The New York Islanders fit into that uncomfortable category of "Geez, I'm not really sure if they're a team on the rise or just going in an ever-expanding circle." After making their second consecutive playoff experience and winning their first playoff series since 1993 last spring -- a six-game victory over the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers -- the Islanders can't afford to take a step back.
The problem is, there's no real tangible indication this team is any better than it was last spring -- and, in fact, there's some widespread belief that it already might have regressed after losing key pieces Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin.
In a division in which everyone else seems to be on the rise, that's not good news. And if the Isles really aren't poised to build on last season's successes, how does that impact captain John Tavares, whose contract ends after the 2017-18 season? He already is the subject of no small amount of rumor vis-a-vis his next port of call.
And that's all on the ice. Off the ice, the Islanders will begin their second season in Brooklyn still very much needing to clarify their long-term future at Barclays Center after a first year that can only charitably be called an up-and-down one in their new home.
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It is still more than a little mystifying why the Islanders decided early on that they weren't going to re-up Okposo, who signed with the Buffalo Sabres, but were willing to basically give a similar contract to Andrew Ladd, who is almost two years older. Ladd, who signed a seven-year deal worth $38.5 million, is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and the former captain of the Winnipeg Jets. He'll be a welcome addition to the Islanders' locker room, but it's a stretch to see him as a 30-goal guy. And the term of the deal (seven years) looks like it'll be a killer -- and maybe sooner than later.
Joining Ladd up front will be Jason Chimera, who is coming off a nice run in Washington -- although at some point the hard-skating 37-year-old is going to run out of gas, isn't he? Speaking of older players, 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg parlayed a nice turn with Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey into a one-year deal with the Islanders, whom he'll help out on the blue line. But there was a reason why Seidenberg didn't fit with the Boston Bruins, who were looking to get younger and more mobile on defense.
With Okposo and Nielsen (who signed with the Detroit Red Wings) gone, that's 116 points out of last year's lineup that has to be replaced if the Isles are to continue flirting with being a top-10 offensive team (they were 11th last season). Ladd and Chimera will bring some offense, but which of the kids will step forward? Ryan Strome went from 17 goals two years ago to eight last season and was a healthy scratch at times in the playoffs. Josh Bailey, the ninth overall pick in the 2008 entry draft, has never hit the 20-goal plateau. He had 12 goals last season and just one in the playoffs. Shane Prince and Alan Quine were both impressive in the playoffs but have little NHL experience, while another top prospect, center Mathew Barzal, has impressed at camp for the second straight year.
As for the goaltending, it'll be interesting to see how the story unfolds this year after Thomas Greiss took over for an injured Jaroslav Halak and was excellent in guiding the Isles to the upset of the Panthers in the first round. Halak is healthy and was clutch for Team Europe, which he helped guide to the World Cup of Hockey finals. But the issue with Halak, as always, is durability -- and it would surprise no one if the Isles have to patch together their goaltending as the season moves along.
Well, there's John Tavares. And that's as sure as it gets for the Islanders. He probably doesn't get the attention that guys like Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby or even Ryan Getzlaf do, but Tavares is one of the premier two-way centers in the game and works tirelessly to make himself the most complete player he can be. He was terrific playing out of position for Team Canada, which tells you how humble he is, and he will continue to set the tone in the dressing room for an Islanders team that he basically carried single-handedly into the second round last spring.
Lots of teams are trending north in the Metropolitan Division. I'm just not sure the Islanders are one of them. Seventh in the Metropolitan Division.