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2013-14 NHL Season Preview: New York Islanders

John Tavares - New York Islanders

The following is a guest post from Dan Saraceni, who currently covers the New York Islanders for LighthouseHockey.com under the alias PGI, his posts are often of the humorous variety. Follow him on Twitter at @cultureoflosing.

Key Offseason Additions: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Peter Regin.

Key Offseason Losses: Mark Streit, Brad Boyes, Nino Niederreiter, Radek Martinek, Marty Reasoner, Keith Aucoin, Jesse Joensuu.

Last Season Ranking: 8th in the East.

Offense: John Tavares was a Hart Trophy nominee for his finest season yet, a 28-goal, 47-point campaign that established the 22-year-old as one of the premier offensive players in the NHL and put the Islanders back in the playoffs after a 5-year absence. Tavares absolutely carried the Islanders throughout the first half of the season while their goaltending and defense were, at best, unreliable.

Contrary to popular belief, Tavares is far from the only weapon the Islanders have up front. Constant linemate Matt Moulson already has three straight 30-goal seasons to his resume and was on pace for another one last year, finishing with 15 in 48 games. Speedster Michael Grabner had 16 goals in a third line role with limited ice time. After missing January with an injury, Josh Bailey had 11 goals in his first full (or half) season as a right wing.

The line of Bailey, defensive center Frans Nielsen and winger Kyle Okposo was instrumental in the Islanders’ second half surge. Although Okposo only finished with four goals on the season, he found a new gear as the games went on, including into the playoffs where he was wrecking ball (ask Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen). Possession-wise, the Islanders were among the league’s best last year, and the second line was a big reason for their positive numbers.

But for the Islanders to have another chance at the playoffs, both Bailey and Okposo cannot take their customary sweet time getting ready. The sprint to the finish line was exhilarating, but over the course of an 82-game season, a cold month or two could doom a team that needs every goal it can get.

Free agent Pierre-Marc Bouchard signed a one-year $2 million deal to come to Long Island from Minnesota and will most likely ride shotgun to Tavares and Moulson. Previously, PA Parenteau and Brad Boyes had seen success from that slot and Bouchard, a sneaky playmaker with a lamentable injury history, can as well provided he can stay healthy.

After a dreadful rookie season and some perceived personality conflict, GM Garth Snow dealt 2010 5th overall pick Nino Niederreiter to Minnesota for gritty forward Cal Clutterbuck and a third round pick (winger Taylor Cammarata). Trading the potential of a high draft pick carries a great deal of risk, but Clutterbuck does give the Islanders a certain snarl that they lacked last year. He probably won’t score or prevent too many goals, but he will bolster and an already strong bottom six and could combine with physical forward Matt Martin to create a tough gauntlet for the opposition to contend with.

The wild card up front could be 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome, who scored 94 points in 53 games with Niagara of the OHL last season. He followed that up with a solid few games with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Strome looks ready and hungry for the NHL and, if he hits the ice running, could really help the Islanders make that next leap forward.

Defense: It’s not often that a team’s captain and chief powerplay quarterback finds himself the odd man out in a roster crunch. But that’s exactly what happened to now-former Islander Mark Streit.

Travis Hamonic (who recently signed a 7-year contract extension with the team) and unheralded Andrew MacDonald have been a tandem for three years now. Despite struggling against top competetion last season, they are the de-facto top pairing for the Islanders. The second pair were two newcomers that found an unlikely home on Long Island. Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey had their own issues on the way to the Islanders, but meshed well together with similar offensive-minded and positionally-sound styles. Both were re-signed this off-season.

With surprisingly effective waiver pick-up Brian Strait out with an ankle injury for most of the season, Streit was left to pair with the likes of Matt Carkner, Radek Martinek and – gulp – Joe Finley. His reduced role didn’t warrant the contract he was seeking, so Snow dealt him to Philadelphia for a pick and a prospect. In his place, the Islanders will most likely turn to one of several promising defensive prospects with the smart money on Matt Donovan, who tied for the AHL lead in scoring amongst defenseman last season. But Edmonton Oil Kings captain and 2012 4th overall pick Griffin Reinhart is also a possibility.

Goaltending: The biggest issue keeping the Islanders from being a lock to return to the playoffs is goaltending.

After years of three-headed goalie rotations, the Islanders finally had an everyday starter last season. Evgeni Nabokov’s season was comprised of three parts: the sub-par first half, the perfectly average second half and the nightmarish playoffs. That they managed to finish eighth in the East and give the Pittsburgh Penguins a serious headache in the first round in spite of the some of the worst goaltending in the league tells you everything you need to know about the Islanders’ offense and tenacity. But, despite the way he ended the season, Nabokov was re-signed to another one-year contract this summer and is (right now) penciled in to be the starter.

Behind him are a pair of unproven youngsters. Kevin Poulin saw very sporadic work last season as the back-up, while Anders Nilsson spent much of the year on the shelf with an ailment now identified as dairy and gluten allergies and a vitamin deficiency. Mercifully, the “Waiting For DiPietro” era is over following his buyout.

Nabokov’s age and decline and the lack of a lights-out prospect make the Islanders one of the very few teams in the NHL that are actively in need of a goaltender. The usually patient Snow has been known to surprise in the past. He could seek options outside the organization (free agents Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas, perpetual trade target Ryan Miller) or ride out Nabokov and one of the kids for one more year, which would be a risky move given the advancement of the rest of the team.

HWB Playoff prediction: Not Playoff Bound. Or Playoff Bound. Maybe. As the erudite Nabokov correctly noted in an interview with Russian news outlet R-Sport, the Islanders have a very difficult task ahead of them. Graduating from bottom-feeder to bubble team means they’re not sneaking up on anyone anymore. And between the quality teams joining the newly-formed Metropolitan division, the NHL’s stringent new playoff format and the lack of an upgrade in the crease, the Islanders could see improvements in both offense and defense from last season and still miss the playoffs. But if Nabokov – or someone else – can keep their goals against at a reasonable level, the Islanders offense should be enough to make them one of the top eight in the East once again.

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