The Islanders have mastered finishing seasons strong. It’s the starts that are problematic.
The Islanders compiled a combined 14-15-4 record spanning the final 10 weeks of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. However, their 35-49-14 mark between October and January of both seasons all but guaranteed there would be no Stanley Cup playoffs games contested at Nassau Coliseum.
Since the 2013 season will be shortened to 48 games, there will be increased emphasis on starting the campaign strong.
The Isles know they have a legitimate No. 1. Evgeni Nabokov won the starting job midway through last season and provided stability (19-18-3, 2.55 GAA, .914 save percentage, two shutouts) in goal. Despite a segment of fans who want to see the organization buy out the remaining nine years of Rick DiPietro’s contract, he will be the No. 2. The $4.5 million per year he earns allows the Islanders to reach the cap floor. DiPietro, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 draft, has a 14-24-7 record with a 3.08 GAA and .887 save percentage in 47 games over the last four seasons. While he was among the myriad of players who helped negotiate the new collective bargaining agreement, DiPietro also played one game for Riessersee SC of the German League, for whom he went 0-1-0 with a 3.03 GAA. Prospects Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson will spend the remainder of 2013 with AHL Bridgeport, unless the Islanders need an emergency replacement.
Mark Streit is one of the most underrated offensive defensemen in the game. Burgeoning pair Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald should be franchise cornerstones, and new signee Matt Carkner provides frontier justice. The defense corps could be upgraded if Lubomir Visnovsky reports. General manager Garth Snow traded a 2013 second-round pick to Anaheim for Visnovsky, who tried to have the trade rescinded and later announced his wish to spend the rest of 2013 with his family in Slovakia. Fourth-overall pick Griffin Reinhart will be at camp and the Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) product could earn a job.
John Tavares broke into the league’s top 10 scorers last season, while Matt Moulson scored 30 goals for the third straight season. Ryan Strome, 19, is one to watch. He has racked up 62 points (22 goals and 40 assists) in 32 games with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs. Despite Canada’s disappointing fourth place finish in the just-concluded World Junior Championships, Strome finished with six points (four goals and two assists) and a plus-two rating in the six games. Frans Nielsen is a strong two-way center. However, the triumvirate of Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey were non-factors until late in the season, while Nino Niederreiter struggled badly in his rookie campaign.
» Coaching and front office
Head coach Jack Capuano has the support of owner Charles Wang, Snow and the players. Since replacing Scott Gordon early in the 2011-12 campaign, Capuano has managed to compile a 60-66-21 record despite an almost unfathomable amount of injuries and the franchise’s inability to attract high-end free agents. Snow has shown an ability to detect NHL-caliber talent where other organizations do not (Moulson and the now-departed P.A. Parenteau), while stockpiling good, young talent at the NHL and AHL levels. But the question surrounding him and the franchise is whether they can reel in pre-eminent free-agent talent.
The Islanders do not need a full scale makeover — that is already in progress and there are signs it is beginning to bear fruit. Much like their former Nassau Coliseum tenants, the NBA’s Nets, the Islanders are positioned to be a playoff contender when they move to the Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season. But that’s three years away. As for this season, the franchise tinkered around the edges. There is nothing wrong with that, if you’re a playoff contender. The Islanders are not, especially in an Eastern Conference where seemingly every team improved. Expect the Isles to finish 15th and contend for the No. 1 overall pick.
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.