5 Burning Questions for the New York Islanders in the 2013-14 Season
The New York Islanders' evolution back into a playoff contender wasn't exactly an overnight phenomenon, and entering the 2013-14 NHL season, failing to make it back to the postseason would be deemed a step backward.
Despite pushing Pittsburgh to the brink of a Game 7 as significant underdogs in 2013, this is a team with several significant issues that will need to be resolved early to avoid disappointment.
Here, we'll take a look at five burning questions the Isles are faced with heading into their second-to-last year at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
How Good Can John Tavares Be?
John Tavares was on pace for 47 goals and 32 assists if last season was a full 82 games, putting him at almost a point per game.
Whether or not these type of numbers will materialize for Tavares in 2013-14—or if he'll better them—after being a Hart Trophy finalist will be a major deciding factor in how far the Islanders go next season.
With a "C" now proudly displayed on his sweater, the Islanders will live and die by Tavares' performance.
An area that could improve for Tavares is power-play production. He only had two power-play goals in the second half of 2013.
The addition of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, likely his new right wing for at least the start of the 2013 season, should give the power-play unit an extra boost, too.
In his best seasons with the Wild, Bouchard put up excellent power-play numbers. In 2005-06, he had seven power-play goals and 24 power-play assists. He continued to produce the next two years, scoring five goals and 19 assists in 2006-07 and six goals and 19 assists in 2007-08.
Perennial linemate Matt Moulson is sure to continue to contribute an exemplary amount of offense alongside JT. 2013-14 will be his fifth season with the Islanders. In each full season, he's scored at least 30 goals, many of those coming with Tavares as his centerman.
In case the heightened team expectations and earning the captaincy wasn't enough motivation for the Islanders star to continue to get better, he's highly regarded by Vegas oddsmakers when it comes capturing the Hart Trophy.
Tavares currently holds 12-1 odds for the league's MVP award, the same as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and behind only Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos.
If there's a year to go out on a limb and predict a 90-plus point season, it's 2013-14.
Who Will Provide Secondary Scoring?
Secondary scoring wasn't a major concern for the Islanders last season.
In fact, they finished seventh in goals per game. Standing pat on a struggling second line, however, would be a mistake this year.
Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo will all need to be more consistent. Unlike 2013, there are formidable replacements waiting in the wings to take key minutes if they cannot produce.
Tavares is the most important player on the Islanders roster, but it often seems that when the second line played well last season was when the team had the most success.
Bailey and Okposo both struggled to produce consistently in the first 22 games of the season.
Bailey was limited to 12 games because of injury but only scored one goal and two assists in that time, and Okposo wasn't much better with only two goals and six assists. In that span, while it didn't help that the Islanders were giving up quite a bit of goals, they only managed a 9-11-2 record. Another slow start for the duo could mean another slow start for the Islanders.
Tavares told Ira Padell of the Associated Press (h/t the New Haven Register) the Islanders will need to play well as a whole if they want to succeed.
Playing in the playoffs makes you hungrier to get back there. You can sense that hunger. We want to get back there and prove even more to ourselves. We rely on each other so much. I don’t think people can just expect me to do everything on or off the ice. I need those guys for us to be successful.
Look no further to other successful playoff teams to see the importance of secondary scoring.
The Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks' top stars all struggled at some point in the 2013 playoffs. Patrick Kane had no goals in games the Hawks won in the first two rounds. Captain Jonathan Toews only had three goals all postseason, and while Marian Hossa had seven goals in the first three rounds, he was held scoreless in the five games it took to defeat the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.
Players like Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell were crucial to their success. Not all teams can boast this sort of scoring depth, but if the Islanders want to continue to be a competitive team, their second- and third-line players need to step up when Tavares and Moulson are shut down.
How Much of an Impact Will the Rookies Have?
With Cal Clutterbuck out for the first four to six weeks of the season, forwards Anders Lee, Ryan Strome, Johan Sundstrom and Brock Nelson have a chance to be playing early and often for the Islanders in October as the offseason acquisition's replacement.
The Islanders came one step closer to finalizing their roster this week, splitting their roster into an "A" and "B" squad at practice. Nelson and Strome are both included in group "A," as are defensemen Matt Donovan and Griffin Reinhart.
Each of the Islanders' top forward prospects plays a different kind of game.
Nelson is the most well-rounded of the three. He'd likely be able to come in and be trusted to kill penalties and take key faceoffs. He has some experience on the wing from his time at North Dakota, and according to Arthur Staple of Newsday, he's been practicing at left wing on a line with Peter Regin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Considered a top-50 NHL prospect by many, Strome will find himself playing top-six minutes sooner than later for the Islanders. As the season inches closer, however, Strome hasn't quite delivered the way the Isles might've hoped in the preseason. He's only tallied one assist with three games remaining.
Lee, a Notre Dame alumnus, may come closest to bringing some of the physical attributes Clutterbuck possesses to the lineup.
At 6'2", 225 pounds, Lee has a nose for the net and doesn't shy away from the dirty areas of the ice. He opened the scoring and later assisted on the game-winning goal in the Islanders' only win this preseason. Lee's defensive game may not quite be there yet, however. In his two games last season with the Islanders, he was on the ice for every goal against the team.
Sundstrom, the dark-horse candidate, also skated with the "A" group Tuesday, on a fifth line with Strome and Eric Boulton.
Injuries like Clutterbuck's are sure to pop up throughout the season, and no matter who makes the team out of camp, each of these standouts will get a fair shake at proving themselves and getting NHL experience before the regular season ends. If any veterans struggle, they could be forced out by strong play from the rookies.
On defense, Donovan and Reinhart have both looked good in preseason action and are skating with the "A" group as well.
Donovan has dominated at the AHL level and appears more than ready to graduate to the NHL level. He's spent most of the preseason paired with Andrew MacDonald, whom he could be partnered with if he makes the Islanders out of preseason. This week, the pairings were shifted a bit, and Donovan skated with Brian Strait.
Reinhart, who's skated with 2013 first-round pick Ryan Pulock through the majority of camp, was paired with Matt Carkner. Donovan is a near guarantee to make the final roster at this point, but Reinhart's status is unclear. He's played well enough to make it, but the Islanders will only have nine regular-season games to make a decision since he's not eligible to play in the AHL.
Can the Defense Hold Up in the Metropolitan Division?
Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Claude Giroux: The Islanders will see each of these players five times each if they stay healthy.
In just about every divisional game the Islanders play, they'll be faced with a star scorer that demands special attention from opposing defenses. Coming up with some sort of answer to elite goal scorers is something the Islanders need to do moving forward.
Help is on the way in the form of Reinhart and maybe Donovan as far as potential shutdown defensemen, but in the mean time, Travis Hamonic will have to step up and be the defenseman that can help keep the puck out of the net, especially with how uncertain things are in net for the Isles.
His regular partner will either be Strait, whom he skated with the entire Pittsburgh series, or Andrew MacDonald, whom he's been reunited with in practice this week.
Defense pairs at #Isles practice: MacDonald-Hamonic, Hickey-Visnovsky, Donovan-Strait, Reinhart-Carkner.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) September 24, 2013
The Islanders were the only playoff team last season that finished in the bottom 10 in goals against per game. There were 16 games the Islanders gave up four or more goals.
Only two of those came in April and both games finished in a 5-4 result in a shootout, which is a testament to the defense improving as the playoff push intensified.
Full of promise, this young group will have to pick up its play on the fly or similar defensive stats will be the team's pitfall.
Will the Goaltending Be Good Enough to Return to the Playoffs?
Evgeni Nabokov headlines the biggest positional question mark on the Islanders.
The 38-year-old was inconsistent at times and played poorly against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. In a full season, Nabokov may not be able to carry the team in starts the way he did in 2013, when he started 41 of 48 regular-season games and all six playoff games.
Kevin Poulin did very little to prove himself capable of starting 15 to 20 games and giving the team in front of him a chance to win. In just four starts, he went won only one game and had a 3.03 GAA and .893 save percentage.
Their only other internal option in net, Anders Nilsson, was not overly impressive with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers last season, finishing with an 8-11 record, 2.98 GAA and .899 save percentage.
Goal scoring will be the Islanders' strong suit this season. It will need to be what carries them if they're a winning team. But in a star-studded division and a conference that now boasts nine returning playoff teams and a Columbus Blue Jackets team that missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, goaltending needs to be better.
Nabokov told Arthur Staple of Newsday he's fine with whatever workload comes his way.
In order to play a lot, you have to play good. That's first and foremost. If you play well, the coach will call your name. If you don't, then things are going to change. My No. 1 priority is to be consistent and give the guys a chance. I never sit and think, Oh, I want to play 55, 60, 70 games -- it's not my call, it's [Capuano's] call and his decision will be based on how I play.
Ideally, Nabokov will have the luxury of getting at least 20 games of rest.