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Cullen: Young Islanders could take next step

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Scott Cullen
9/17/2011 12:02:09 PM
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There have been some lean times for the New York Islanders, missing the playoffs for each of the last four seasons, but those days may be coming to an end soon thanks to a roster of talented young players.

Foremost among them, John Tavares gives every indication that he's going to be able to score in the NHL, putting up 121 points through his first two seasons. The primary issue for Tavares is that he's come in with a cumulative minus-31 rating through those two seasons and that has to get better if he's going to significantly increase his value.

With back-to-back seasons scoring at least 30 goals, Matt Moulson has become a certified scoring threat. His penalty minute totals are low and was a career-low minus-10 last season, but the good outweighs the bad and if the Islanders improve, Moulson's plus-minus could move onto the right side of the ledger.

Cast off by the Florida Panthers before last season even started, Michael Grabner got off to a slow start with the Islanders, managing 12 points in his first 37 games while playing 13 minutes a night. Grabner's ice time eventually went up, over 17 minutes per game in the last couple months of the season, and he finished the year with 40 points in his last 39 games. Can he duplicate that production this year or will he run into a sophomore slump?

Kyle Okposo was limited to just 38 games last season, scoring just five goals in what was effectively a washout campaign. Okposo is talented, but has scored on a ridiculously low percentage of his shots on goal (7.5%) over the last two seasons -- if that changes and he stays healthy, Okposo could hit 20 goals for the first time in his career.

Getting his first full NHL season as a 27-year-old last year, P.A. Parenteau surprised with a 53-point season. It's fair to be skeptical about whether a late bloomer can maintain that production, but if Parenteau is getting top six minutes, he has to be expected to score.

25-year-old winger Blake Comeau has increased his point totals in each of his NHL seasons, hitting career-highs with 24 goals and 46 points last season. He went through some ups-and-downs, but Comeau's skill and work ethic make him a worthwhile selection.

Acquired from the New Jersey Devils this summer, Brian Rolston didn't score more than 37 points in any of the last three seasons with the Devils. He did finish last season with 29 points in his last 41 games, so he could be a useful complementary piece for the Isles, but the safe play is to wait and see if the 38-year-old can contribute consistently.

Checking centre Frans Nielsen likely has more value to the Islanders in reality than in the fantasy realm, but his point totals have increased in each of his NHL seasons, hitting 44 points and a plus-13 rating last season -- numbers that are good enough for consideration in deep leagues.

The cornerstone of the Islanders defence, Mark Streit missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, so his return could make a major difference. Streit had averaged 52.5 points per season in the previous two years with the Isles, and wasn't a minus, even when many Islanders fell on that side of the plus-minus through some tough seasons.

In Streit's absence, there was the opportunity for some young defencemen to step up, not least of all Travis Hamonic, the tough and talented 21-year-old who scored 26 points, was plus-4 and had 103 penalty minutes in 62 games as a rookie last season. After the All-Star break, Hamonic had 18 points and was plus-11 in 33 games, so it's reasonable to expect big things from him in his second NHL season.

Andrew MacDonald also played well last season, contributing 27 points and a plus-9 rating in 60 games while playing 23:25 per night. His role may be reduced with Streit back in the lineup, but MacDonald has earned his spot and could have late-round value for fantasy players.

Goaltending has been a trouble spot for the Islanders, but they might be able to cobble together a solution this year. Evgeni Nabokov has a track record and even if he manages to post an average save percentage (his career mark is .912), then he would be an upgrade on recent Islanders efforts. With a young and potentially improving team in front of him, Nabokov could be a sleeper candidate between the pipes.

If Nabokov doesn't establish himself as the starter, then Al Montoya figures to be the next in line. Rick DiPietro may have the contract, but Montoya played decidedly better last season, posting a 2.39 goals against average and .921 save percentage. Montoya struggled at times in the minors, so it's no sure thing that he can maintain that level, but it makes him worth a look when DiPietro hasn't posed a save percentage of even .905 since 2006-2007.

Though the Islanders already have a young roster, they could promote 2010 first-rounder Nino Niederreiter this year as well. Niederreiter tallied 41 goals in 55 WHL games last season and has the size to handle a third or fourth-line role as he acclimatizes himself to the NHL.

After some tough times, it does appear that the New York Islanders are starting to move in the right direction, that their collection of young talent is growing and could provide serious value. They might still be a year or two (and some strong goaltender) away from being a serious playoff team, but they should be competitive and that's progress.

NHL Depth Chart - New York Islanders

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 Sports on Facebook.

John Tavares (Photo: Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
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