One of the regrets that's been mentioned is that the Islanders happen to play in the Atlantic Division. A Division which has been dominant recently. Going into last season the Atlantic had three teams which were considered Stanley Cup contenders, in the Flyers (2010 Cup Finalist) Penguins (2008 Cup Finalist, 2009 Cup Winner) and Devils (99+ points in every season since lockout, division winners 4 times in 5 post-lockout seasons). Along with them, the Rangers are a perennial playoff team as long as Henrik Lundqvist is injury free and on top of his game.
It's well known that the Islanders have basically been steamrolled by the Flyers for the last few years. But the Islanders have pretty much been the Atlantic's whipping boy the last few years, going 6-13-5 last year, 7-15-2 in 2010 and 4-17-3 in 2009. The last time the Islanders challenged for a playoff spot, they went 15-15 in the division. If they want to make the playoffs, they are going to have to win against Atlantic teams. Last season only the Phoenix Coyotes had a losing record in their own division, going 11-12-2. The Islanders went 2-4 against the Penguins. They were also 2-4 in games against the Devils. They also went 2-4 against the Rangers.
But the events of last season and this offseason might have given a boost to the Islanders and their hopes of competing in the Atlantic. To say that there is blood in the water might be an understatement...
Our first target is the Flyers. With a promising young goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky they proceeded to trade for Ilya Bryzgalov and give him a nine year deal. While they gave this huge deal to Ilya, they had to clear out capspace by trading two of their key young players, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. This during what most people consider a downswing in the Goalie market. How depressed is the Goalie market? The other top target for teams in need of Goaltending, Thomas Vokuon, didn't even get a call on the first day and in the end only had two teams interested in his services. The 1.5 million deal that Vokuon signed with the Capitals could have easily fit under the Flyers cap, wouldn't have required gutting the roster and meant that the future in net would be Bob.
The Flyers also added Jaromir Jagr. The same Jagr who managed 19 goals in the KHL last season, 3 goals less then Ex-isled Chris Simon. To make matters worse, it looks like Chris Pronger is going to miss training camp again. The former Whaler is about to turn 37 and has been suffering from assorted injuries since playing through them during the Flyers cup run. Just for a refresher, Pronger is signed through 16-17 and makes 7 Million until 14-15.
Second is the Penguins. They overcame injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last year as they rode a strong defensive core, great play by Marc-Andre Fluery and hard work by relative no-name forwards. But there are still question marks about Crosby's health. While it does appear that Malkin will be back in time for the season, he is returning from a serious ACL/MCL tear. Just ask Trent Hunter what an MCL tear can do to your career.
They've also lost two key roleplayers in Maxime Talbot and Michael Rupp. While not the greatest players on the team, each of them could play their role to a T. As we've seen with the Islanders moving to upgrade Zenon Konopka with Marty Reasoner, you can not underestimate the importance of 4th liners. These guys are going to be out there for at least 10 minutes a game, and they have to know how to play.
Third is the Devils. How a team adds someone that is as talented as Ilya Kovalchuk and nosedives as bad as they did is beyond understanding. While Jacques Lemaire showed up and saved the day, the team is facing a bunch of questions with him not returning. The least of which is can the next coach can Kovy to produce? Was it just a down year for a team that's been outstanding for nearly 20 years, or a sign that the rest of the league has caught up with the Devils.
Then there's Martin Brodeur. Last season was his 3rd worst season in terms of Save Percentage. It was tied for his 3rd worst season in terms of GAA. Both of these include his 4 game stint when he was 22. This came as he also faced the lowest number of shots in recent history (discounting his injury shortened season). They also brought back 37 year old Johan Hedberg, who had a strong season last year (for him) but isn't a long term solution.
Finally the Rangers. If this was any other team the addition of Brad Richards would give them an outside shot at winning the division. Unless of course the team is GM'ed by Glen Sather, who has a history of giving out big contracts which become duds. I expect a strong first season out of Richards, with Gaborik playing about half the seasons games and then he just trails off from there. Then someone will step in and trade for Richards, so the Rangers can go out and sign another big free agent who will tax their cap space in an eternal cycle. If it wasn't for the cap floor, the Rangers couldn't dump any of these contracts.
Of course any prediction of how the Rangers might do is always reliant on Queen Henri continuing his string of ridiculous seasons. Henri lead the league last year with 11 shutouts. He also had a total of 36 wins. Nearly a third of his wins last season came from shutouts. In a 6 year career Henri has racked up 406 games played already. That's 12th among active goalies, with him taking over both Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Miller. While Biron played well, he suffered a collarbone injury at the deadline which ended his season. Biron will be the backup again next year, but while he can do spot duty and give Henri a rest, he's not reliable full time if Henri goes down.
Given the injuries and questions on other teams, it looks like the Islanders can really make up ground on their Atlantic rivals if they stay healthy. This is probably the biggest dip in competition in the Atlantic in a few years. Considering that a quarter of all games the Islanders play next season will be against the Atlantic, the path to the playoffs begins in Division.