Season Review, we'll discuss the bright spots of the 2011-12 season.
Enjoy, and feel free to comment below.
By all accounts, John Tavares had himself a banner year.
The top pick of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft finished tied for seventh in the league with 81 points (31 goals, 50 assists), just one shy of a point-per-game average and one more than I predicted. Tavares amassed 54 and 67 points in his rookie and sophomore seasons, respectively.
Not only did he produce, Tavares had a knack for making key plays at key times. He had eight game-winning tallies this season, seventh-most in the league. It's worth noting that 23 of his 31 goals were scored at Nassau Coliseum.
He was noticeably stronger and a better skater, too. It used to be rather easy to knock John Tavares off the puck; not anymore.
Granted, Tavares isn't exactly your quintessential two-way hockey player, but to his credit, he had the second-most takeaways in 2011-12 with 99. He also had the sixth-most face-off wins with 814.
Tavares took a gigantic step forward this season, evolving into a top-10 NHL player. He's proven himself from the outset but JT's performance in 2011-12 should be enough to quiet the remaining naysayers.
The Isles' top line of John Tavares (81 ponts), Matt Moulson (69) and P.A. Parenteau (67) was nothing short of spectacular in 2011-12.
Needless to say, Tavares was the centerpiece (both figuratively and conceptually); With his combination of strength, hands, skill and offensive-awareness, he's the kind of player that makes his line-mates better.
Of course, when those wingers are also skilled, playing with someone like Tavares only makes them even more dangerous.
Whether or not Parenteau re-signs with the Islanders remains to be seen, but there's no denying his impact. He's an excellent passer and knows how to find the open man.
Moulson's got a nose for the net and he's one of the best players in the game in front of the crease and in the dirty areas. He didn't score 36 goals by accident, I'll tell you that much.
After Evgeni Nabokov infamously spurned the Islanders last season, GM Garth Snow got league approval to toll Nabokov's contract, forcing him to honor his contractual obligation to the team.
Suffice to say, Nabby's tenure in Nassau was expected to last about as long as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries' marriage. No one could've guessed that he'd spend the entire season on Long Island and that he'd sign on for another.
Garth Snow had plenty of opportunities to rip on Nabokov but always said the right things. He never burned his bridges and played the situation as well as one possibly can, despite what the Canadian media might tell you.
Nabokov may have had his doubts about playing here, and he certainly acted on 'em last year. The fans were ticked off at him, and for good reason. But the players in that locker room soon embraced him and it wasn't long before Isles' rooters followed suit.
Perhaps it had something to do with his performance on the ice.
The Russian netminder finished out the year a bit early, going down with a "lower-body injury," but he sure was effective up until that point. Nabby posted a record of 19-18-3, including a pair of shutouts. He sported a 2.55 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.
That 2.55 GAA might not be overly impressive, but keep in mind that Nabokov did not have a very good defense in front of him (we'll get to that later).
For the first time since, dare I say it, Rick DiPietro (in his prime), the Islanders have a goalie who can steal hockey games. Nabby did that on a handful of occasions in 2011-12.
Honestly, there's no way he'd have re-signed unless he was told the starting job would be his next season and, with Nabokov in goal from the outset, perhaps the Isles can win more games and jump out to a better start this time around.
Having certainty in net is a huge factor for any team and that's exactly what Nabokov provided for the Islanders down the stretch.
If there were any concerns about Travis Hamonic experiencing a sophomore slump, they were put to rest in 2011-12. Hamonic had a splendid year and emerged as one of the top young defensemen in the NHL.
This is a kid who has yet to turn 22 years-of-age but has the poise and maturity level of a veteran with seven-plus seasons under his belt.
Hamonic's defensive prowess earned him a plus-six rating (on the Islanders!) and was as evident from his stats as it was from simply watching him out on the ice. He recorded 170 hits and blocked 157 shots (second on the team to Andrew MacDonald, who blocked 185 shots).
Offensively, Travis had a bit of a frustrating year. He took a ton of shots and was definitely more involved, yet he finished with 24 points, two less than last season. This despite the fact Hamonic played in eleven more games than he did in 2010-11. His numbers will improve; the talent is there.
Hamonic is the real deal and, assuming the Isles have a few similar talents coming through the pipeline (which they do), the future looks bright.
Last season, Frans Nielsen had a plus-13 rating, which makes the minus-three he sported in 2011-12 look awful.
Truth be told, Nielsen's two-way game was better this year than his plus/minus suggests. He was still making those smart decisions and doing all the little things that led The Hockey News to name him "Best Hidden Gem" ("The Best of Everything Hockey" issue, 2012).
He also finished with 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists), a career-high for the dynamic Dane.
Nielsen's still the most efficient shootout player in the NHL since it was implemented in 2005-06, having converted 23 of his 38 attempts (70.6 percent). It's therefore no surprise that Isles fans have dubbed his forehand-backhand move "the Danish Backhand of Judgment."
With Ryan Strome (likely) moving into that second-line center position, Nielsen will be able to play a more suitable role and he'll be able to do it without much of the extra pressure he had this year.
The Islanders gave some of their young prospects a look over different parts of the season and, honestly, not a single one of 'em disappointed.
None of these kids looked out of place or unprepared and they all played with a sense of awareness and poise. They made smart decisions with the puck, didn't try anything too fancy and worked hard on every shift.
Guys like David Ullstrom and Casey Cizikas really hustled out there and were strong on the forecheck. The Islanders have been missing that element of their game for some time now, but assuming both Cizikas and Ullstrom are with the big club next year, that will no longer be an issue.
Calvin de Haan made some sharp passes and showed glimpses. Aaron Ness and Matt Donavan also look promising and certainly left that impression.
Like last year, Kevin Poulin got some chances to strut his stuff and did not disappoint. The same can be said for Anders Nilsson, who despite getting shelled in his first NHL start against a returning Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins (a game he should never have been starting in the first place), was able to get his act together and play well.
If these are the talents coming in from Bridgeport, the Isles are in good shape. It's no accident that the Sound Tigers have had an excellent season; they're stocked with promising and skilled youngsters.
Isles fans were railing on Mark Streit all year and, quite frankly, it was uncalled for.
Something people need to understand is that, for the overwhelming majority of his career, Streit's been an offensive-defenseman. He'll make some strong defensive plays (which by the way, are often overlooked) and, yes, he'll have his lapses.
But make no mistake: Streit is one of the main engines running this ship and, without him, they're all but done for.
New York's power play was the eighth-best in the NHL this season and, if you don't think Mark Streit is directly responsible for that, you're kidding yourself.
The Isles' captain racked up 47 points (seven goals, 40 assists), ninth-most amongst defensemen. 23 of those points came with the man-advantage.
Streit's a world-class puck distributor and he can find the open man with the best of 'em. Injuries and age have definitely slowed him down a bit, but towards the end of the season, you could tell that Streit was skating faster again. His offensive instincts are top-notch.
He works incredibly hard and has earned the respect of his teammates. Though he is not the long-term captain of this team, he's a mighty-fine choice for now. He's also a better hockey player than the fans seem to think.
Josh Bailey's game really took off towards the end of the season.
I think he's finally molding into a quality two-way forward with some scoring punch and can be a key cog on this Islander team. He's a guy who can make big defensive plays, create some offense and kill penalties.
The Isles have plenty of offensive talent in their lineup and more on the way, which means Bailey doesn't have to shoulder the load the way he was expected to not long ago. He can play his smart, two-way game.
After a rough start to the season that saw him become a healthy scratch on a handful of occasions, Kyle Okposo turned things around and finished strong.
He scored 24 goals and amassed 45 points, showing his offensive capability and scoring touch.
Though some of his excessive puck handling led to turnovers, Okposo was strong on the puck more often than not. He had 30 giveaways and 62 takeaways and is becoming a better two-way player.
Okposo needs to use his size more often and, if he can do that, he'll be even more effective.