The New York Islanders begin the abridged 2013 NHL season much the same way they began 2011-12: With question marks in goal, a blueline that is thin or unproven at the lower end, and a whole lot of hope for improvement from several forwards.
P.A. Parenteau is the only who will be truly missed in terms of on-ice performance. The reclamation project from the AHL affiliate paid off handsomely for the Isles ... and then got paid handsomely by the Avalanche on a four-year, $16 million deal. Will the Isles regret letting him walk?
Well this is an interesting category, one that changed dramatically from our canned fall season preview that was good up to a week ago to the one we compile now. We'll start with the first move of the summer, as it feeds the moves made in the last week:
Lubomir Visnovsky was added in June via what at the time seemed like a no-brainer, brilliant short-term fix. It still might work out that way, but for now it has brought nothing but six months of headaches, and Visnovsky is suspended for not reporting to camp after the lockout ended. The latest word is that he'll report in February after a health issue with his son is sorted.
With it becoming ever clearer that Visnovsky wouldn't report, the Islanders brought back Radek Martinek -- who was sub-par in 2010-11, and concussed most of 2011-12 -- and then went on a waiver wire bender: Joe Finley is huge, Thomas Hickey possesses several useful skills, and Brian Strait is your no-frills "just get it out" kind of defenseman. Hickey, a longtime Kings prospect selected fourth overall, holds some real promise. The other two are more likely to be young versions of the vets the Isles let walk.
Those pickups join Matt Carkner, a physical defenseman -- he broke Tim Jackman's cheek bone in a Ruckus Prevention Measure a few seasons ago -- who will help in the protection department and hurt in the puck-moving department unless he sees extremely sheltered matchups.
Should any of the above falter, there are replacements training -- some argue they should be here already -- in AHL Bridgeport. On defense, Matt Donovan has made the AHL All-Star Game, and both he and Aaron Ness had NHL auditions last season. Late career riser Jon Landry had a good first half with Bridgeport and earned himself an invite to camp. All three could see time as injuries or performances warrant. Calvin de Haan was lost for the season with another shoulder injury requiring surgery.
Brad Boyes was the "big" name signing over the summer, and his cheap one-year deal is designed to test whether he can recover the scoring touch that has eluded him the last two seasons. He won't replace Parenteau, and it appears the Islanders aren't asking him to try -- Kyle Okposo is starting in Parenteau's spot on the top line.
The Islanders also signed enforcer Eric Boulton, who is even more of a fight-only player and less of an on-ice asset than Carkner.
Late in camp, the Isles waiver binge included Keith Aucoin, an AHL scoring legend who at age 34 is coming off his longest stint in the NHL with the Washington Capitals late last season. If he has joined the ranks of AHL talents who adapted to bottom-six roles in the NHL, he could be a good addition, particularly if Marty Reasoner repeats his miserable 2011-12.
The Islanders also open the season with last year's Bridgeport leading scorers David Ullstrom and Casey Cizikas, two prospects the Isles hope will be strong bottom-six contributors. They line up with fellow Sound Tigers Colin McDonald, another longtime AHLer looking to adapt his game to an NHL role. Unless he really shines or other injuries mount, McDonald is probably a stopgap as Jesse Joensuu and Josh Bailey start the season on the shelf due to injuries. (Technically they are suspended for getting injured playing elsewhere during the lockout.)
Then there is goal. Both top prospects Kevin Poulin and Anders NIlsson have had very uneven AHL seasons so far, with outstanding performances mixed with poor ones. It doesn't help that Bridgeport finds itself in the penalty box a lot, creating lots of shorthanded looks (or maybe it does help their training).
Evgeni Nabokov is serviceable and the Isles hope at age 37 he avoids another age-induced decline during this busy 48-game season. Maybe it's just coach-speak and proper room management, but it's not reassuring to hear coach Jack Capuano describe it in the Post as: "We have two quality goaltenders, so we’re going to go with the hot hand."
(Nabokov will get the opening night start.)
Nabokov is enough, hopefully, to give them a shot on any given night. Unfortunately, Rick DiPietro could not be counted on for that at any point during the last four seasons of disheartening injuries and grueling rehab. Maybe the Islanders have seen something that fans haven't and DiPietro is finally, fully recovered. But the nature of his injuries and the demands the position puts on a goalie's knees and hips makes that a long shot.
One of Capuano's buzzwords -- and most coaches return to it often -- is "consistency," but it seems that it's a catch-all word for Capuano even on nights when "consistent effort" was not what let the team down. Ironically, it's something that's likely to elude both goaltenders because of Nabokov's age and DiPietro's injury adjustments.
A team that is hoping its best effort can squeak it into the playoffs usually needs some heroic performances in goal, and the Isles probably can't count on too many of those from this goaltending tandem.
The Isles also face the tough task of having an even greater percentage of their schedule than normal against the difficult Atlantic Division. Philadelphia's blueline has been decimated, but the Rangers and Penguins should be very strong again. The Devils, after losing Zach Parise, are the team most ripe for a fall, but even that is a toss-up.
It's another tough challenge ahead for the Isles. In the fifth season of Garth Snow's rebuild, and you can see the pipeline filling up, but they still don't have all the horses ready for the charge.
Moulson - Tavares - Okposo
Grabner - Nielsen - Boyes
Ullstrom - Cizikas - McDonald
Martin - Reasoner - Aucoin
MacDonald - Hamonic
Streit - Martinek
Hickey - Carkner
(Strait - Finley)