With the beginning of the season slowly inching closer to us, the talking heads have started to release their predictions for the upcoming season. Unsurprisingly, the Islanders have found themselves at or near the bottom of these projections.
While these same analysts are willing to praise the Islanders farm system and prospects, they seem unwilling to believe that the team is going to move forward. It isn't surprising though, especially when Matt Moulson has been left off Team Canada despite three straight 30-goal seasons. Public relations and creating positive press for the team seems to be a struggle.
For all the flack the Islanders take for rushing prospects, having to spend last season watching Milan Jurcina, Mike Mottau, Mark Eaton and Steve Staios play defense was painful. At the same time the Islanders had Matt Donovan, Aaron Ness and Calvin DeHaan maturing in the AHL. Now that those four defensemen are gone, and one or even two of the youngsters will be on he opening day roster, it's addition by subtraction. But the people making the projections, they couldn't pick any of these youngsters out of a lineup.
Yet for the Islanders, the important pieces of the puzzle keep getting better.
John Tavares has had a 13- and 14- point improvement on each of his seasons so far. Last season he even improved his +/- going from minus-16 to minus-6. A 90-point season doesn't seem out of the question, which would be the first 90-point season for an Islander since Ziggy Palffy in 1996-97. If Tavares continues to improve, it should lift up Moulson who put up a 30-goal, 30-assist season last year. Despite the loss of P.A. Parenteau, it's still the Moulson/Tavares duo that drive the bus.
There is also the mentality that a bad team is always bad, good teams are always good and nothing ever changes. The biggest challenge for the Islanders is the strength of the Atlantic Division, which currently has four teams who can be considered Cup contenders. Last season only Ottawa made the playoffs while posting a sub NHL .500 record against their own division.
The Islanders finished 13 points out of the 92 points considered needed to make the playoffs. If they can get 5 more wins against their Atlantic rivals, that would put them at 89 points and just 3 off of playoff pace. Thirteen wins against the Atlantic (they had eight last year) isn't that far out of the realm of possibility as both Pittsburgh and New Jersey finished with 13, the Rangers with 15).
But is the Atlantic getting weaker while the Islanders improve?
Despite the addition of Rick Nash to the Rangers, you would have to believe so. Both the Flyers and the Devils have lost important cogs to their team. Meanwhile the Rangers stars are all getting another season older. The Penguins have their own issues. The Islanders biggest worry is who will take up the wing to Tavares/Moulson, but if they were willing to let Parenteau walk, they must know something about the players on the roster.
Let's take a look around the Atlantic and see how things have shaken out so far.
Short Island Smurfs
The Rags pretty handily won the Atlantic last year, and then added star Rick Nash at little cost to their current roster. That being said, there are a lot of red flags for them. As it has been lately, despite the addition of more firepower, the team lives and dies by Henrik Lundqvist. Every season we say this has to be the season he breaks down. This season especially since he's turning 30 and has already played over 450 games. Roberto Luongo, Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Brodeur, Chris Osgood and Felix Potvin are the only players in the last decade to turn 30 and have over 450 games played.
Meanwhile Marian Gaborik continues his career trend of rotating good and bad seasons. Although he had 76 points last season, that was 10 points off his career high of 86 with a much worse Ranger team in 09-10.Brad Richards seems to already be in a decline. His last 3 seasons he's totaled 91, 77 and 66 points. Finally there was a reason that almost no one was willing to trade for Rick Nash. After hitting a career high of 79 points in 08-09, he's had 67, 66 and 59 point seasons. It's quite possible that the best days are behind Gaborik, Richards and Nash.
Imagine for a second that the Islanders had a player who has in the last two seasons played 44 and 22 games. He's had a bunch of injuries including his neck and concussions, but is one of the best players in the league. Now imagine that the Islanders signed him to a 12-year deal following those injury plagued seasons. That sound your picturing is every analyst laughing and mocking the Islanders for another DP signing.
Look, I know it's Sidney Crosby and he's still one of the best players in the league, but can he keep playing 80 game seasons plus however deep they make it in the playoffs?
To make matters worse, in order to clear cap space they dealt Jordan Staal, who's not only been a solid defensive forward but has been steady points-wise. Also throw in the struggles of Marc-Andre Fleury, and next season could possibly be one of the worst for the Penguins in a while. It also doesn't help that they couldn't attract free agents reinforcements to sign for below market value due to them being a Cup contender. But that will happen when your bounced in the first round in back-to-back years.
Chris Pronger's career is over. He can't and won't play hockey again. But he can't officially retire because the Flyers would then be on the hook for his $4.9 Million in cap space due to his contract being a 35+ deal. So instead it seems he will spend the next few seasons officially listed on the IR so the Flyers don't have to take his cap hit. It isn't the first time the Flyers have done this in the last few years, as Ian Lapierre sat for a season on IR instead of retiring following his injury, and Mike Rathje was put in the LTIR bubble for multiple seasons.
They also have the problem that beyond Pronger the rest of their defense is really beaten up. When you're saying, "Well at least we have Bruno Gervais" in regards to your defense depth, you're in trouble. This actually works in the Islanders favor as four of the six season matchups with the Flyer take place before the second week of December.
There are also lingering questions about Ilya Bryzgalov following his playoff meltdown. And lost Jaromir Jagr to free agency, who was third on the team in points.
Well this team is a complete enigma. It's the first team you want to write off heading into the season, despite their run to the Stanley Cup Finals. The loss of Zach Parise, along with most of the team being a year older, seems like it should ground them. But look, when Parise was a rookie the Devils were led in points by Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, who both had 80 point seasons, plus a 53-point season from Jamie Langenbrunner. The team has been an interchangeable flock of forwards since the early '90s. One of the youngsters is probably going to step up and take over Parise's point production.
The one constant over the years has been Martin Brodeur, who is back for at least two more seasons. Although he is turning 40, the Devils have been better with his playing time. Despite a career of consistently playing 70 games each season, the last two seasons have been his lightest workloads yet, clocking in at 57 and 59 games played. This is a team that isn't going to be dominant in the regular season, but you won't want to face them in the playoffs.
The Atlantic teams seem like they are swaying in the breeze. While it looks like the Rangers should win the division again, it isn't hard to imagine that the Penguins and Flyers might stumble. The Devils meanwhile look like they should be a playoff team, but just barely.
The Islanders need to pick up more wins against the Atlantic, and this could be the year they do it.