Originally Published: September 24, 2013

New York Islanders: More is expected

By Katie Strang | ESPN.com

Recalling the Islanders' defeat at the hands of the Penguins last season after a surprisingly competitive first-round playoff series, one postgame comment stands out: Colin McDonald said that during the customary handshake line, he and his Islanders teammates received sincere words of encouragement from the Penguins about how far they've come and how much respect they had earned. With their first playoff appearance in six years last spring, the Islanders made a significant stride to dismantle the negative perception that had long defined the team. The dysfunction, disarray and disappointment that shrouded the team in the five straight seasons it missed the playoffs from 2007 to '12 was overshadowed by the emergence of young star John Tavares and a plucky squad that gave Sidney Crosby and the heavily favored Penguins plenty of trouble. Now begins a new era for the Islanders, with Tavares the rightful captain, a new home in Brooklyn on the near horizon and winning no longer a futile hope. The 23-year-old Tavares, a finalist for the Hart Trophy with 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games last season, aims to lead his team back to the playoffs and build on the success of last season. If the team wants to make another big step, however, simply getting to the playoffs won't be enough.

The Islanders unloaded former captain Mark Streit, trading his rights to Philadelphia; the 35-year-old defenseman later signed a four-year, $21 million deal with the Flyers. That's a serious hit to the Islanders' blue line, but one that was enabled by the strong play of Lubomir Visnovsky last season. One of the team's most significant offseason acquisitions, Cal Clutterbuck, won't be able to have an impact soon. Unfortunately, the gritty 25-year-old suffered a skate laceration during a preseason game and is expected to miss "significant time," according to Newsday. The rugged winger, a former linemate of Tavares' in junior hockey, was acquired on draft day from Minnesota in exchange for Nino Niederreiter, a prospect whose relationship with the organization had grown strained. Less than a week later, GM Garth Snow added another former member of the Wild in Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who is likely to slot in at the right wing alongside Tavares and Matt Moulson. The 29-year-old Bouchard is expected to play a role similar to that of P.A. Parenteau and Brad Boyes in years past -- a player with offensive skills who can complement Tavares' playmaking ability and chip in on the power play as well. Snow also inked Danish center Peter Regin to a one-year deal to give the team depth down the middle.

First and foremost: the captain. When the Islanders battled the peaks and troughs of a lockout-shortened 48-game schedule last season, Tavares put the team on his back and simply willed his way to wins. The former first overall pick was always heralded as a special talent, but his true potential was unveiled last season when his leadership, poise and production were on full display. Anointing Tavares the team's leader was long overdue, as he embodies everything the Islanders have going for them right now: youth, skill, energy, enthusiasm. In fact, by virtue of their dreadful finishes for five straight seasons, the organization has a bevy of talented young players in the pipeline. Both Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have already proved themselves as bona fide NHL defensemen, with Matt Donovan possibly poised to make the jump next. Among a rising crop of forwards, the Islanders boast centers Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome, both of whom will challenge for a spot in camp. Homegrown players Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey both caught fire at the end of last season, with stalwarts Frans Nielsen and Moulson as steady as ever. The team added some skilled forwards with Bouchard and Regin during free agency and will be returning physical third- and fourth-line players like Matt Martin, McDonald and Casey Cizikas, who played key roles in the playoffs. Assuming their main contributors can stay healthy, the Islanders can be a very dangerous team.

Stop me if you've heard this before: the Islanders and their goaltending is a concern. Yes, the organization finally came to its senses and cut ties with Rick DiPietro and his albatross of a contract (15 years, $67.5 million), but the team still has some serious question marks between the pipes. Evgeni Nabokov was brought back on a one-year, $3.25 million deal this summer, and while the 38-year-old netminder provides veteran experience, he's not getting any younger. The Islanders ranked 21st in the league last season with 2.83 goals-against and were dead last among the 16 playoff teams with a whopping 4.17 goals per game. Anyone who watched that series against the Penguins remembers it was a wild and unpredictable shootout between two offensively talented teams, but the implosion of Marc-Andre Fleury effectively masked the fact that Nabokov wasn't very good, either. And suffice it to say that the Islanders' young goaltending prospects aren't a lock to hold the fort should durability or workload become an issue for Nabokov throughout the course of an 82-game season. Youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson are expected to compete for the backup job, and neither has been that impressive. Poulin posted an unsightly .893 save percentage in the five games he played up with the big club last season and wasn't much better down in Bridgeport (AHL), where he posted a 15-14-3 record, 3.22 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. Nilsson's numbers were comparable with an 8-11-0 record, 2.98 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. Should the Islanders be in position to make the playoffs as the trade deadline approaches, perhaps this becomes a need for Snow to address. It wouldn't surprise if that need becomes apparent much sooner than that.

The Islanders still face the tough competition they did in previous years: the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers (note: Columbus could be a sleeper team this season) but will be affected should they not finish in the top three in the division. Though the Islanders could challenge for that third spot, their best bet at a second straight playoff appearance will be nabbing one of the four wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference.

Strang: The Islanders will follow up on last season's surprising playoff appearance with another solid season. Expect them to compete with Washington for third place in the Metropolitan Division but ultimately finish in fourth.

Burnside: Seventh in the Metropolitan Division.

Custance: Fifth in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: Fifth in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: Fourth in the Metropolitan Division.

Katie Strang covers the Detroit Tigers for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


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