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Islanders Year in Review: Putting 2011 to Bed

2011 will either be remembered from a failed Aug. 1 referendum, or the year young Islanders committed to the team's future in New York.
2011 will either be remembered from a failed Aug. 1 referendum, or the year young Islanders committed to the team's future in New York.

The NHL Winter Classic is over (but we can always dream of a future one that includes the Isles), and the Islanders' 2012 schedule begins Tuesday when so many North Americans go back to work.

I always know it's a new year when I click the "archives" link and see just a handful of posts instead of the however many hundred we had in 2011. Already there are plenty of decisions facing the New York Islanders in 2012, but before we fully put 2011 to bed, here's a wrap of the decisions and moments that affected the team most in the last 12 months.

Food for thought: The Islanders were 11-19-6 at the stroke of midnight Dec. 31, 2010. A year later, their record is 13-17-6.

Feb. 11, 2011: Penguins Show True Colors. Isles Show Colors They Didn't Know They Had

National media who didn't watch the game or don't really care to pay attention will continue to call it a "debacle" and an occasion in which the Islanders gooned it up. Others who actually bother to review the tape will reach a more informed conclusion.

It wasn't about a Brent Johnson punch on Rick DiPietro (hey, that's just Islanders Face) in the last meeting -- not even about Matt Cooke running DiPietro earlier in the season nor Maxim Talbot running around slashing players and running away in the Talbot tradition. It was this, that and the other -- plus the Penguins, quickly down 3-0 in that game and doing the old "well, it's time to fight then" and not being ready for the response.

Trevor Gillies went overboard and provided national media with the symbolic imagery to fit their narrative, but fans who watched the whole game know. The Islanders won the game and the brawling that erupted with the game out of hand. And revived their own downtrodden spirit in the process.

(A nice postscript: Matt Martin also went overboard, trying to punch Maxim Talbot into a fight when Talbot wouldn't answer for his own indiscretions. Martin would get a suspension, but the hustling checker has been nothing but a smart, disciplined hitter throughout all of 2011-12, most recently demonstrated in his refusal to follow Ben Eager into the gutter.)

Lighthouse Hockey Threads: Brent Johnson Isn't Smiling Anymore | Isles Pride and Campbell Prejudice: What Punishment on the Gillies Go Round?

* * *

Goalie Carousel Spins to ... Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov?

Rick DiPietro injuries are sadly routine, but when injuries take out six goalies in a calendar year then you know the hex is on. DiPietro was in and out, Dwayne Roloson was cashed in for Ty Wishart, Nathan Lawson, Kevin Poulin and Mikko Koskinen each saw their turn on the ice and in the medical tent. Evgeni Nabokov was claimed off waivers but didn't report. Al Montoya was given a last chance trade for a 6th-round pick and ran with it.

Come 2011-12, with DiPietro again ailing and struggling, Poulin off to a slow start, Koskinen loaned to Finland, regular duties fell to Montoya and Nabokov -- who each have missed time this winter with injuries but have also been the Islanders' best two goalies of the past year. Anders Nilsson got his NHL debut and is on the current road trip (as is DiPietro), with Montoya still shelved after a concussion.

It's anybody's guess what comes next, but the Islanders' best performances of 2011 have come in front of a former Rangers first-round pick who was buried in the minors of the Coyotes organization, and a 36-year-old whose only pro work in 2010-11 was an abysmal KHL performance.

With goalies, the only certainty is they're crazy.

LHH Threads: Nabokov Waiver Recap: Drama, Misquotes, Stare Downs | Nabokov's Mask Seems to Indicate He's into This Whole Islanders Thing | 2010-11 Islanders Report Cards: Egveni Nabokov, Spotless Netminder

* * *

Jack Capuano and the Second-Half Isles

For the Islanders it was a long, continuing struggle in the fall of 2010 that did not change when Scott Gordon was fired and Jack Capuano named his interim replacement. But around mid-December their luck and performance started to turn, and they finished the season on a respectable 25-21-8 run.

The team ended up scoring a ridiculous 3.27 goals per game in the final 30 games of 2010-11 -- both a bright sign and a recipe for unrealistic expectations for the following season.

As Montoya shined, Michael Grabner broke out, and the Grabner line with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo became one of the most effective lines of Spring 2011, expectations did indeed change. The biggest risk in hockey is reading too much into 30 games, and when the Islanders returned a very similar lineup to start 2011-12, they found out how easily a 3.27 GF/GP offense in 30 games can barely manage 2.0 in the next 30.

LHH Threads: Isles 5, Panthers 1: Moulson Hat Trick, Montoya Win as Cats Led to Slaughter | Isles 7, Sabres 6 (OT): Grabner Hat Trick Powers Win

* * *

Nino Niederreiter Embodies the Islanders Rebuild

2009 first overall pick John Tavares is the face of the Islanders' hoped-for revival, but it's other prospects of far less certain stardom who will key the Islanders rebuild. Josh Bailey's stuttered start to his career is one example; Travis Hamonic's quick ascent is another. In 2011 David Ullstrom's promotion is another hint of the draft-accumulated depth that's around the corner.

But Nino Niederreiter, the 5th overall pick in 2010, typifies who the Islanders will need to be difference makers if they're going to rise on what has thus far been a tight budget. A nine-game trial in 2010-11 proved he had much to learn, but the big forward is here to stay in 2011-12. He's still learning, step by step, practice by practice and game by game in limited minutes. The Islanders are trying to both groom the talented Niederreiter while also win games by not exposing him too much.

A fluke training camp groin injury and a concussion have stalled this season twice. He's minus-9 with one goal in 13 games playing mostly fourth-line minutes. At the NHL level right now he's far from the kid who dominated a WJC. But in most games you see a glimpse here and there of the attractive skills that make you think, "Maybe ... some day."

* * *

The Future: John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner Commit

We hear all the time, and occasionally agents tip enough of a hint, that prominent free agents have received competitive offers from the Islanders but have taken the road more traveled with established contenders. So the Islanders need to build commitments from within and there have never been better signs that this might be possible than with the pre-trade deadline re-signing of Matt Moulson and the summer long-term commitments from pending RFAs Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and John Tavares himself.

GM Garth Snow is in the odd position of having to get symbolic commitments from his young talents without overcommitting to unproven players -- all while not knowing what salary spectrum the next CBA will entail, nor where the Islanders will call home ice in 2015.

Locked up at reasonable rates, the Tavares, Moulson, Okposo and Grabner contracts were an important step -- particularly as some longshot college prospects (Jason Gregoire, Blake Kessel) elected to become free agents and sign elsewhere, while more heralded college prospects (Matt Donovan, Aaron Ness) grabbed the early worm.

LHH Threads: How the Kyle Okposo Contract Fits Into Islanders Planning | It's Blake Kessel's Turn to Leave NCAA for Pros

* * *

Christian Ehrhoff Doesn't

GM Garth Snow said he wanted to add a top four defenseman over the summer but found the market "thin." That's what led him to break Islanders precedent and trade a draft pick for the mere right to negotiate with pending UFA Christian Ehrhoff. The Islanders made a fair, lengthy, but hardly groundbreaking offer (reportedly 5 years, $23 million) for Ehrhoff's services, but the German didn't bite. Snow flipped his rights to get a fourth-round pick back, and Ehrhoff took a monumental front-loaded deal with Buffalo.

LHH Threads: Now It's On: Ehrhoff Bid is Reach for Next Step | Ehrhoff's Rights to Buffalo. What's Next?

* * *

Aug. 1: Neither Does Nassau County

So the young forwards are invested in the Islanders long-term, but the German defenseman who'd rarely seen them isn't. That's fair. But also not buying in? The County that calls the team its own, where the Islanders brought the county's only top-level pro sports team, with four Stanley Cups a generation ago.

The result of a mix of politics, years of dysfunctional gridlock that match the dysfunctional groups that owned the team over the years (and ran it gasping into the 2000s), the Aug. 1 referendum for $400 bonds for a new Coliseum and other developments was not the perfect plan, but it was at least a plan. It probably came at the wrong time economically and politically, and that's what the franchise is left with after two decades of concerted efforts for something better.

Owner Charles Wang wasn't allowed to build a replacement himself with the mammoth Lighthouse Project, wasn't allowed County help in building a scaled-down County-controlled replacement, and wasn't offered any solid alternative on the site where the team currently plays

Wang's been in it for more years and more than any previous Islanders owner, and it's anybody's guess where this heads next.

LHH Thread: Charles Wang Reacts to Islanders, Nassau Referendum Defeat

* * *

NHL Realignment

This isn't an Islanders story, but it's one that will affect the Islanders in untold ways: Under NHL realignment, the Islanders will visit and host every other team at least once per season. They'll also have a crystal clear path to the playoffs: Pass three other (mostly Patrick Division) opponents in the standings or else.

Realignment means the resurrection of the old Patrick Division (plus the Carolina Hurricanes), but it also means yet another cap-ceiling team (the Capitals) enters their division to face them six times a year.

The challenge for this rebuild may have just gotten bigger. But there was no way it was going to work if this club can't one day take on the best, with or without realignment.

LHH Thread: NHL Realignment: Will the New York Islanders Ever See the Playoffs?

* * *

So that's 2011: Will it be remembered for the young players who committed to the franchise's future, or the county that didn't? We no doubt left some other big moments out (you can let us know in comments), but Tuesday night in Raleigh we start to learn whatever twists 2012 brings us.