It’s hard to find good things to say about the Islanders. Their squad, especially the blueline, was decimated by injuries, but still managed to finish 13th in the conference. One thing you could always count on the Isles to do was work hard, a trademark of former coach Ted Nolan. After disagreeing with management about the direction of the team, Nolan was let go and replaced by Scott Gordon, who led the Providence Bruins to a 55-win season last year, only to be ousted in the second round.
The Isles so-called offense is lead by Mike Comrie, whose 47 points (he did only play in 65 games) led the team, and was one of the lowest point totals posted by a team’s leading scorer. Captain Bill Guerin was only one of two Islanders to post 20+ goals (Comrie being the other with 21), and they’d be hard-pressed to top that. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Isles finished dead last yet again in the league in offense. The Isles have made it clear that they’re commited to a full youth movement, with veterans Miro Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Josef Vasicek all leaving via free agency. However, Garth Snow saw it fit to sign 37-year old Doug Weight to provide not only veteran leadership and guidance, but also for offense, penciled in as the Isles’ number two centre. It’s a bit of a perplexing move, considering that with Weight in the lineup it leaves one less room for a rookie to make the squad, although the Isles have plenty of spare parts on their bottom two lines. The other key veteran forward on the squad, Mike Sillinger, will once again be counted on to provide a hard-working conscience on the team, as will journeymen Jon Sim, who is once again healthy, and Richard Park. If there’s any bright part of the Isles’ roster, it’d be two players: Kyle Okposo and Trent Hunter. Yes, Trent Hunter. While Hunter hasn’t regained his scoring touch since his rookie season, he’s quickly developed into a hard-hitting, hard-working, two-way player, much like Dustin Brown for the Kings. He’s a future captain of the Isles, and remains integral to any Islanders defense or penalty kill. While Hunter cleans up defensively, it’s Okposo who will provide much of the offensive punch for years to come. Okposo played just a year and a half at the University of Minnesota before the Isles pulled him out and placed him in Bridgeport, where he made the transition well enough to earn a late call-up and impress critics with 5 points in a 9 game stint. Interestingly enough, the only other Nigerian-Caucasian player in the league is none other than Jarome Iginla. After that it’s two former AHL standouts Andy Hilbert and Jeff Tambellini, who have yet to translate their AHL success to the bigs. The Isles are counting on them to provide some much needed offensive depth, and if neither player starts scoring, they made find themselves elsewhere soon.
The Isles defense is mobile, but it’s also incredibly average. While the addition of Mark Streit will help their awful powerplay (29th), Streit won’t be playing with players as talented as the Habs’. Streit will be counted on to provide some direction for a defense that seems to be going nowhere offensively, especially when considering that the Isles’ top three of Radek Martinek, Andy Sutton, and Brendan Witt are all of the stay-at-home type. The three managed to keep this team from having the league’s worst defense (23rd) and surprisingly successful on the PK (19th). It’s a hallmark of a Nolan-coached team, getting a lot out of a little, although that may not be the case anymore, the three veteran defensemen are all quite reliable. With that being said, it will be up to Chris Campoli and Freddy Meyer to round out the top six, and perhaps Bruno Gervais may figure into the mix, but they do bring some balance and puck-moving ability to the Isles’ defense.
Goaltending isn’t a problem… when Rick DiPietro‘s healthy. The 15-year contract man has been plagued by hip injuries over the years, and enters this season with big question marks, after having surgeries on both hips and a string of concussions. Isles fans have always wondered what it would’ve been like had they kept Roberto Luongo, but DiPietro is more than capable, posting one of the league’s best stats before the All-Star break (2.57, .911). If DiPietro falters, it’ll be 28-year old career minor leaguer Joey MacDonald who takes over, with just 17 games of NHL experience and had a losing record with Bridgeport the year before. Like many of the re-building teams in the league, the Isles have a decent goaltender in net, the problem is just putting the puck in the net. DiPietro can only bail the team out of one goal games (the Isles won 23 out of 40 in one-goal games) for so long before the house of cards starts to crumble.
Which version of the Isles will we see this year? Granted, they’re not going anywhere, but after Nolan departed citing “philosophical differences,” the Isles will have a new strategy in place, just when they were about to establish themselves as the league’s best blue collar team. Gordon will not have the same luxuries to work with as he did in Providence, and inherits a team that is deeply in need of an identity and star. DiPietro won’t cut it because of his injury history and the relative lack of success he’s had over the years, although he certainly boasts the right brash attitude. Okposo is now the Isles’ future and a lot rests on his shoulders, as his has made leaps and bounds in his development, putting him atop the depth chart above players like Ben Walter, Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, and Jesse Joensuu, although all four are also expected to make a good run at cracking the squad. It’ll be a long road ahead for the Isles, and this season, Okposo’s first full season, is just the beginning. Perhaps the lone bright spot on the team will come at the end when the Isles get the first overall pick.
Jeff Tambellini – Mike Comrie – Bill Guerin
Sean Bergenheim – Doug Weight – Kyle Okposo
Andy Hilbert – Mike Sillinger – Trent Hunter
Jon Sim – Frans Nielsen – Richard Park
Brendan Witt – Mark Streit
Andy Sutton – Chris Campoli
Freddy Meyer – Radek Martinek
Rick DiPietro – Joey MacDonald
scratches: Ben Walter, Blake Comeau, Thomas Pock
Coach: Scott Gordon
GM: Garth Snow
Predicted finish: 5th Atlantic, 15th East