NHL 2011: The Rebuilding Islanders Are Close To Contending

Zack PumerantzAnalyst IIIJanuary 24, 2011

UNIONDALE, NY - JANUARY 23: John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders congratulates Matt Moulson #26 on his goal at 1:15 of the second period against the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum on January 23, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the puck hits the ice, two eager centers begin to claw for possession. Resembling a flock of birds during autumn migration, the offense takes form.

It’s a sport that requires exciting aggression and skilled finesse on every play, and lot of heart for three periods.

The feisty New York Islanders have plenty of heart but lack the talent to compete right now... but they’re on their way.

Rebuilding is a process and takes patience. New York fans are as impatient as they come, making it difficult to absorb consecutive losing seasons.

Islanders General Manager Garth Snow must stick to his plan just as Knicks General Manager Donnie Walsh did when clearing cap space for the Knicks in preparation for the 2010 summer free agency period. The Islanders are being patient though and are closer to contention than most fans can see and it all starts with youth.

When the Islanders won the draft lottery two years ago, it was expected that they would take the Canadian prodigy, John Tavares.

With another first round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft that was received in a trade with the San Jose Sharks, the team was ready to infuse the team with youth and add depth to the minor league system. They took Tavares with the first overall pick and promising defenseman Calvin De Haan with the 12th overall pick.

The phenom Taveras finished second in scoring for rookies last year with 54 points and it was clearly a year for him to get his feet wet. After finishing with one of the worst records in the league, the Islanders had the benefit of the fifth pick in the 2010 draft and chose Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter.

They also took US-born Brock Nelson with the 30th overall pick. While most of their young prospects are in the minors getting seasoned, the team looks hungry and on the cusp of competing for a playoff spot.

For those who doubt the process of rebuilding, take a look at the 2003 Penguins and how far they have come. Perennial losers, the old Penguins had a reserved seat every year in the basement of the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

What the fans failed to see was the rebuilding that was occurring over three crucial years, with three significant draft picks. They took stout Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with the first pick overall in 2003, Evgeni Malkin with the second overall pick in 2004 and the infamous Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick in 2005.

2006 was the last time they had a draft pick higher than 20th overall when they took Jordan Staal second overall. The Penguins have dealt with numerous threats of relocation and bankruptcy, seemingly stifling the development of their team before 2006, until Malkin made his NHL debut.

Having not missed the playoffs since 2006 and winning the Stanley Cup in the 2008-2009 season, the Penguins have proved that rebuilding takes patience and focus.

The Islanders resemble those Penguins that were in a rebuilding period and a step away from youthful stardom.

Currently leading the team in goals (18), assists (18) and points (36), Tavares, still only 20 years old, is learning to adapt and is maturing with every line change. With crafty veterans such as Matt Mouslon, who has remarkably found himself with the Isles, and Frans Nielsen, the youngsters can learn.

Kyle Okposo, drafted seventh overall in 2006, is another promising Islander, who just returned from a shoulder injury before the season. Josh Bailey, drafted ninth overall in the 2008 draft, was thought to have been rushed early on but is now playing relentlessly with the big league club.

Not only are their young players skilled and savvy, but also tough and fearless, traits that are overlooked sometimes with young prospects.

While there are still question marks for the team considering their economic problems and the relocation rumors, the team itself is heading in the right direction. It all starts with the young blood and the young Isles are hungry for change.