2008-09 Team Preview: New York Islanders
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunThe Atlantic Division is a tough place to be if you're the New York Islanders, who hope to avoid finishing last again behind Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the rival Rangers.
"I actually think we're better off playing those teams," Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro told ESPN.com. "We seem to play better against the Rangers and Devils and the teams in our division."
The Isles did indeed go 6-1-1 against the Devils last season and 15-15-2 overall against their divisional opponents. Still, few believe this team has any chance of making the playoffs. But don't tell that to DiPietro.
"I think we're in a good spot," he said. "I know we're probably being picked to finish 29th or 30th like we do every year. But for us, it's about the end result, not just making the playoffs, because I'm sick of just making the playoffs. We don't want to back into the playoffs, but go in and give ourselves an opportunity to do some things."
Off the ice, the relationship between GM Garth Snow and coach Ted Nolan was clearly no longer working. Nolan was fired and replaced by Scott Gordon, whose AHL credentials are impressive.
"I was a little bit surprised," DiPietro said of Nolan's firing. "I didn't think it would happen. But we didn't make the playoffs last year and I guess they felt it was time for change. The new guy is young and excited and he's focused on winning. It'll be nice."
Mike Comrie led the team in scoring last season with 49 points, which ranked 108th among NHL scorers. Don't blame Comrie; he was definitely the team's most consistent offensive force. He just didn't have much of a supporting case. The Isles finished dead last in the NHL with 189 goals (2.30 goals per game); and despite Snow's efforts, there's no real reason to think more goals will come this season. Veteran center Doug Weight, 37, was the only real addition up front and clearly his best days are behind him. Offensive blueliner Mark Streit, coming off a career year in Montreal, will be a spark to a power play that ranked 29th in the league last season.
Big things are expected from 20-year-old forward Kyle Okposo, New York's first pick, seventh overall, in the 2006 NHL draft.
Streit was the big addition to a group that already included Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton, Chris Campoli, Radek Martinek, Freddy Meyer and Bruno Gervais. The Isles ranked only 23rd in goals-against last season; but, to be fair, this group got rocked by injuries all season long. If healthy, it's a decent group that can tighten things up in front of DiPietro.
The 26-year-old DiPietro is again the shining light on a team that will be challenged to stay out of the cellar. He is expected to make a full recovery from the season-ending hip surgery he had in March. DiPietro will need to steal more than a handful of games for the Islanders to surprise this season. Given DiPietro's freshly repaired hip, it will be interesting to see if backup Joey MacDonald gets a look early in the season, when the Islanders play back-to-back contests.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement on the Island may be the synergy created by having the coach and GM on the same page. Don't laugh! It is very difficult to win in the NHL, period. It is even more difficult when there is dysfunction at the highest levels of the organization. While it appeared Garth Snow might hire his old minor league coach, Bob Hartley, to lead the Isles, he went with an NHL rookie, Scott Gordon, instead. In any case, give Snow high marks for making sure he hired someone who shares his philosophy and approach.
Having said that, the additions this summer (Doug Weight and Mark Streit being the major ones) may not be enough to get the team into the playoff mix; and, as the crop of youngsters (Okposo, Comeau, Bergenheim and NHL door-knocker Jeff Tambellini) matures but also experiences a baptism by fire, there will be even more pressure on goalie Rick DiPietro to hold the fort. Not only will Rick have to keep his team in games on a nightly basis, but he will also have to steal a lot of wins without much run support from his teammates. Here's hoping Ricky can stay healthy this season because the Isles need him, and he is fun to watch.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from the 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
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• Record: 35-38-9
• Division: Fifth in the Atlantic
• Conference: 13th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• If the Islanders somehow are still hanging around close to a playoff spot come March, their season will hang on a six-game road trek that takes them to Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Chicago, Carolina and Ottawa from March 10 to 21.
Record: 221-141-20-27 (five seasons as AHL's Providence coach)
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Scott Gordon was the coach of the year in the AHL last season, leading the Providence Bruins to a league-leading 55-18-3 record. The pedigree and résumé look impressive, but he doesn't have that much to work with this season. He does, however, look like the right hire if GM Garth Snow is serious about building from within and developing the team's young players.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Kyle Okposo
• He showed his promise with five points in nine games late last season.
F -- Doug Weight
• Arrived from Anaheim via free agency. Looked slow and old with Ducks last season. Does he have anything left?
F -- Bill Guerin
• Entering his second season with Isles. He's hoping to find chemistry with old Team USA buddy Weight.
D -- Mark Streit
• Arrived via free agency from Montreal. How will he handle the pressure of a $20.5M, five-year contract?
D -- Brendan Witt
• Entering his third season with the Isles. Veteran banger oozes character.
Answer: "Honestly, it's not something you think about," DiPietro said. "You can sneak up on teams early in the season maybe because they looked at where you were ranked in the preseason. I don't think anyone is concerned where we are ranked in the preseason, as long as at the end of the season we're in the playoffs and giving ourselves a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup."
Bust: Mark Streit, D: His chances at a repeat of his 62-point performance from 2007-08 are slim to none, mainly because the Islanders' power play, simply put, is not the Canadiens'.
Outlook: Gone are disappointments Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Josef Vasicek and Bryan Berard; veteran playmaking center Doug Weight and Streit were the only two "big-name" types brought in to replace them. That puts the microscope on the team's younger, up-and-coming types, a group that includes Blake Comeau, Okposo, Jeff Tambellini and Chris Campoli. Those four, incidentally, have combined for 319 career NHL games, so it's a fairly raw group with plenty to prove. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft