The New York Islanders are much closer to the playoffs than most people give them credit for.
The last time the Isles' laced up to play hockey past the 82 game regular season was in 2006-07, where they lost in 5 games to the Sabres. Before the start of the season, owner Charles Wang signed goaltender Rick DiPietro to a planet-sized 15-year contract to stay on Long Island.
As the year got going it became largely overshadowed by management and coaching transitions, and it came as little surprise to the hockey world that the team that qualified for the playoffs after a shootout win against the Stars weren't able to eliminate the high-flying Sabres. After their playoffs were over, the direction of the team changed dramatically.
GM Garth Snow announced after their first round exit that the organization would be entering into a rebuild mode, where they would stock-pile draft picks and add veterans to help balance their roster out.
Now five years into their rebuild strategy, the team is still without a playoff appearance to show for it. But that's not to say that Garth Snow hasn't done a good job in New York, for they now possess perhaps the most exciting group of young players in their system, who have the potential to make something very special.
Part of what's kept the Islanders from having success is how literal Garth Snow was when he promised the fans a rebuild. Unlike the Penguins or Capitals, the team hasn't picked up a direction-altering player that seemingly swings the tide all by himself. Rather, they've quietly collected top end offensive talent at each position, opting to go for a complete roster that doesn't rely on one particular hero to get the job done each night.
Drafting Canada's World Junior star John Tavares was the team's first step towards turning a corner. The hard-working center was a leader and scoring genius all throughout junior hockey. He managed to score 72 goals and 134 points in one year in the OHL as a 16 year old, where he quickly began garnering the attention of the hockey world.
After he became age-eligible, New York wasted no time in getting him with their first overall pick in 2009. That same offseason, the team signed center Matt Moulson to a one year contract, and he's since gone on to post back-to-back 30-goal seasons.
The 2010 offseason then brought the Islanders some good fortune, when the Florida Panthers tried to sneak winger Michael Grabner (whom they'd just traded for from Vancouver) into the minors. The Isles' picked him up off waivers to add to their youth, hoping to use his speed and soft hands for some extra offensive depth.
He's since turned into a 30 goal scorer, and a Calder Trophy nominee in his debut year. It seems like Florida just can't catch a break.
With the Austrian born winger under contract for five years, the Islanders now find themselves with three experienced players capable of scoring 30 goals leading their offense into the 2011-12 season. But wait, it gets better.
Hockey fans in New York are keeping a close eye on the player dubbed "El Nino," Nino Niederreiter, as he's expected to make the team out of training camp this year. Drafted fifth overall in 2010, the Swiss-born right winger seems all but a lock for next year's roster, and has the potential to be a dynamic goal scorer for this young Long Island team.
Coming off a 41-goal, 70-point season in the WHL last year, Niederreiter has the ability to lead the Islanders toward being the consistent contender that Snow set out to build. He'll join a young group of players that also includes Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau and Frans Nielsen.
Ryan Strome, the fifth-overall pick in this year's draft, will also be a nice fit on the team when he's ready, and will give them three quality centers as their backbone.
While the offense is undeniably growing stronger, there now remains the question of defense. With DiPietro, the expensive and frequent resident of the team's IR list, it's little wonder that the team's woes start from the back end and move forward.
The team averaged 3.15 goals against last season, a stat that's good for 27th overall. While their offense managed to finish 15th at the end of the year, the defensive inconsistencies were too overwhelming and a top-five draft pick was in order.
A bright spot was found when the team brought in Al Montoya to fill in for the injured number one, where he managed to maintain a winning record. His 2.39 GAA and .921 save percentage are an improvement over DiPietro's numbers, which clock in at 3.44 GAA and .886.
Montoya may not be a long-term solution for the team's goaltending problems, but like James Reimer in Toronto, he's an intriguing option that will show his true pedigree with more games under his belt.
Still, the team may not need either goaltender to shoulder a heavy load next season, if Evgeni Nabokov stays true to the rumors and reports to the team to play next season. His refusal to join the team last year after being picked up on waivers disappointed Islanders fans, but a healthy, quality netminder like Nabokov could give this team a fighting shot next year at making some noise.
His defensive help won't be very strong however, which won't make his job any easier. Veteran Mark Streit will be relied upon to lead the team's back end next season, with help from Mark Eaton, Milan Jurcina and promising defender Travis Hamonic.
While arguably one of the weaker defensive corps in the league, they'll get a shot in the arm if young, talented prospect Calvin DeHaan makes the roster out of training camp this season. Picked behind Tavares at 12th in the 2009 draft year, DeHaan is the first major piece of the Islander's defensive future, and someone they can build around.
Their ability to win games, division titles or qualify for the playoffs will depend upon how they address their defense.
So just how close is this team to returning to the top-right in their conference? Offensively, they're very close. With leadership, scoring prowess, depth and speed all in place from several years of high picks, this team has to focus on the back end from here out.
As mentioned before, DeHaan is a good start, however, what this team really needs is a franchise defenseman to build around. With the combination of a healthy DiPietro, Nabokov and Montoya for security, their goaltending is solid enough to no longer be a sore spot. Still, for a team that averages 32 shots against per game, their goaltending won't always be stellar.
Minor success will come this year if Snow can pick up another veteran blueliner (or two) to help add some depth, or if this team can simply out score their opponent on a nightly basis. However, since neither is an ideal solution, don't count on a playoff appearance at the end of the 2011-12 year.
If Snow targets a blue chip defensive prospect in the upcoming draft to help upgrade the team's defensive future, then the Islanders could be ready to play past the regular season by 2012-13.
Is it an ambitious prediction? Absolutely. But with the offensive core they've collected, their high caliber of prospects and a goaltender capable of outstanding play, a vastly improved defense is all that stands between them and a chance to play for the silver trophy awarded to the last team standing in June.
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