In the simplest terms it appears each season of the cap-era NHL features a few really good teams, a few really bad teams, and a vast bubbly middle of flawed but dangerous teams whose fortunes turn on injuries, luck, and the right breakouts at the right time. (Also a variable: "The People Demand a Winner" shootout breakaway drill.)
So it was with a mix of intrigue and dread that I returned from a long weekend in the woods to find USA Today's Kevin Allen picked both of the teams I follow as "sleeper" teams for their respective conferences in 2011-12. Both teams feature a stable of young talent, and both teams saw their 2010-11 seasons ravaged by injuries, including long-term ones that felled their top American hard-working wingers. In theory, next season could be a lot of fun for any fan marked with the peculiar curse of following both of these teams.
By any measure the Islanders led the league in man-games lost to injury, finishing near the 600 mark. That included the loss of their top defenseman for the entire season, top winger Kyle Okposo and half the blueline for half the season, plus a turnstile of goalies that stopped at Al Montoya once Evgeni Nabokov needed more time to "get fit." Smaller in number but equal in degree of loss, the Blues' flight through the 300 mark included half- to quarter-season losses of tough-minutes blueliner Roman Polak, top liners Andy McDonald and T.J. Oshie, and the near-full season loss of exciting young scorer David Perron.
By my theory, better injury luck and some youthful progress could be enough to provide either team with legit playoff aspirations. So are the Islanders sleepers for 2011-12? Let's look at Allen's reasoning.
Here's his post on the Islanders, followed by my evaluation of his reasoning:
1. Evgeni Nabokov is going to join the team, meaning the Islanders either have a new No. 1 goalie or an attractive backup...
Whoa, whoa. Alright, this is not a good start. The Islanders definitely need better goaltending than what they received next year, and they have a platter of candidates to do it. But I'm filing Nabokov's expressed desire to report in the "believe it when I see it" folder -- and in any case, he has generally been an average goalie on good teams and has not exhibited stellar play on any surface in more than a year and a half.
I'm not ruling out Nabkov's chance to rebound, but I wouldn't put anymore money on it than I would on Montoya sustaining something close to his late-season level, or Kevin Poulin rising to prominence.
Allen's overall point (new goaltending!) might be sound, but the specific character cited is suspect.
2. ... Mark Streit's return from the shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2010-11 season ... will help the team's transition game and power play.
This one is absolutely right ... IF. If Streit's return is at least 75% of what he provided before the complex injury, which kept him out of full practice even at the end of last year. This is a hope, but it's also a risk factor that goes in the above "luck and injury" pool. Streit's loss was devastating last season. His return to his previous form is imperative.
3. In John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Blake Comeau, Kyle Okposo, Brian Rolston and PA Parenteau, the Islanders have interesting/noteworthy/desirable scorer options for their top six forward positions.
No argument there. They're all indeed "interesting" and frankly I like the Islanders' mix of forwards. Rolston is a nice little addition that could pay off big and cost little in terms of assets. However, Grabner is coming off a breakout year, Comeau had a career year, and Parenteau -- though still underrated by many fans -- is coming off his first full NHL season. Moulson has proven his worth, but is a third consecutive 30-goal season in the cards?
In other words, let's not look at everything that went wrong last year without considering everything that went right, and might not repeat.
Even scarier, the Islanders had almost no injury hits to their top line last season. I'm just going to leave that alone right there and pr*j*ct nothing.
4. Tavares will be 21 when the season starts, and it's not unthinkable that he could go from 67 to 90 points. Would anyone be stunned if he netted 40 goals?
I wouldn't be stunned by 40 goals or 50 assists -- but I would be stunned by seeing both. Tavares is a really tricky, and fun, player to pr*j*ct because he's short of being the "generational" superstar people always dream of at #1 but he's quite clearly on his way to being an offensive star. How much his two-way game progresses in season three at age 21 is the wild card.
I'll ask another question: If he "only" duplicates his 29-38-67 from last season (that's a top 30 scorer, by the way), is it a disappointment?
5. With seven short-handed goals, Frans Nielsen has proved to be an effective penalty killer and role player. He had 13 goals and 31 assists last season and deserved, and received, votes for the Selke Trophy.
In accordance with the prophecies.
6. The Islanders have quality rookies, particularly Nino Niederreiter and perhaps Calvin de Haan, who could make some contributions this season.
They definitely "could." But if they do it would be a wonderful Travis Hamonic-like bonus. Most expected Hamonic to be good; not many expected it would happen so soon. I'm personally not banking on major contributions from either CDH or Nino, but if they give them it would be the kind of fortune a bubble team needs.
7. Defenseman Travis Hamonic, 21, played more than 21 minutes a game last season as a rookie and presumably will be even more effective this season.
Oh yeah, that guy! You certainly hope for a continued upward trajectory there, but sophomore "slumps" do happen.
Our advanced stats-inclined regular garik16 looked at this very topic last month and concluded the chances of Hamonic regressing are not high.
8 ...the Islanders added one of the NHL's better role players in Marty Reasoner, who is a good face-off guy and owns a knack for making big plays at the right time...
As a big proponent of the Zeke-for-Reasoner upgrade, of course I buy this. I loved Konopka, but just like with beloved specialist enforcers, tough decisions must be made to make a team better. Reasoner provides reliable faceoff performance along with some offensive upside and quality skating. His versatility -- and the likelihood he won't be in the box for 10 minutes with regularity -- means he provides not just a better fourth-line pivot than the Islanders have had in ages, but also a guy who can help out all four lines.
That's the kind of move that, bit by bit through the season, could make the difference between almost there and finally there.
* * *
So are the Islanders a legit "sleeper?" In the sense that a "sleeper" is a team that's slowly acquiring observable talent that will one day come together to make a run, sure. Sure they are. But sustainable performance requires some luck and depth that protects you from injuries, and right now the Islanders' depth in the AHL is promising but unproven -- at this point there is still more hope attached to their CHL and NCAA prospects than with their minor pros.
There are question marks that could turn up aces and make 2011-12 a great stride forward; those same question marks (and unforeseen misfortune) could also sabotage progress and end even playoff bubble dreams early.
This is an Islanders site, so I won't go into Allen's case for the Blues (briefly: Perron's return is far from certain, Patrik Berglund remains a promising question mark, it's unclear how much Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott have left). But I'll just leave the whole topic at this: Like the Kings before them, the Blues have been a popular sleeper pick for several seasons running, with only one surprising (and premature?) four-and-out playoff appearance to show for it.
Even when you see the light of promising prospects at the end of the tunnel, sometimes these things take time.