There has been Sturm und Drang over the defense and angst over the goalies, but one area where the Islanders should hold serve in 2011-12 is with who they trot out on their forward lines.
Mind you, that doesn't mean people are brimming with confidence in the resurrection of Jay Pandolfo. But the Islanders had two very strong lines for the second half of 2010-11, and both of them return intact and ready to match last season if not improve upon it.
Further down the chart, Marty Reasoner adds a level of competency that Zenon Konopka could not -- which should improve the third/fourth line and as a side effect free up the other lines for better offensive opportunities. In theory.
Forwards on the Opening Roster
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - P.A. Parenteau
Michael Grabner - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo
Brian Rolston - Josh Bailey - Blake Comeau
Matt Martin - Marty Reasoner - Jay Pandolfo
Extra: Ryan Strome
Forwards on Injured Reserve: Niederreiter, Trevor Gillies, Jeremy Colliton, Rhett Rakhshani.
Better Living Through Versatility
Konopka took a lot of defensive zone faceoffs. An insane amount, really. But overall, when he wasn't sent out for a quick faceoff-and-change, he and his wingers tended to face weak opposition and yet were still in over their heads defensively.
Reasoner's addition changes that. Perhaps the addition of Pandolofo (instead of Micheal Haley? Or Jesse Joensuu?) slightly enhances that. Hopefully another year's progression for Matt Martin and the addition of Brian Rolston helps.
Regardless, John Tavares should be another season better, which should make up for any slight regression by linemates Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau. And Kyle Okposo healthy for a full year (knock on wood) should help the FNGO line (with Nielsen and Michael Grabner) hum along as it finished last season and began this preseason.
Two interesting developments happened over the aggregate of last season: Tavares had regular linemates and in his sophomore year was no longer sheltered so much from tough competition. And related to that, Nielsen no longer drew strictly the toughest assignments.
Nielsen and his linemates are still the go-to guys in close-and-late situations. They'll still be deployed against the opposition's best when possible. But Tavares' continued evolution and the presence of Reasoner means the Islanders no longer need to live and die with Nielsen, and the fourth line (or whatever line Reasoner centers on a given night) no longer needs to be protected so severely. Which means the other more offensively oriented lines can be deployed more often to take advantage of the opponent's weakest links.
We've gotten this far in the forward preview without mentioning three wild cards: Along with Rolston (will he be first-half waiveable Rolston, or second-half serviceable Rolston?) there is minus men Josh Bailey (-13) and Blake Comeau (-17) Their sum should be greater than their parts, but that has not yet been the case despite fairly lenient assignments. (I don't normally cite +/-, but when two players haven't been used in strenuous roles and still come out with major minuses...it's worth noting.
Comeau pulled off an impressive and underrated feat last year by racking up 24 goals (18 of them at even strength). Bailey had a tortured year and went to Bridgeport and back. They're both still at ages where you can reasonably expect improvement this season. If that happens, if it clicks, and if Rolston is a plus rather than a minus, then we're on to something.
Then you have Nino Niederreiter. On IR with a groin/leg issue right now, the Isles began camp trying to force him into P.A. Parenteau's spot. I'll bet you a dollar he can't replace Parenteau right now. Parenteau is still underrated by some fans because "anyone could pile up points next to Tavares." Well, no, actually. Parenteau has a rounded game and the metrics to back it up -- while Tavares is the phenom, Parenteau helped that line in a similar way that Matt Moulson helped Tavares during his rookie year.
Everybody desires an ideal true "first-line winger" for that line, and I concede Parenteau isn't that. But at the moment, I wouldn't bet Nino fits that better than Parenteau. For one, Nino is still learning the game at this level. For another, they are different types of players. Parenteau is better at possession, probably better at defense, and of course has the advantage of existing chemistry. If the Islanders try to force Nino on that line right now, there may be growing pains.
Ah, but once Nino comes off IR, where does he fit? That's the wild card. I fear trouble on the top line, but if he can work something out with Bailey or Comeau (or both)...
Extras: Ryan Strome makes the initial roster ... Trevor Gillies is on IR but should be the first enforcer-on-call ... Trevor Frischmon impressed and ended up being the last cut in camp ... David Ullstrom, Justin DiBenedetto and even Casey Cizikas (depending on how he progresses in his first pro year) represent decent callup possibilities. ... Oh, and for esprit de corps purposes Micheal Haley is just a call away too.
Although we've spent the navel-gazing preseason period agonizing over minor decisions like who makes the fourth line and how Pandolfo earned a contract after a year of hibernation, in the grand scheme the forwards should be the least of Islanders fans' worry. The bottom six has some options -- some old, uncertain options, yes -- but also a nice mix of forwards in Bridgeport that may produce a quality replacement or two should things go awry.