The New York Islanders have missed the playoffs for four years straight and 12 of the last 16 seasons, but they've been accumulating young talent that may be ready to take the next step.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Islanders' roster and what they might be able to do in order to challenge for a playoff berth next season.
The Islanders haven't been the most profitable venture in the league in recent seasons, so it may be understandable that they barely exceeded the salary floor last season.
At some point, however, the rubber will need to hit the road and this team will need to make the necessary moves to provide sufficient support for their improving young core.
One of the reasons to invest in payroll is to provide depth. The Islanders went through a serious run of injuries last season, one which highlighted depth shortcomings and this despite some veritable home runs when it came to player acquisition.
Career minor leaguer P.A. Parenteau emerged as a legitimate top six forward, waiver pickup Michael Grabner was one of the league's most dynamic goal-scorers, let alone rookies and goaltender Al Montoya performed well after he was scooped off the scrap heap.
Sticking with Montoya, goaltending may be the most important factor for the Islanders in 2011-2012. Assuming that the young forwards continue to show improvement, and that the defence will be significantly better with a healthy Mark Streit leading the way, that leaves goaltending as what would seem to be the wildcard.
Can Montoya continue his strong play? Does Rick DiPietro have anything left? Is there any chance Evgeni Nabokov dons an Islanders sweater? Getting at least one yes, maybe even two, could go a long way to determining the fate of the Islanders next season.
After helping turn the Islanders' season around when he took over behind the bench for Scott Gordon, Jack Capuano will helm the operation right from the get-go this year and Capuano has high hopes for this group.
"I feel very strongly moving forward. We've got a young group of guys in here. If we continue to make strides, there's no way we won't be a playoff team," Capuano told the New York Daily News.
Sure, any coach should harbour expectations of reaching the playoffs next season, but Capuano may be right.
With good health and good goaltending (admittedly, leaps of faith are required to count on these things on the Island), then the Islanders should have a chance to rise up and join the teams battling for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Garth Snow/Jack Capuano
He still has room to improve his overall game, but John Tavares has shown that he can put up points, tallying 121 through his first two seasons. While those points come with a less-than-flattering minus-31 rating over two years, Tavares was plus-5 in the last 33 games of the 2010-2011 season.
While plus-minus isn't the be-all and end-all of player evaluation, it's good to know that Tavares can be productive offensively without taking too many lumps in his own end of the rink. Certainly, as the Islanders grow stronger as a team, Tavares' numbers should continue to get better.
It's fair to say the Islanders are pleased with what they've received since signing Matt Moulson as a free agent in the summer of 2009. Unable to crack the lineup in Los Angeles, Moulson has come in and produced back-to-back seasons with at least 30 goals.
What's particularly nice about Moulson's production last season is that it was so consistent; he scored at least four goals in every month (excluding four games in April).
While Frans Nielsen is quite possibly the most underrated player in the game, he also has to be one of the greatest values. He was one of the most effective Islanders in 2010-2011 and his plus-13 rating was no accident -- he led the Isles in five-on-five shot differential for players that played more than 40 games (according to www.behindthenet.ca).
Nielsen plays a sound defensive game, anchoring the penalty killing unit, but has enough offensive creativity to put up some points. He's not a finisher (last year's 13 goals represented a career high), but every team wishes they could get the kind of productive play that the Islanders get from Nielsen for $525,000.
It took some time for late bloomer PA Parenteau to stick in the NHL, but the Islanders were rewarded for their investment in him as a free agent last summer. The 28-year-old just completed his first full NHL season with 53 points, earning a contract extension from the Isles.
Aside from a little slump from late October through late November, when he had three points in 13 games, Parenteau was a produtive player all year, so it's not like the level of play was too much for him. It might be difficult to improve on his production, but it's fair to expect more of the same.
Winger Matt Martin made his mark as a rookie with a lot of physical play, his 299 hits ranking fourth in the league, his 4.4 hits per game just fractionally behind league leader Cal Clutterbuck.
For all of his aggressiveness, though, Martin still has work do on his all-around game. Despite limited ice time (10:57 per game), he was a minus-13 and his five-on-five shot differential was second-worst on the team among players that played at least 40 games.
It's understandable, since he's a 22-year-old just completing his first NHL season, but simply an indication of the improvement that is required if he's going to be more than hired muscle.
Veteran winger Trent Hunter was limited to just 17 games after an MCL injury forced him to have knee surgery. He's a big body and a willing banger, but his health and goal-scoring numbers have declined in recent years.
It's rare that a team will get the kind of gift that the Islanders got on waivers just prior to the start of last season, when speed demon Michael Grabner was there for the taking after Florida let him go.
He didn't make an immediate impact -- not playing more than 14 minutes a game until February -- but the end result was outstanding. 34 goals and a plus-13 rating certainly raises expectations for Grabner in the future, but such is the peril of success.
Both the Islanders and Grabner can surely live with the trade-off of creating high expectations coming as a result of exceptional play.
Blake Comeau is a skilled winger coming off a career-best 45-point season. At the same time, the 25-year-old is still searching for consistency in his production, though blame for that does not lie entirely with Comeau; he spent a lot of time with linemates that were rather up and down in their performance.
His most common linemates at even strength (according to www.frozenpool.com) included Josh Bailey, Rob Schremp, Jon Sim, Jesse Joensuu and Matt Martin; not exactly a murderer's row of offensive talent.
A shoulder injury cost Kyle Okposo more than half of the season and when he finally got into the lineup, in late January, his offensive performance wasn't at the level that it had been in previous seasons as he managed just five goals in 38 games.
But it wasn't all bad for Okposo, he was still a plus player and had the best five-on-five shot differential on the team; if that indicates better all-around play, Okposo's numbers could really take off next season if he's healthy enough to handle more minutes right from the start.
Josh Bailey regressed some in his third season. Though a 13-game scoreless drought early in the year earned him a ticket to the AHL, Bailey is talented and not yet 22-years-old, so it's not time to give up on him, but next year will be his fourth season in the league and it's about time he produced enough to be counted on in an offensive role.
A big winger who has put in three years in the AHL, Jesse Joensuu has but 13 points in 60 career NHL games, so he may not have much of an offensive impact, but he should be able to handle a regular role as a checker.
Most of the Islanders' unrestricted free agent forwards are scrappers, with face-off man Zenon Konopka perhaps the most likely to have some role with the team going forward.
While the Islanders could look into a free agent winger like Christopher Higgins, Scottie Upshall or Joel Ward, they might also consider Nino Niederreiter for a roster spot.
Sent back to Portland in the WHL after starting the season with the Islanders, Niederreiter had a strong season and could add more size and scoring ability to the forward lines.
Out all season with a shoulder injury, Mark Streit has been a vital part of the Islanders' blueline, averaging more than 25 minutes per game since signing as a free agent.
So long as Streit's shoulder is healthy, he'll be counted on to play big minutes and anchor the power play.
If Frans Nielsen is the patron saint of value forwards in the NHL, Andrew MacDonald is well on his way to earning similar acclaim on the blueline.
Signed to a deal that is a modest $550,000 cap hit through 2013-2014, MacDonald was playing 24 minutes a night -- and playing well -- before a late-season hip injury ended his year prematurely.
While Streit and MacDonald are mobile, if undersized, puck-movers, Travis Hamonic is more of a prototypical defenceman; strong, physical and, like his smaller defence-mates, skilled.
After taking some lumps early in his rookie season, Hamonic was a force after the All-Star break, scoring 18 points with a plus-11 rating in 33 games. He ought to be a workhorse on the Islanders' blueline for a long time to come.
Milan Jurcina was only able to play 46 games and was reasonably effective in those games, though his shot differential was the worst among Islanders defencemen.
The 27-year-old is huge and has a booming shot from the point, so he can be an asset, particularly if his matchups can be managed effectively.
34-year-old Mark Eaton is a reliable defensive defencemen, though he played only 34 games last season after being sidelined by a hip injury. There's little flash to his game, but Eaton does have Stanley Cup experience, which isn't the worst thing in the world to have on a team populated with youth and inexperience.
Injuries prompted the Islanders to sign Mike Mottau, who wasn't terribly effective in 20 games before tearing the labrum in his hip. At this stage of his career, Mottau is a serviceable depth defencemen, but also easily expendable.
Jack Hillen struggled to get meaningful minutes early in the season, but came on strong in the second half, chipping in 15 points and a plus-3 rating in 29 games after the All-Star break.
He's an undersized puckhandling defenceman, and the Isles have a few of those already, but Hillen is capable of handling of a regular spot in the lineup, whether it's with the Islanders or elsewhere.
After being force-fed 20 minutes a night for the previous three seasons, Bruno Gervais saw his ice-time cut last season and he struggled when he did play; it was the third straight season that he recorded a double-digit minus rating and now Gervais figures to be in a battle just to keep a roster spot.
While Dylan Reese was minus-12 in 27 games, his five-on-five shot differential was the best among Islanders defencemen that played in at least 25 games. The 26-year-old is trying to crack the Isles' lineup, but can't easily distinguish himself when compared to the younger talent in the organization.
The Islanders have the quantity of bodies on their blueline but, if the playoffs are the objective for next season, could use another legitimate top four defenceman.
It might cost significant money, but free agents the calibre of Kevin Bieksa or Joni Pitkanen would be the kind of top-four additions that would stabilize the defence and heighten expectations for the franchise.
Al Montoya has barely been able to get a shot in the league, which is unusual for a player drafted sixth overall in 2004, but his career numbers (2.34 GAA, .922 SV% in 25 games) are intriguing, if surprisingly superior to his AHL career.
Montoya played well for the Islanders in 2010-2011, well enough that he may end up as a starter next season. That does seem like a roll of the dice, given Montoya's track record, but until his play slips in the NHL, he might as well seize the opportunity.
Rick DiPietro stayed healthy enough to play 26 ghames last season, but was not good enough (3.44 GAA, .886 SV%) to warrant much encouragement. He's signed till the day after the apocalypse, so the Isles will keep giving DiPietro opportunities, but if he's not going to put up a save percentage at least better than .900, then he's not much of an option.
There is also the matter of the Islanders owning the rights to former Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov, whom the Islanders claimed on waivers when he tried to join Detroit midseason.
It would be surprising enough if 35-year-old Nabokov relented and reported to the Islanders, but he has to be considered as an option, however unlikely. Failing that, Nabokov is signed to a very reasonable contract that would figure to make him an attractive trade chip...provided he will report to the team that trades for him.
If the above options don't work out, there is the possibility that prospect Kevin Poulin could challenge for a spot; he played well in his audition with the Isles last season.
||41-29-70,+28, 55 GP
||2.19 GAA, .932 SV%, 15 GP
|Calvin De Haan
||6-42-48,+13, 55 GP
||Khanty-Mansiysk Yugra (KHL)
||8-11-19,+3, 47 GP
||17-24-41,-10, 67 GP
||24-38-62,-11, 66 GP
||4-23-27,+11, 51 GP
||9-23-32,+17, 42 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||8-13-21,+1, 42 GP
||29-35-64,+43, 52 GP
After making the Islanders out of camp last season, Nino Niederreiter lasted nine games before he was returned to the WHL, which worked out well because Niederreiter went back to The Dub and put up 41 goals and a plus-28 rating in 55 games; an impressive season. He should have a fair shot at cracking the Isles' lineup again in 2011-2012.
When the Islanders couldn't keep a goaltender healthy, Kevin Poulin got his turn after playing only 15 AHL games, but didnt' look out of place at all, posting a 2.44 goals against average and .924 save percentage in ten NHL appearances.
Presuming that Poulin will be healthy enough coming off his knee injury, it would still make sense for the 21-year-old to establish himself as a starter in the AHL, but he may not be too far away from getting his chance with the Islanders again.
Smooth puck-moving defenceman Calvin De Haan was a late cut last season, so perhaps he'll bypass the AHL and push for a spot on the Islanders' blueline, but he could just as easily spend some time in the AHL getting acclimated to the pro grind. If last year's injuries are any indication, there would surely be opportunities for De Haan to get called up during the season anyway.
A potential power forward, Kirill Petrov finally got some playing time in the KHL after leaving AK-Bars Kazan. He's a tantalizing mix of size and skill, but isn't doing much for the Islanders if he remains in the KHL.
David Ullstrom is a centre with decent size coming off a solid first season in North American pro hockey. As the 22-year-old gets stronger, he'll become a viable option down the middle for the Islanders.
Not the biggest of wingers, Rhett Rakhshani nearly scored a point-per-game in his first AHL season and got into a couple of games with the Islanders as well. He could improve his all-around play, but Rakhshani may be able to contribute to the Islanders' attack soon.
Now with his third organization, after being drafted in the first round by San Jose and traded to Tampa Bay in the Dan Boyle deal, Ty Wishart arrived in the Islanders organization in the Dwayne Roloson trade. He didn't look out of place in 20 games with the Islanders and his size could make him a welcome addition on a smallish blueline.
Defenceman Matt Donovan left the University of Denver after his sophomore season, but the 21-year-old appears ready to make the jump to pro hockey. He may start in the AHL, but Donovan figures to be in the battle for a spot on the Islanders' defence relatively quickly.
A first-round pick last summer, Brock Nelson didn't have the most productive freshman season at North Dakota, so there is some projection required. He's a lanky kid who needs time to fill out and get stronger before he's able to even contemplate pro hockey.
A gritty performer who has improved throughout his four-year junior career, Casey Cizikas could, given time, develop into a quality checking centre at the pro level.
The Islanders have no shortage of prospects, as collegiate scorers Jason Gregoire and Anders Lee, as well as enigmatic Kirill Kabanov need to be considered as potential NHLers at some point too.
Here's a look at an Islanders roster for next season (via www.capgeek.com), without any major additions and with Niederreiter making the club: http://bit.ly/kl58hY
5th - Adam Larsson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sean Couturier.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Islanders have approximately $30.7M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 14 players.
Needs: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Islanders needed last year: One top six forward, three depth forwards, two top four defencemen.
They added: PA Parenteau, Michael Grabner, Zenon Konopka, James Wisniewski, Milan Jurcina, Mark Eaton.
TRADE MARKET Mike Mottau, Jack Hillen, Bruno Gervais, Evgeni Nabokov.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.