Playoffs or bust is the objective for the 2013-14 New York Islanders, following the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2007 last spring.
The Islanders lost to Eastern Conference finalist Pittsburgh in six games.
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“We have to meet these expectations again. We talked at the end of last year that it is going to be even harder to push ourselves to do even better things. We have to be ready, and I think this group understands what it takes. Now we have to show it on the ice,” Evgeni Nabokov said on the first day of training camp. “That core has to move even higher and go on better runs in the season and better runs in the playoffs. That's how you get better and that's how you create a name for the organization and a name for yourself.”
Still, as John Tavares noted, the Islanders qualified for the playoffs in a 48-game season and the task will grow exponentially more challenging as the team is in the deep Metropolitan Division.
“We played well for six to eight weeks last year and now we've got to carry that over for eight to nine months, which is going to be really tough especially for our team which is still a young group and developing in a lot of ways,” Tavares said. “To play with that level of consistency the way we played, it's going to be tough. It doesn't get any easier with our division. We understand that it's going to be a tough challenge.”
Breaking down the roster ...
Forwards: The strength of the team is up front. Tavares, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, finished last season with a team-leading 28 goals and 47 points, earning Hart Trophy votes in the process. His linemate, Matt Moulson, finished with 15 goals in 47 games, the first time in his four seasons with the Islanders he did not score 30 goals. Kyle Okposo (four points) and Josh Bailey (three points) played well in the first-round loss to Pittsburgh. Both will be expected to build on that during 2013-14.
Left wing Matt Martin led the NHL in hits in 2013 with 234. The Islanders traded Nino Niederreiter to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck, who was tied for eighth in the league in hit with 155. Clutterbuck will miss the first month of the season with a lacerated leg. Frans Nielsen is a strong two-way center.
Defensemen: The marriage between the organization and Travis Hamonic will remain intact for at least the next seven years. Hamonic agreed to a seven-year, $27 million restricted free agent deal on the first day of free agency.
“I’m happy it was done early on in the summer,” Hamonic said. The shutdown defenseman recorded 10 points in 48 regular season games, and had an assist in the six playoff games against Pittsburgh. “For the organization to show that much commitment to me is obviously something I’m ecstatic about and I was more than thrilled to show that much commitment back to the organization.”
The Islanders defense corps struggled in the final two games of the Pittsburgh series after losing Andrew MacDonald to a broken hand in Game 4. MacDonald, Hamonic’s partner, played in all 48 regular season games and led the team in ice time with an average of 23:31 per game. After reporting in February, Lubomir Visnovsky totaled 14 points in 35 games. Veteran Matt Carkner handles the on-ice policing.
Goaltending: For the first time since the 1999-2000 season, the Islanders will not have Rick DiPietro in goal. The organization announced in July that the one-time No. 1 overall pick was amnestied. Even had the Islanders decided not to use the buyout on DiPietro, he would not have been the starting goaltender this season. Evgeni Nabokov was strong in the regular season last year, compiling a 23-11-7 record in 41 games. However, he struggled badly in the series against the Penguins, with a 4.44 goals against average and .842 save percentage. Kevin Poulin will return as Nabokov’s backup.
Let’s let owner Charles Wang handle this.
“There’s no guarantee that [a playoff berth] will happen this season,” Wang said when he met with reporters at Barclays Center on Sept. 12. “If life was such that you could only go up, boy it would be a different world than [the one] we live in.”
Make no mistake, the Islanders earned their playoff berth last year. But in an Eastern Conference that contains the reigning Eastern Conference champion Bruins, solid squads in Washington, the Rangers, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and now newcomers Detroit and Columbus, it is hard to see the Islanders making the playoffs this season.
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.