There was John Tavares in the New York Islanders’ dressing room offering his State of the Union a few minutes after he and his teammates routed the Devils, 6-2, in a preseason game.
“We want to play fast, play hard, and make it tough on teams to control our skill and what we bring to the table,” Tavares said. “Everyone knows their role pretty well and what they bring to the table. [Head coach Jack Capuano] has done a great job of creating a system where everyone is effective in it and know what they have to do to contribute to the team.”
General Manager Garth Snow has been adamant in his belief that the franchise would not deviate from its youth approach to building a team. Snow’s philosophy is about to pay off in a big way for a franchise that, at one point, was professional sports’ blueprint organization before it fell on hard times.
A plethora of riches. Tavares, the No.1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is improving on a game-by-game basis. He ended last season with 29 goals — one of five Isles to score 20 or more. Michael Grabner led the team with 34 goals and partnered with Frans Nielsen to form a dynamic penalty-kill duo. Matt Moulson finished with 31 goals, which marked the second year of 30 goals for the former Los Angeles King. Burgeoning power forward Kyle Okposo recorded 20 points in 38 games and third-line wing P.A. Parenteau broke the 50-point barrier for the first time in his NHL career.
Last year’s first-round pick (fifth overall) Nino Niederreiter is expected to make the team. The right wing played nine games last year totaling two points and eight penalty minutes before being returned to the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks. Niederreiter had 41 goals, 70 points and 67 penalty minutes in 55 games at Portland.
No team suffered a worse injury to one of its athletes last season than did the Islanders, who lost Mark Streit in training camp to torn labrum and torn rotator cuff. The Islanders’ power play finished 17th in the league without its quarterback and the team ranked 27th out of the league’s 30 teams in defense. What the organization did learn was that Andy MacDonald and Travis Hamonic made for a solid shutdown pair. Calvin De Haan could make the jump from OHL Oshawa to the Island.
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Like the forward and defense positions, there’s depth and more depth in goal. Like Moulson and Grabner previously, Snow may have stumbled onto something with Al Montoya. Montoya, acquired from Phoenix midway through last season, posted a respectable 9-5-5 record with a 2.39 GAA and .921 save percentage. Evgeni Nabokov attended camp and according to his teammates and GM, there are no ill feelings towards the former Shark, who did report to the team after not being claimed on waivers in January. Rick DiPietro and his $4.5 million cap hit is on the books through the 2020-21 season.
PREDICTION: What killed the 2010-11 Islanders were their 20 losses in 21 games early in the season. That won’t happen again. For argument’s sake, had the Islanders gone 10-10-1 in that stretch, they would have earned 21 points. They finished last season with 73. Add those numbers together and they would have been the Eastern Conference eighth seed.
Snow signed Tavares, Grabner, Okposo and Moulson to extensions over the summer instead of spending in the free-agent market. The organization believes it must keep its youth because free agents are disinclined to sign with the Islanders because of the condition of the Nassau Coliseum and the franchise’s long-term uncertainty. Still, the perception of the Islanders would have changed for the positive had the franchise made a play for RFA’s Drew Doughty, Shea Webber, Zach Parise or Steven Stamkos. Moreover, in a stacked Eastern Conference, one of those four players might have boosted the Islanders to their first playoff berth since 2007.
Follow NHL writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman for coverage of all the local teams.