If you frequent From the Rink or surf the SBN hockey team sites, you know we're doing season previews, a team per day in each conference. Today James Mirtle will have his own Isles preview -- way off base, I assure you -- while we'll tackle this issue in greater depth. (Because we're deep like that. And sensitive ... wanna go back to my dorm room? I have a guitar.)
This preview is partly for the general hockey audience (Really, I have a guitar! And a lava lamp! You should see it...), but I'll try to add a new spin and incorporate the debates regulars have hashed out here over the past few weeks. Apologies in advance for the obscure movie quotes; I made one The Thin Red Line reference and it just sort of spun out of control from there...
Who's In -- Regulars: John Tavares, Martin Biron, Dwayne Roloson, Jon Sim (via resurrection) | Irregulars: Matt Moulson, Jeremy Reich, Greg Moore(?), Matt Martin(?), any number of journeyman roster aspirants
Where We've Been (2008-09): The bottom. Year zero of the rebuild. Not so much "Tank for Tavares" as "Don't spend a dime replacing 582 man-games of injuries because, well: Tavares." This time last year, we were wondering what was really up with Rick DiPietro and whether it really made sense to keep 2008 1st-rounder Josh Bailey in the NHL for a dismal team season. Now, we're not sweating what's up with DiPietro, and we're remarking at what a fine player Bailey appears to be shaping into. While the worst should be behind us, tough developmental times still lie ahead. I could bore you with numbers, but you saw them before -- and they were all bad.
Last year's blueline was a weakness before Chris Campoli quietly asked out and injuries took out Every. Single. Defenseman. Even team MVP Mark Streit spent time on the shelf. That blueline returns healthy (for now) and with a lot to prove.
Much more after the jump, including how others see the Isles. (Hint: not well.)
Where We're Heading
"There's not some other world out there where everything's gonna be okay. There's just this one, just this rock." (1st Sgt. Edward Walsh/Sean Penn)
Judging by early indications, more of the same -- but with more reason to watch and a higher possible ceiling. Promising two-way center Frans Nielsen is already out 4-6 weeks with arthroscopic knee surgery. Doug Weight and Sean Bergenheim -- who's always on the verge of breaking out -- began the exhibition season with groin injuries before the first period was over. Rising winger Kyle Okposo is out with a concussion thanks to Dion Phaneuf doing, ahem, what Phaneuf "does." [Insert situationally blind hockey cliche here] But by adding two veteran 1A goalies alone, the Islanders are immediately more competitive. Add Tavares to that and another year of progress for Bailey (and Okposo, and Nielsen, and Bergenheim ... if healthy), and you can see where Islanders fans see the future taking shape.
If all of these youngsters play to their capabilities every night, the Islanders have an exciting core developing. Of course, if all youngsters played to their capabilities every night, there'd be enough stars in the NHL to field teams in Kansas City, Winnipeg, Seattle, Saskatoon, Portland (both Portlands!), Hamilton, Yellowknife, and Potosi.
Ones to Watch
Matt Martin has tickled the fancy by scoring and fighting in preseason. Kings reject Moulson, a scorer in the AHL, has created some buzz by scoring 3 goals in 3 games and fitting into Gordon's system. Coming straight from juniors, Martin is more likely headed to Bridgeport for AHL seasoning, but his physical side entices. Meanwhile, the Islanders "other" 2009 1st-round pick Calvin de Haan has already turned heads with his poise and movement -- but he better be headed back to junior.
Most Pivotal Season: Jeff Tambellini
"I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination." (Private Witt/James Caviezel)
It's now do or die for Jeff Tambellini, a speedy first-round pick (for Los Angeles) and AHL scoring demon. He'll be 26 before the season's over and he's yet to find his stride in the NHL. Part of that is opportunity; part is confidence. The Islanders now have wingers they trust to score more than him -- but Scott Gordon has dropped hints about him becoming a two-way guy with hands, like the now-departed former AHL scorer Andy Hilbert. Tambellini's two-year, one-way deal expires next summer.
Biggest Hole: Enforcer.
"How many men is it worth? How many lives? One? Two? Twenty? Lives will be lost in your company, Captain. If you don't have the stomach for it, now is the time to let me know." (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall/Nick Nolte)
If you'll disregard for a moment that the Islanders lack enough elite players to challenge for a playoff spot, their biggest hole is a bona fide enforcer, or demonstrable team toughness. It was a complaint for many Isles fans last season, it remains one this fall. I'm no pacifist -- although The Thin Red Line is the best humanist war film ever made -- but I've little patience for doling out $1-million salaries for one-trick-pony enforcers who use circular logic to justify their continued existence in this league.
That said, while Tim Jackman, Nate Thompson and newcomer Jeremy Reich are always game to throw down and 21-year-old Joel Rechlicz is a budding heavyweight enforcer, none strike fear into opponents yet. So every time an Islander skill player takes a big hit -- even if one of the aforementioned pugilists delivers a response -- Islanders fans are going to roar that it wouldn't have happened with Steve Webb or Eric Cairns in the lineup.
Cards and Reinforcements
"To have this battalion relieved in a defeat, or even to have it reinforced by troops from a reserve regiment, if we were stalled before reaching the top, well, Jesus Christ, that's just a hell of a lot more than I could stand! I've waited all my life for this." (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall/Nick Nolte)
The wild cards are the Islanders' young prospects and how Garth Snow performs at the trading deadline, which is what will set up how the team becomes a contender again. Can a guy like Matt Martin make the jump all the way from juniors to a budding power forward in an NHL lineup? (He's looked good in camp, and was one of the 18 players Phaneuf declined to engage in Calgary.) On the blueline, the Islanders have several prospects -- but right now their NHL roster is filled with one-way contracts. Who can steal a job? Who will step in after the inevitable injuries and if the Islanders can unload UFA Andy Sutton at the deadline? Will Rick DiPietro come back -- or towering draftee Mikko Koskinen develop -- in time to deal Biron to Chicago at the trade deadline?
Seen Better Days
"The tough part is, uh... Not knowing if you're doing any good. That's the hard part." (Capt. James Staros/Elias Koteas)
"Boy, that escalated quickly... I mean, that really got out of hand fast." (...Anchorman -- A-ha! Threw you for a loop there, eh? It's not all war and depression and foo-foo speak here...)
Those quotes apply to Brendan Witt, who famously "led" the league in the wrong end of +/-, with a minus-34. The weird thing? It wasn't quite as bad as it looked. He consistently faced the toughest opposition, came back too early from a major knee injury (befitting his "Warrior" rep), had the toughest time stomaching Scott Gordon's system, and actually "slowed" the descent of his plus/minus during the second half of the season. Still, can the stay-at-home Witt be a fit under Gordon's up-tempo regime? Can Witt provide the toughness fans miss?
Coach's Challenge: Player Happiness.
"The only time you should start worrying about a soldier is when they stop bitchin'." (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall/Nick Nolte)
With no clear-cut #1, Scott Gordon will have to keep his two starting goalies happy, while keeping a young team -- and a couple of aging vets -- thinking positively and adhering to his energy-demanding system despite what will likely be another tough season. Part of player appeasement will be figuring out where everyone fits: It's a good thing Doug Weight makes a solid power play point pairing with Mark Streit, because the Islanders have two other very skilled centers in Tavares and Bailey, and Nielsen is no slouch himself. By March, will Weight's role have diminished? Will he welcome a trade?
Which leads us to...
"Shut up in a tomb. Can't lift the lid. Playing a role I never conceived." (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall/Nick Nolte)
Last year's effort was hindered by Witt speaking too frankly about strategic questions he had about Gordon's aggressive style, while veterans like Mike Comrie, Chris Campoli, Bill Guerin (all dealt before the deadline) and Jon Sim (banished to Bridgeport) couldn't fall in line with the youth movement. Will there be similar grumblings this year when veterans are asked to make way for a younger -- and often, frankly, already better -- alternative? If so, will Snow be able to quietly get value for them as he did with Campoli (a second 1st that they used to move up and grab de Haan)?
Who Goes at the Trade Deadline?
"We're living in a world that's blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it." (1st Sgt. Edward Walsh/Sean Penn)
Beyond Weight and Sim (who is still effective around the net), Sutton is also a pending UFA. If he can stay healthy for the first time in three seasons, maybe he puts together a strong enough year to fetch a pick at the deadline. Meanwhile, I love Richard Park's speed, versatility and attitude, and he loves being with the Islanders. But as another pending UFA, I'll be surprised if a playoff-bound team doesn't take him away from Garth Snow at the deadline.
Player Least Missed:
"I blew my butt off!" (Sergeant Keck/Woody Harrelson, after accidentally grabbing his grenade by the pin.)
By far, Mike Comrie and his favorite move, which is often like fumbling a grenade in the offensive zone: It might hurt the opponent, but it will more likely blow up in your face.
This Ain't About Hockey
"Property. The whole f#%ing thing's about property." (1st Sgt. Edward Walsh/Sean Penn)
To the Lighthouse Project and the Town of Hempstead that controls its zoning approval. If all goes well, things look up on and off the ice, and the Islanders can look forward to facilities that actually compare favorably to Saskatoon -- and maybe even drawing a free agent or two -- in the future. If not, well the relocation drumbeat will get a little more serious, and you know players are never able to keep that sort of thing out of their heads for long.
"The Plane Has Crashed into the Goddamn Mountain!" (Mr. Lebowski)
Told you we don't just quote heavy movies here. These are things that would make the Islanders season worse than expected:
- If Kyle Okposo's concussed head and "Lindros" are ever mentioned in the same sentence
- If 39-year-old Roloson gets injured while Biron looks pedestrian
- If any of the Islanders UFAs are injured around the trade deadline, like Weight was last year
- If the Lighthouse project stalls and becomes a major distraction
- If Sean Bergenheim's head or groin prevent him from being the Finnish Force he can be
- If Colin Campbell is responsible for anything having to do with an Islanders game
Depth Chart-Like Substance
Challengers & Call-ups: Rechlicz (enforcer), Jesse Joensuu, Moulson, Trevor Smith, Matt Martin, Jeremy Reich, Greg Moore
How Others See the Islanders
The easy line would be "in last place." In fact, that accurately reflects pundits' views. Still, you can find out why:
- NHL.com Preview: All Eyes on Tavares (and ... Tambellini?)
- The Sporting News: Bad news: We're last (or 29th). Good news: We're the Penguins!!!1
- TSN.ca: We're 28th, and "shouldn't plan the Stanley Cup parade anytime soon." Thanks! One sage advice deserves another: Don't dry your hair in the bathtub.
- PuckDaddy: C's and photoshops and basement-dwelling 'n stuff.
- The Hockey News: Tough division means another bottom-dwelling year.
- Illegal Curve: Scraping the bottom, maybe with Atlanta's scalp.
So, obviously a wide, wide variety of opinion there. Looks like a toss-up.
Redundant Prediction (for make glorious pundit-like persona of blogger-Slav)
Again, predicting last year's lottery winners to repeat in the East is the easy route. But the Islanders will improve. Problem is, Atlanta and Tampa Bay have improved, too. So if the Islanders move up in the standings, who do they leapfrog? I don't know. But surprises happen and some team always bottoms out [Psst: Yeah, in the West.]. So I'll say they face continued inconvenient injury problems, but solid goaltending helps them leap one or two teams in the East, plus Colorado and Phoenix in the West, and end up 25th or 26th overall.
Yeah, really bold, I know. For more LIGHTHOUSE LOCK PICKS, JUST CALL 1-900-L-I- [click]
"It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you're at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it." (Sergeant Storm/John C. Reilly)