2011-12 Islanders Preview: The Atlantic, she is a beast

If you're just catching up, we have season preview posts from earlier this week dealing with the Islanders special teams, defense, goaltending and forwards. For this final themed preview, we go into what I believe is the biggest obstacle standing between a strong Islanders season and a playoff spot: The Atlantic Division.

Although two rivals made questionable long-term commitments this summer, the more immediate threat is that those moves are indeed improvements for this season: The Rangers do get better by adding Brad Richards. The Flyers do get better goaltending by adding Ilya Bryzgalov.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic's best team when healthy, the Penguins have Evgeni Malkin back (and flying around in preseason) and may get Sidney Crosby back with a significant portion of the schedule left.

The Devils get a healthy Zach Parise back, an Adam Larsson who after "playing with men" in Sweden should be ready to add value in his rookie season, and they get to press restart after last season's disastrous combo of bad play and bad luck.

Although there are vulnerabilities with each of those teams that we'll get to in a moment, it's not crazy to think the Atlantic could field three of the top 10 teams in the league. That's a problem.

If one of those three teams is not the Islanders (it isn't), then combined with Boston and Washington that'd make 26 games against very tough teams, not even counting meetings with the fourth Atlantic club.

By now most Islanders fans are familiar with this general lament: In their current run of four consecutive bottom-five finishes, the Islanders routinely struggle against the Atlantic. Last season they were just 6-13-5, with one of those wins coming via shootout (which means another point allowed to a rival). Going back further, they were 7-15-2 in 2009-10 and 4-17-3 in 2008-09.

To put the 2010-11 record in terms of the NHL "The People Demand a Winner" shootout era, in 24 Atlantic games last season the Islanders took 17 points and allowed their rivals to gain 37. For reference, the Isles were 6-11-3 vs. the Southeast, and 10-10 vs. the Adams Northeast.

 

Put Up, or Shut Up

Can this change? Yes. Mark touched on reasons for hope back in July. As mentioned throughout the summer, injuries were a limiting factor last year. Now the Islanders can hope for a full(ish) season from Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo, which would be huge improvements over last year. John Tavares should be another year better, which for a #1 overall pick is usually a very nice thing. Michael Grabner hopefully provides a full year of the Gremlin, with Frans Nielsen sending pass and taking names.

The special teams, middle of the pack last season, has the chance to improve with Marty Reasoner being another potential PK weapon and Nielsen possibly giving the first powerplay unit a better look (along with Streit's return). Reasoner himself improves the defensive quality of the bottom six over his predecessor, Zenon Konopka. We discussed all that -- and weaknesses -- in the other previews.

As for rivals?

Philadelphia's Chris Pronger is another year older, coming off another surgery. While they've improved in goal and brought some nice prospects in, cutting Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are major hits that might not be equalized by the expected growth of Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk and the hoped-for contributions from Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Wayne Simmonds, also part of the Richards deal, is no slouch himself.

New York appears ready to finally cut ties with Sean Avery, who although a good player when on script always seemed like a net loss in the ship John Tortorella was trying to run. The concussion issue with Marc Staal could prove to be a serious factor if it lingers on another month or more as some fear. Glen Sather also doesn't sound like he's quite gotten the memo on the seriousness of concussions, so it's possible he botches that return, too. But otherwise, like the Islanders the Rangers can expect their young core to be another step better this season.

New Jersey will rebound from last year. It may not be a playoff year, but it will be better -- and even during their disastrous 2010-11 the Islanders were only 2-2-2 against the "lowly" Devils. Vulnerabilities include Travis Zajac's injury, Ilya Kovalchuk's syndrome (though he should be better than last year) and the long-expected decline of Martin Brodeur.

Pittsburgh was strong enough to get into the playoffs last season despite missing Crosby and Malkin for half of it. Not much has changed on that front, so of course they'll be a threat with Malkin back and Crosby presumably on his way.

 

The point is even if the Islanders get better as expected, that's not as big of a step if the teams they play 24 times all got better, too. They need to be ready for Atlantic battle.

I fully believe the Islanders are headed in the right direction and have a decent shot of leaping at least one Atlantic team this year. Yet that still leaves three other teams and no doubt involves a lot of in-division blood-letting. In other words, as sometimes happens (particularly in the West's Central), even if they take major strides and are among the East's eight best teams by quality, they could still miss the playoffs.

Assuming average health, I think they'll be competitive and should be in the playoff bubble conversation all season long. They are in the area where neither a playoff spot nor a miss by 10 points would surprise me. But when the final scores are tallied, they are more likely to barely miss the playoffs rather than barely squeak in -- and most likely, they'll have their rich-spending Atlantic brethren to blame.

For one more season, anyway.

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