The New York Islanders made several key summer moves in preparation for their final season at Nassau Coliseum, a year where young leaders like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic have all said it's time to get far, far past talk of rebuild.
For fans and several outside observers who have paid attention, these moves were enough to return the Isles to playoff contention. At minimum, the Coliseum should be retired with some electric playoff crowds.
But without referring to what happens to best-laid plans...well, what could go wrong and cause the Isles to fall short?
1. Will the goaltending upgrade make enough of a difference?
Even with the notorious variance in goaltending statistics and performance, there is no question that 29-year-old Jaroslav Halak and his crease partner Chad Johnson are better than the respective goalies they replaced (38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov and the unholy duo of Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson).
(You can get a decent idea of just how much Halak should be worth over Nabokov in this post at Fear the Fin.)
But while goaltending was a key failing over the last several years, the Isles can't expect to return to the postseason simply because they have this key position figured out. Among those are the continued growth of the young forwards, and the defense will have to at least maintain -- and ideally improve upon -- last season's 16th-ranked 30 shots conceded per game.
Still, without this upgrade between the pipes, the Isles wouldn't have a chance. What could undermine it?
Halak could have a relapse of the groin/abdominal injuries that badgered him two and three seasons ago. Two summers ago, he changed his offseason routine to address core strength and prevent a recurrence. It worked last year, and he was back up to 52 games played.
Johnson could reproduce his worst AHL years. While Johnson had a fine 2011-12 with AHL Connecticut and an outstanding 2013-14 with the Boston Bruins (just like his predecessor, Anton Khudobin), his record including AHL seasons is mixed. He should be an improvement, but can he be even as good as Nabokov on his best nights?
Both of the above could happen. Almost needless to say, if Halak suffers a significant injury and Johnson flounders while trying to fill in, it would be the perfect storm unless David Leggio excelled in relief. But if they come to rely on Leggio to carry the load, the damage to this season may already be done.
2. Will the Islanders optimize their newfound forward depth?
If the number one preseason topic for Islanders fans is the way they upgraded in goal at forward, the number two topic is how to deploy their newfound depth up front. Simply put, players with significant NHL experience will have to be waived (barring injuries/IR), and some waiver-exempt younger forwards should be the ones who force the move.
The additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin mean earlier free agent additions like Cory Conacher and Jack Skille could miss the cut. More significant to the status quo, relied-upon fourth liners like Casey Cizikas, Colin McDonald or Matt Martin are under pressure to re-earn their spots.
For some fans, the nightmare scenario is that the Isles keep use all forward roster spots on veterans -- and we haven't even mentioned enforcer Eric Boulton yet -- while Anders Lee and/or Ryan Strome miss the cut.
For others, the nightmare scenario is to lose useful forwards to waivers, and then be without injury insurance when their replacements inevitably hit the shelf mid-season.
Then there are the lines. Beyond who makes the roster, there is the matter of how they are used. The Islanders' impressive depth at center -- Behind incumbents John Tavares and Frans Nielsen is newcomer Mikhail Grabovski, impressive sophomore Brock Nelson, and rising talent Ryan Strome. That's before getting to Cizikas, the incumbent fourth line center who has the coaching staff's admiration when he's on his game.
That's a lot of flexibility and a lot of options...if they're used wisely, and if no preseason decisions blow up in their face.
3. Will the health of key players hold up?
A fact few season previews and recaps ever acknowledge is that the biggest factor (after talent) in any given season is what injury cards a team is dealt. The wrong injuries at the wrong time can sink a team (and if it's a bad team, secure top lottery position). A season spent relatively unscathed by injuries is usually how banners are won.
There is a narrative out there that says the 2013-14 Islanders season was killed by the injury to John Tavares at the Olympics. In reality, the season was already killed before he got on the plane to Sochi, and the team's record actually improved in his absence.
Tavares' knee should be back in fine shape -- he was already ready to skate in May -- so there is no extra concern there.
However, Calvin de Haan's bad-luck injury history and slighter frame is a background worry, and Lubomir Visnovsky's age and concussion history is a real concern. You could add to this key blueliner Travis Hamonic's concussion suffered last year...a recurrence this year would create uncomfortable worries.
De Haan finally got a chance to deliver on 2009 draft hype last season and is expected to carry a key role on this year's blueline. Visnovsky's addition was key to the 2013 run to the playoffs; his early absence due to concussion in 2013-14 helped kill the season.
If either go down to lengthy injury, the thin and green blueline depth could be tested. And as noted in the first question above, another nagging Halak injury would be disastrous.
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From Rick DiPietro back at the beginning of his cursed luck in 2008, to Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit during 2010 preseason in mid rebuild, to Visnovsky last season, the Isles have seen all too clearly how a major injury to a key player can drop a season's outcome several critical degrees. They've also had their months where a seeming outbreak of groin or hip or shoulder injuries necessitated fielding an unqualified AHLer-laden team.
The difference this year, then, is they should have the depth to survive it.