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Off-Season Game Plan: New York Islanders

Scott Cullen
5/4/2010 9:09:13 PM
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The arrival of John Tavares didn't immediately turn the New York Islanders into contenders, but they improved dramatically from the year before, so that's a start.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the rebuilding Islanders and what they could do this summer to augment their young core.

Tavares is but one piece of the puzzle for the Islanders and has support from the likes of Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Mark Streit, Jack Hillen and more but there is still plenty to be done beyond just waiting for the core to mature.

"You look at the development of our young players and we have a great future," GM Garth Snow optimistically told Newsday at season's end.

The Islanders missed the playoffs by nine points in 2009-2010, so it's certainly reasonable to think that natural improvement from their young players will cut into, and possibly overcome, that deficit.

At the same time, it wouldn't hurt to aspire to more than possibly, maybe, kind of sneaking into the final playoff spot, so some financial investment could really help this summer.

It isn't known, though, if there is even an appetite to make that kind of investment. Given the ongoing financial troubles of the organization, it's quite possible that any moves this summer will be of the tweaking variety.

It's not easy to expect the Islanders to drastically increase payroll, since they have tended to linger closer to the salary floor, but if the Islanders are sincerely expecting to reach the playoffs, bolstering this young lineup with proven talent not only makes sense but is, frankly, necessary.

Snow has high expectations anticipating a playoff berth next year, telling Newsday, "Everyone in that locker room who we bring back has to be better than they were this year," but there was no mention of management making a commitment to improve the roster to the point that it's reasonable to expect a playoff berth.

Considering that the Islanders do have room to move under the cap, and the possibility that the Island still isn't the free agent destination of choice for top free agents, the Isles could use some of that financial flexibility to help them acquire a player from a team in a tighter cap situation, but there has to be a willingness to take on salary.

Making matters all the more challenging, at least psyochologically -- perhaps making the organization somewhat gunshy -- is that they are still paying out Alexei Yashin's buyout and paying full freight on oft-injured goaltender Rick DiPietro's seemingly eternal contract.

If it's another year of minor upgrades, the Islanders may still be playoff contenders based on internal improvement, but that situation would probably not leave any margin for error, prompting the question: when was the last time everything went right for the Islanders?

GM/COACH
Garth Snow/Scott Gordon

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Blake Comeau 72.65 $650K
Trent Hunter 72.08 $2.0M
Kyle Okposo 71.41 $1.672M
Frans Nielsen 71.13 $525K
Josh Bailey 70.97 $1.725M
John Tavares 69.81 $3.75M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Matt Moulson 76.92 RFA $575K
Sean Bergenheim 71.44 RFA $925K
Rob Schremp 69.14 RFA $715K
Jon Sim 67.18 UFA $1.0M
Richard Park 66.07 UFA $800K
Doug Weight 65.81 UFA $2.0M
Jeff Tambellini 64.10 RFA $625K
Tim Jackman 61.33 UFA $550K

24-year-old Blake Comeau has shown steady progress throughout his career, but the leap he made to 17 goals last season provided a glimpse that he could be a legitimate top-six forward. Comeau, who didn't see much power play time, tallied 32 points at even strength or shorthanded, second-best on the team to Matt Moulson's 33.

After finishing the year with 20 points in his last 18 games, before suffering a broken foot, Comeau should enter next season with significantly raised expectations.

Though 20-goal seasons are getting further in the rearview mirror, Trent Hunter plays a sound two-way game that still fits a third-line role. He's missed 48 games over the last two seasons, however, which makes it fair to wonder if the 29-year-old is going to have difficulty staying healthy.

Kyle Okposo is a talented offensive player, with good speed to get in on the forecheck, but he's been thrust into a first-line role too soon to be truly effective and he's taken some lumps as a result, including a minus-22 rating and a midseason 18-game goalless drought.

As he matures, Okposo has a chance to be a 70-plus point first-line winger, though that level may still be a couple of years away.

Few, if any players, are as underrated as Frans Nielsen, the Danish pivot who handles the toughest assignments and plays the best all-around game among Islanders forwards.

Nielsen can expand on last year's career highs of 12 goals and 38 points, but he doesn't figure to ever be a major scorer.

20-year-old Josh Bailey developed nicely in his second season, jumping to 16 goals, 35 points and a team-best plus-5 rating. Bailey saw more time on the wing and his offensive skills may develop more in that role, without the defensive demands of playing in the middle.

Given an increased role, with perhaps a couple more minutes per game, Bailey could score enough to give the Islanders a viable second scoring line.

There's nothing wrong with a 19-year-old tallying 54 points in his rookie season, but it should be clear that John Tavares isn't going to single-handedly lift this franchise out of the doldrums.

Tavares started the year well (19 points in first 21 games) and finished strong (18 points in last 13 games) but, in between, there was a stretch during which he scored two goals in 34 games. At the best of times, it's not easy for a rookie to handle an opponent's top checkers, but Tavares frequently faced the opposition's best and that's a lot to ask from a developing player.

With more support, Tavares can be a productive scorer, but his lack of speed inhibits his ability to create offensively and makes it imperative that he both get physically stronger and have a stronger supporting cast if he's going to make the most of his knack around the net.

There may not have been a bigger surprise in the league last season than Matt Moulson, the 26-year-old who went from spare part in Los Angeles to 30-goal scorer on the Island. Moulson slumped after a quick start too, but rebounded and, even if 30 goals represented a perfect storm for him, Moulson should be counted on as a scoring forward once again.

Sean Bergenheim hasn't improved dramatically and has missed some time with injuries over the last couple of years, but even without further development, he's still a hard-working winger who doesn't hurt the team playing a regular checking role.

Perhaps there's still more for Bergenheim to reveal, but it may have to happen somewhere else.

Slick puckhandler Rob Schremp had his greatest sustained NHL success last season, finishing with 25 points in 44 games, including 19 in his last 25 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Schremp can be an asset on the power play, but he'll continually have to prove that he can handle the responsibilities of a regular shift. Ideally, Schremp could be a second-line centre, but hasn't earned that kind of trust to this point in his career.

Like Schremp, Jeff Tambellini was a productive minor league scorer and hasn't been able to bring that offensive flair to the NHL. On top of that, Tambellini is minus-37 in 132 games over the last three seasons, making it hard for him to secure a regular spot in the lineup.

The Islanders have a number of unrestricted free agents but, aside from a fourth-line banger like Tim Jackman, there may not be a great demand to keep the likes of Jon Sim, Richard Park or Doug Weight.

If the organization is going to move forward, they could use a top-six forward. If Ilya Kovalchuk isn't a feasible option, then perhaps Alexander Frolov, Matthew Lombardi or Alexei Ponikarovsky could help and be a part of the long-term building plan. For a shorter term, maybe the Isles could provide a spot for Alex Tanguay or Maxim Afinogenov to provide some veteran scoring.

Even if the Islanders land a productive scoring forward, they most certainly need to add some gritty checkers on the fourth line. Jim Slater, Adam Burish, Eric Nystrom, Scott Nichol and Adam Mair are among the free agents who might offer tougher defensive play in depth roles.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Mark Streit 78.32 $4.1M
Jack Hillen 65.73 $525K
Andrew MacDonald 62.86 $550K
Radek Martinek 62.08 $1.5M
Bruno Gervais 60.28 $741K
Brendan Witt 56.10 $3.0M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Freddy Meyer 66.27 UFA $600K
Dylan Reese 63.17 RFA $525K
Dustin Kohn 59.09 RFA $735K

Though he wasn't quite as exceptional as he was in his first year with the Islanders, Mark Streit continues to be a top-notch defender, handling more than 25 minutes a game, running the power play and providing sorely-needed leadership for an inexperienced group.

Jack Hillen has been a nice find, as a free agent signed out of Colorado College in 2008, and his role increased significantly in his second season, to the point that he was playing close to 21 minutes per game. That may be a case of too much, too soon for the 24-year-old, but until more experienced options are available, Hillen might as well be the one to get those minutes.

Rookie Andrew MacDonald handled more than 20 minutes a night in the 46 games he played for the Islanders and acquitted himself well, registering a plus rating and taking on difficult defensive matchups. On an improved unit, the 23-year-old might be asked to handle less responsibility or at least get eased into it more gradually.

One of the precious few veterans the Islanders have on the blueline, Radek Martinek can play in a shutdown-type role. What he can't do is stay healthy, having played fewer than 70 games in seven of eight seasons and he missed most of last year after tearing his ACL.

Considering the lack of experience on this unit, Martinek's contribution would be most appreciated.

Bruno Gervais has some experience, as the 25-year-old has skated in 278 NHL games, but his development seems to have stalled and even though he played more than 20 minutes per game for the second straight year, it was also the second straight year in which Gervais was minus-15, so it may be time to wonder if he would be anything more than a third-pair defenceman on a competitive team.

Gervais was better in the second half of the season, so he'll need to build on that improvement right from the start in 2010-2011.

After getting waived part way through last season, Brendan Witt may be a buyout candidate or could be left in Bridgeport to play out the rest of his deal.

Dylan Reese and Dustin Kohn were thrust into action later in the season as the defence unit was depleted and 25-year-old Reese showed a bit better than 23-year-old Kohn, though both may be battling for a spot on the roster if the Islanders address some needs through free agency.

The Islanders have room to spend under the cap, if they are prepared to spend the money, and could really use a couple of veteran defencemen if they are going to make a legitimate push for a playoff spot.

Dennis Seidenberg, Henrik Tallinder, Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina would add some size to the back end. Even vets like Jay McKee or Andreas Lilja could help with their experience, even if they're not necessarily the most mobile defencemen available.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Cap Hit
Dwayne Roloson 66.17 $2.5M
Rick DiPietro 64.00 $4.5M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Martin Biron 54.63 UFA $1.4M

40-year-old Dwayne Roloson proved to be a terrific free agent signing last year, playing in 50 games and providing solid goaltending, especially early in the season, before the unexpected workload eventually took its toll.

In an ideal world, Roloson would be able to share time or play a strong backup role to Rick DiPietro, but the Islanders' goaltending situation hasn't been ideal for a while now.

Ongoing knee and hip troubles have limited DiPietro to 13 games over the last two seasons. He'll be 29 before next season starts, so there isn't even a great deal of potential waiting to be uncovered at this point, but a healthy DiPietro could be a solid starting goaltender.

At this stage, who would ever feel comfortable predicting a healthy DiPietro?

DiPietro's uncertain health makes it imperative that the Islanders have a capable third-strong goaltender, even if he's in Bridgeport, capable of stepping into the backup role should DiPietro suffer yet another setback in his recovery.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Travis Hamonic D Brandon (WHL) 11-33-44,+12, 41 GP
Calvin De Haan D Oshawa (OHL) 5-19-24,+5, 34 GP
Jesse Joensuu LW Bridgeport (AHL) 14-34-48,+6, 70 GP
Mikko Koskinen G Utah (ECHL) 6-0, 2.50 GAA, .924 SVPCT, 6 GP
Matt Martin LW Bridgeport (AHL) 12-19-31,even, 76 GP
Mark Katic D Bridgeport (AHL) 3-11-14,-7, 48 GP
Rhett Rakhshani RW Denver (WCHA) 21-29-50,+12, 41 GP
David Ullstrom RW Jonkoping (SEL) 5-11-16,-2, 47 GP
Kevin Poulin G Victoriaville (QMJHL) 35-16, 2.63 GAA, .916 SVPCT, 54 GP
Kirill Petrov RW AK Bars Kazan (KHL) 0-0-0,-3, 8 GP

Travis Hamonic is one of the best defence prospects in hockey. He missed quite a bit of time after getting hurt at the World Juniors, but has performed at such a high level when healthy that he may not be too far away from being a top pair defenceman on the Island.

Last year's 12th overall pick, Calvin De Haan, missed half the season following shoulder surgery, so it probably makes more sense to expect him to spend another year in junior, putting his puck-moving skills on display before giving him his first shot at the pros.

Big Finnish winger Jesse Joensuu has had a couple of decent years in the AHL and has four points in 18 NHL games. He's not far from earning a spot, but if he doesn't develop more offensively, Joensuu could settle in a checking role.

Fellow Finn, goaltender Mikko Koskinen, spent much of the season recovering from hip surgery, but performed well in 15 regular season and playoff appearances split between Utah of the ECHL and Bridgeport of the AHL. A full season or two in Bridgeport will do the 21-year-old some good.

Matt Martin had a nice first pro campaign, and has the size and combative attitude to challenge for a spot with the Islanders as soon as next season. The 21-year-old has steadily improved since getting drafted in 2008, so even if he's not ready right at the start of next season, Martin figures to keep closing that gap.

Smallish defenceman Mark Katic had his first AHL season cut short by a shoulder injury, but as long as he's mobile and can move the puck, he should be worthy of future consideration for the Islanders.

Speedy and skilled forward Rhett Rakhshani had 151 points in 156 games over four seasons at the University of Denver and has a history playing with Kyle Okposo in USA Hockey; with some seasoning in the American Hockey League, he could become an offensive threat for the Islanders.

David Ullstrom is a winger with a nice mix of size and skill, though he can still improve his play without the puck. Is he ready for some North American hockey next season?

There's no rush for Kevin Poulin, particularly considering the Islanders' depth between the pipes, but he has good size and played 61 games in his fourth major junior season. Time in Bridgeport, or possibly even Utah, will help him adjust to pro hockey.

Kirill Petrov is a big and talented winger who has played only 14 games with AK Bars Kazan over the last two seasons. However, when given the chance to cut loose at the World Juniors, Petrov put up ten points and a plus-7 rating in six games for Russia.

Petrov could challenge for a spot with the Islanders, but it might make long-term sense to have him start in the American Hockey League and get used to the grind of the North American schedule.

The Islanders also have a long list of prospects plying their trade in college, including defencemen Blake Kessel (New Hampshire), Matt Donovan (Denver) and Aaron Ness (Minnesota) as well as forwards Jason Gregoire (North Dakota) and Brian Day (Colgate). Swedish goaltenders Anders Nilsson and Stefan Ridderwall and Mississauga-St. Mike's forward Casey Cizikas may also have long-range potential.

DRAFT
5th - Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler, Brandon Gormley, Brett Connolly.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Islanders have approximately $29.5M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 13 players.

Needs: One top six forward, three depth forwards, two top four defencemen.

What I said the Islanders needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.

Who did they add? John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Dwayne Roloson, Martin Biron.

TRADE MARKET Rob Schremp, Jeff Tambellini, Sean Bergenheim, Bruno Gervais.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen

 

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