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Off-Season Game Plan: New York Islanders

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Scott Cullen
5/3/2012 4:47:17 PM
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The New York Islanders have failed to record 80 points in five straight seasons, so the time should be nearing for a turn of the corner, but it seems like that's been the case for a few years.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Islanders roster, prospects and what hopes they might have for improving in 2012-2013.

General Manager Garth Snow said that he doesn't expect dramatic changes. "I don't envision any big changes," Snow told Newsday at season's end. "We have one of the top prospect pools in the league and our core is a good, young group. It's about taking the next step with that core we have."

With a their young forwards, the Islanders are not without promise. John Tavares is the star attraction, but Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Michael Grabner and even Josh Bailey have had varying amounts of success in recent seasons. Of more immediate concern, when it comes to the Islanders' forwards, is that PA Parenteau is an unrestricted free agent and if the Islanders lose a player that scored 67 points last season, that's not going to be an easy void to fill.

The returning defencemen also give the Islanders a stable foundation, as Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have played significant minutes and played well. But, like the forward group, the Islanders need to improve their depth.

In an ideal world, the Islanders would be able to add a top six forward and a top four defenceman, but even if they can't secure high-end talents through trades or free agency, there is much to be gained by improving the bottom six forwards and bottom half of the defence depth chart. Some of that improvement could be the development of prospects, but if the playoffs are an objective for the 2012-2013 season, adding proven NHL talent has to be part of the plan.

After all, the Islanders, for all their shortcomings last season, ranked 15th in shot differential while playing in a strong division, so upgrading the supporting cast (in addition to stronger goaltending over 82 games) could have the Islanders challenging for a playoff berth.

Though the Islanders have not been able to land premier free agents, they have done very well in recent years finding value in the market, getting overlooked talent and getting tremendous return on investment. Moulson and Parenteau are prime examples. It's entirely possible that the Islanders could pull another rabbit out of the free agent hat, but if the Islanders are going to make a jump that would create playoff expectations, they will have to pay the going rate -- or even more than market rate -- to secure proven NHL players.

The challenge for the Islanders is to have some urgency to take that next step in their development. That doesn't mean abandoning the future, but there needs to be an end game; an expected timeline for when this core is going to at least compete for a place in the postseason.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

 

GM/COACH
Garth Snow/Jack Capuano

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
John Tavares 79.24 82 31 50 81 -6 $5.5M
Matt Moulson 75.95 82 36 33 69 +1 $3.133M
Kyle Okposo 68.05 79 24 21 45 -15 $2.8M
Frans Nielsen 66.74 82 17 30 47 -3 $2.75M
Michael Grabner 65.18 78 20 12 32 -18 $3.0M
Josh Bailey 62.37 80 13 19 32 -10 $1.05M
David Ullstrom 59.43 29 4 4 8 -2 $891.7K
Casey Cizikas 57.63 15 0 4 4 +1 $900K
Marty Reasoner 52.57 61 1 5 6 -25 $1.35M
Nino Niederreiter 51.15 55 1 0 1 -29 $2.975M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
PA Parenteau 70.97 80 18 49 67 -8 UFA $1.25M
Matt Martin 58.89 80 7 7 14 -17 RFA $852.5K
Jay Pandolfo 52.43 62 1 2 3 -14 UFA $1.4M

If there is one thing that the Islanders can count on, it's that John Tavares will put up points. Tavares is one of nine players, since the 2000-2001 season, to record at least 200 points through his first three seasons. He does get a lot of offensize zone face-offs compared to his teammates, but that is at least in part a measure of asset allocation -- as the Islanders' most gifted offensive performer, putting Tavares in a position to succeed means giving him more offensive zone starts than the rest of his teammates.

Riding shotgun with Tavares, Matt Moulson is one of nine players to have at least 30 goals in each of the last three seasons and he's also one of the game's cleanest players, registering three minor penalties all year, despite playing all 82 games and more than 19 minutes per game.

Kyle Okposo had an up and down season, producing when given the chance to skate with Tavares and Moulson and that might be in the cards on a more regular basis if the Isles can't retain the services of PA Parenteau. After a career-high 24 goals last season, including 13 in 34 games after the All-Star break, Okposo could be a significant factor for the Islanders going forward.

Largely unheralded for his two-way play, Frans Nielsen isn't overlooked on the Island, having signed a four-year, $11-million contract extension. Nielsen scored a career-high 47 points last season, but the offence he produces comes secondary to the fact that he takes on the toughest checking assignments, facing opponents' top lines and starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone. It's those factors that often contribute to a player being underrated or overlooked, but Nielsen is the kind of two-way player that would appeal to every team.

After a sensational rookie season in which he scored 34 goals and finished plus-13, Michael Grabner found it harder in his secod NHL campaign, finishing with 20 goals and a minus-18 rating. Grabner's tremendous speed creates a lot of scoring chances, but he'll have to re-establish his role as a relied upon scorer, since he played under 15 minutes per game from January on.

The first four years of Josh Bailey's career have been marked by inconsistency, but this isn't altogether unusual for a young player. Still just 22-years-old, Bailey finished the year with 18 points in his last 20 games. That could be late-season fool's gold, or it could be the sign of a young player turning the corner in his development. If the Islanders want to really establish Bailey's offensive presence, then he needs to find a role among the top six forwards and play more than 15 minutes per game.

David Ullstrom is a Swedish forward with good size who earned a look with the Islanders after scoring 24 goals in 40 AHL games. Ullstrom wasn't put in a scorer's role, and that's not really his pedigree anyway, but played a solid two-way game in limited action so he should be part of the lineup next season.

Another call-up who figures to have a leg up in training camp is Casey Cizikas, the 21-year-old checking centre who earned his promotion with 45 points in 52 games with Bridgeport. Cizikas didn't score a goal in 15 games with the Isles, but handled checking assignments and defensive zone starts effectively enough that he figures to be ready to start next season with the Islanders.

The Islanders don't expect offence from 35-year-old Marty Reasoner, but something more than one goal and six points in 61 games would be appreciated. Beyond his career-worst scoring numbers, Reasoner was also a career-worst minus-25, generally overmatched alongside some combination of fellow veteran Jay Pandolfo and young wingers Matt Martin or Nino Niederreiter for much of the year.

Niederreiter was kept in the NHL rather than returned to junior, but after one goal and a minus-29 rating in 55 games, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have developed more as a dominant player with Portland in the Western Hockey League. It's possible that Niederreiter will simply rebound and play a productive role for the Isles next season, but he also may need some time in the AHL, where he can get used to handling the puck again so that he doesn't necessarily have to be sentenced to a career of fourth-line work.

While there is some variance in the counting of hits in the NHL, Matt Martin was the far-and-away leader last season, registering 374, while second-place Dustin Brown finished with 293. Martin still has room to grow as a player, but he's young, tough and when your team doesn't have the puck so much, it's good to have players who will hit to get it back.

The big potential loss up front is that of PA Parenteau, who has scored 120 points in two full seasons with the Islanders -- the first two full NHL seasons of his career -- and the 29-year-old is, understandably, ready to be compensated for his production. Parenteau certainly worked well with Tavares, so that could be reason enough to keep him, but if he leaves, that will require the Islanders to seek out scoring help.

Maybe that comes from a prospect like Ryan Strome or they could turn their attention to free agent wingers like Alexander Semin, Jiri Hudler and Dustin Penner, all of whom have flaws, but also have shown that they can score.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Mark Streit 71.84 82 7 40 47 -27 $4.1M
Travis Hamonic 70.08 73 2 22 24 +6 $875K
Andrew MacDonald 66.94 75 5 14 19 -5 $550K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Dylan Reese 65.30 28 1 6 7 0 UFA $632.3K
Milan Jurcina 63.69 65 3 8 11 -34 UFA $1.6M
Steve Staios 61.65 65 0 8 8 -19 UFA $1.65M
Mark Eaton 59.25 62 1 3 4 -17 UFA $2.5M

Healthy again, Mark Streit played all 82 games for the Islanders and even though his plus-minus was a career-worst minus-27, he had the best shot differential among Islanders defencemen, so his play wasn't as bad as the plus-minus would suggest.

The 34-year-old is a smart and savvy puck-mover who will be a free agent at the end of the 2012-2013 season, so if he doesn't sign an extension, he could be a valuable trade chip as the deadline approaches.

Travis Hamonic is a strong, physical defenceman who finished the year well (12 points, plus-4 in 25 games) and is going to have many years of hard matchups in a shutdown role. He's the kind of player that teams go to war with in the postseason. Now if only the Islanders can get there.

While Frans Nielsen was staking his claim to the biggest bargain contract in hockey before signing his extension, his chief competition might have been coming from Andrew MacDonald, who logs 23 minutes per game for a bargain-basement $550,000. He's still under contract for two more seasons and getting a top-four defenceman who is mobile and can move the puck at that price is a steal.

Those are three solid returning pieces for the Islanders' blueline, but this is an opportunity for improvement. Prospects Matt Donovan and Calvin DeHaan may challenge for spots, but the Isles also could use some free agent upgrades.

It seems unlikey that the Islanders would get any marquee attractions (say, like Ryan Suter) on defence, but they have room to add bodies and could reasonably add some solid pros with good offers.

A couple of Michal Rozsival, Carlo Colaiacovo, Bryan Allen, Shane O'Brien, Cory Sarich or Greg Zanon would be better than what the Islanders are losing to unrestricted free agency and could make life easier for the goaltenders.

Certainly the Islanders can upgrade the position long-term with the fourth overall pick in the draft. If an elite forward falls in their lap, the Islanders can go in that direction, but in a defence-rich draft, there is an opportunity to add someone dynamic like Matthew Dumba or safe and steady like Ryan Murray.

 

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Evgeni Nabokov 71.53 42 19 18 3 2.55 .914 $2.75M
Rick DiPietro 40.74 8 3 2 3 3.73 .876 $4.5M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Al Montoya 55.48 31 9 11 5 3.11 .893 UFA $601K

Signed to a one-year contract extension, Evgeni Nabokov has taken the reigns as the Islanders' starter, though a 36-year-old who played 42 games isn't quite among the league's elite when it comes to starting goaltenders. Nevertheless, Nabokov posted a .914 save percentage and the Islanders didn't have any other goaltenders even close to that mark, so he's the best choice for next season.

Rick DiPietro remains under contract and, as such, figures to have a spot on the roster, since the Islanders tend to need his cap hit to reach the cap floor. Who knows what provisions could come in the next collective bargaining agreement, but an .884 save percentage in 34 games over the last two seasons wouldn't warrant regular playing time under normal circumstances.

If DiPietro isn't suitable for the backup role, the Islanders do have prospects, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson on the way, and one of them could take the opportunity if Nabokov is out of the lineup for any substantial period of time.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Ryan Strome C Niagara (OHL) 30-38-68, +37, 46 GP
Matt Donovan D Bridgeport (AHL) 10-35-45, +11, 72 GP
Calvin De Haan D Bridgeport (AHL) 2-14-16, -1, 56 GP
Brock Nelson C North Dakota (WCHA) 28-19-47, +17, 42 GP
Kevin Poulin G Bridgeport (AHL) 26-18-4, 2.79 GAA, .912, 49 GP
Kirill Kabanov RW Shawinigan (QMJHL) 21-34-55, +32, 50 GP
Anders Nilsson G Bridgeport (AHL) 15-8-2, 2.42 GAA, .921, 25 GP
Scott Mayfield D Denver (WCHA) 3-9-12, +5, 42 GP
Aaron Ness D Bridgeport (AHL) 5-22-27, +8, 69 GP
Rhett Rakhshani RW Bridgeport (AHL) 20-29-49, +25, 49 GP

Ryan Strome isn't the strongest or fastest prospect, but he's slick with the puck and, given the Islanders' recent trend towards keeping young forwards with the big club, he could challenge for a spot next season. His skill does offer hope for the future, whether that begins on the Island next season or beyond.

Blueliner Matt Donovan made a nice adjustment to the pro game, putting up 45 points as a rookie in the AHL, earning a late look with the Islanders. Donovan has more offensive upside than other Islanders defence prospects and does seem close enough to challenge for a job next season.

With a steady, heady game and good first pass, Calvin De Haan holds promise, yet may need another year in the AHL to really establish himself. He turns 21 next week, so there's no rush for 2009 first-rounder and time to get stronger won't hurt his development.

Centre Brock Nelson was a super-skinny first-rounder in 2010, but started to fill out in his second year at North Dakota and led his team in goals and points. He signed after his college season was done and got into a couple of playoff games with Bridgeport and that's where he should start next season, but the 20-year-old is a skilled forward with size.

22-year-old goaltender Kevin Poulin handled a starter's workload in the AHL last season and has impressed (.917 SV%) in 16 NHL games over the past two seasons. Another year of development wouldn't hurt him, but Poulin could fill a backup role for the Islanders if needed.

The Islanders were willing to take a chance on Kirill Kabanov, drafting the talented Russian in the third round in 2010 and a couple of strong seasons in the QMJHLwould seem to suggest that he's ready to take on the pro challenge. On the upside, he has the skills to be a scoring forward and, at least in part, it's up to the Islanders to draw that out of him.

After a couple of years in the Swedish Elite League, Anders Nilsson was impressive in 25 games with Bridgeport last season and, after a couple of rough outings with the Islanders early in the season, Nilsson stopped 57 of 59 shots in two late-season starts. Nilsson's also 22, like Poulin, so there isn't an urgency to push him to the NHL, but he could handle more games than he played in 2011-2012.

Big blueliner Scott Mayfield was a second-round pick last year and fared well in his first collegiate season. He can use more time to fill out, so that he can play a physically demanding game as a pro, but his size and style of play offers long-term appeal.

Aaron Ness is decidedly different than Mayfield. An undersized blueliner who is a smooth skater, Ness' game is predicated on quickness and moving the puck and he probably needs further development before he's challenging for a regular NHL job.

Right winger Rhett Rakhshani has 113 points in 120 AHL games over two-plus seasons, so he's close to getting his shot in the NHL, but the 24-year-old needs to crack the lineup soon or he risks being stuck with the AHL label.

The Islanders have a deep crop of prospects, including KHLer Kirill Petrov, Notre Dame centre Anders Lee and Guelph defenceman Andrey Pedan, who add to that organizational depth.

DRAFT
4th - Mikhail Grigorenko, Matthew Dumba, Ryan Murray.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Islanders have approximately $36.2M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 14 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Islanders roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen, backup goaltender.

What I said the Islanders needed last year: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, starting goaltender.

They added: Brian Rolston, Marty Reasoner, Jay Pandolfo, Nino Niederreiter, Steve Staios, Evgeni Nabokov.

TRADE MARKET Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, prospects.

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.

John Tavares, Islanders celebrate (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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