The New York Islanders kept their roster mostly intact this offseason with the exception of dealing Michael Grabner to Toronto for a handful of spare parts (and presumably the proverbial bag of used pucks), as they prepare to move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Two years ago they made the playoffs but were dumped in six games in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then they missed the playoffs. Last spring, they made the playoffs and were ousted in the first round after a physical seven-game set against the Washington Capitals.
Team on the rise? Or team treading water?
There's so much to like about the young nucleus of talent assembled by general manager Garth Snow. But is it time?
"We felt we had the team to do it last year," captain John Tavares said. "There really hasn't been any changes, and with the progress and the maturity with so many of us being so young, I really believe we have some great years ahead."
BEST NEW FACES
Well, let's be honest, there aren't many. Veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky signed on late in the offseason for one year. Thomas Greiss replaces Michal Neuvirth as backup to incumbent starter Jaroslav Halak. As noted, Snow did move Grabner, who really didn't fit with this group of forwards, for a group that will help improve the team's depth at the minor-league level, including two forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. Taylor Beck is the only one of the five with NHL experience and could see some NHL time pending injuries up front.
The one new face you won't be seeing anytime soon is Josh Ho-Sang, who was bused home to junior after sleeping late on the first day of workouts. Ho-Sang is a top talent but comes with some off-ice issues. Even though the Islanders traded up to get Ho-Sang with the 28th overall pick in 2014, Snow gave him the tough love treatment in sending him back to junior.
Of course, the biggest new face around the team will be the Islanders' home arena. Tavares said he doesn't believe the move will change much about the team, and it will be interesting to see how many of the team's hard-core fans make the trip into the city for games and what kind of new marketplace could be unearthed in Brooklyn.
As promising as this Islanders lineup is, they are still not an elite defensive team, ranking 23rd in 5-on-5 goals against and 23rd overall in total goals against per game. The team's questionable play in its own zone extended to the penalty kill, where the Islanders were 26th. The power play was also surprisingly tepid, ranking 16th in spite of the team's bevy of top-end offensive talent. The Isles made the playoffs in spite of the middling special teams, but those are two areas that need improvement.
Big-picture unknown: Does the team take time adjusting to its new home in Brooklyn? How long before it feels like "home," as opposed to just another out-of-town rink? Or do the fans, so boisterous and emotional as the final days on Long Island were counting down, give the Isles an edge at home right from the start?
Offensively, this is a team that looks ready to explode as long as young players Anders Lee (who had 25 goals as a rookie), Brock Nelson (whom Tavares calls a "foundational" player) and Ryan Strome continue to develop. The Isles were fourth in 5-on-5 goals scored, a testament to their offensive depth. Tavares was especially optimistic about the possibilities for young roommate and good pal Strome, who had 50 points last season -- third on the team.
"He's extremely talented and he sees the ice so well," said Tavares, who is predicting All-Star-quality performances for Strome.
The biggest given when it comes to the Islanders is Tavares himself, who ended up a finalist for the Hart Trophy and finished just one point behind Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn. Tavares had 38 goals, including eight game winners, and he puts us in mind of Sidney Crosby in terms of his measured approach to his own game. Pushed by the organization to be a better all-around player, Tavares has been working on his skating, his shot and his defensive game. He felt that over the last two-thirds of the season his two-way game really took off.
"I know the team really challenged me on it," Tavares said.
Given his leadership and commitment, it's hard to imagine Tavares won't be right in the thick of the Hart Trophy discussion again next spring.
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
It's not surprising that Tavares will be a key force with Canada's entry in next fall's tournament. He can look forward to catching up with Mikhail Grabovski and Frans Nielsen, who should both have a shot at Team Europe. And Nikolay Kulemin seems a lock to be part of the Russian roster. Halak appears set to battle Anaheim's Frederik Andersen for playing time with Team Europe. Kyle Okposo, Lee and Nelson could make a case for a spot on Team USA with strong seasons. Defensively, Nick Leddy has an outside shot at Team USA as well, and Zidlicky will likely suit up for the Czech Republic, which looks to be thin along the blue line.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
The big item on Snow's to-do list is to figure out Okposo's place in the Islanders' future. Okposo, 27, is in the final season of a deal that will pay him $4.5 million but carries only a $2.8 million cap hit. Okposo is due a big raise if he hits free agency, but how much can Snow afford to pay to keep the longtime Islander and physical force?
Snow must also factor in a couple of key restricted free agents in Strome and Casey Cizikas in weighing the Okposo options, although we're guessing a deal gets done. Nielsen is also slated to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
I really wrestled with how the Isles fit into what should be a jam-packed Metropolitan Division. I figure them to be a second wild-card team and back in the postseason. Fifth in the Metropolitan Division.