Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the New York Islanders. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take!
To say the Islanders finished next to last in the Eastern Conference last year is only telling part of the story. The Islanders showed a marked improvement in the second half of the season and could carry some momentum into this year.
Michael Grabner was the biggest feel-good story on the Island, scoring 34 goals with the Islanders after both the Canucks and Panthers had given up on him. Grabner is just one of many talented young players that also include the likes of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, which have Islanders fans excited for the future.
Here's a look at what's in store for this season.
Prospect Report: Nino Niederreiter got his nine-game taste of the NHL last season before being returned to the juniors, where he likely did enough to earn a full-time spot this year. The Swiss forward netted 41 goals and 70 points in only 55 games in the WHL and added 27 points in the playoffs, helping the Portland Winterhawks reach the final.
If the fifth-overall pick from 2010 can earn decent minutes alongside some of the Islanders' other young talented forwards, he has the offensive ability to garner Calder consideration.
Breakout Player to Watch: He was one shy of hitting the 30-goal plateau last year, and finished with 67 points on the season, but there are many who think John Tavares has yet to reach his full potential.
More offensive weapons emerging in Long Island means less attention opposing teams can play Tavares. The 20-year-old centre has recorded 54 and 67 points in his first two seasons in the league, and if he continues that upward trajectory, could soon be a point-per-game performer that easily eclipses 30 goals.
Marquee Match-Up: Oct. 25 vs. Pittsburgh – Hostilities renewed. The Islanders and Penguins developed a heated mini-rivalry over the course of nine days in early February last year. It started with Penguins goalie Brent Johnson knocking down Rick DiPietro with one punch on February 2 and escalated on February 11 when the two teams met again, combining for 65 penalty minutes and 10 player ejections. The October 25 meeting will be the teams' first of the new season, and DiPietro – recovered from his facial fractures – could be in net for New York.
Other Dates to Watch: Oct. 27 – Islanders face Penguins in the second of back-to-back games. Nov. 10 – Tavares faces off against fellow 2009 first-rounder Matt Duchene in Colorado. Jan. 7 – Goalie Al Montoya will have a chance to face the team that gave up on him in Phoenix.
Reason to Get Excited: The Islanders were one of the better teams in the league in the second half of last season before injuries finally got to them down the stretch. New York had 586 man-games lost to injury last year, and if they can stay even moderately healthier this year, they could resemble their second-half stretch for a full season.
Home Hardware: Niederreiter should be with the team for the full year, and if he can find a way to earn top-six minutes he could be playing alongside players like Tavares, Grabner, Okposo, and 31-goal scorer Matt Moulson. If the young winger gets the ice-time and develops chemistry with the Isles' other top forwards, he could rack up the points and follow in Grabner's footsteps as a Calder nominee.
On The Hot Seat: Rick DiPietro, or at least he would be if he didn't still have 10 years left on a monster 15-year contract he signed with the team. DiPietro is a perennial injury risk and unlike years before, the Islanders look to have other goalies to rely on. Al Montoya impressed late in the season after he was acquired from Phoenix, Kevin Poulin looked sharp in his limited action and all indications are that Evgeni Nabokov will report to training camp. By virtue of his enormous contract, DiPietro will stick with the team, but it's clear the team is looking in many other directions between the pipes.
It's Your! Call: Was last year's second-half run a fluke, or a sign of things to come in Long Island in 2011?
The Islanders toiled near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings in the first half of last season, and at the time, few would have guessed the team was capable of the run they managed in the second half.
The biggest thing for the Islanders is staying healthy, and they'll need players such as Okposo and Mark Streit to bounce back from their injuries. The team also can't afford to have their young talents like Tavares, Grabner, and Moulson, have a drop-off in productivity.
The Isles will also need their strong goaltending to carry over from late last season, whether it be Montoya, DiPietro, or even Nabokov starting between the pipes.
Can everything click for the Islanders for a full season like it did for a short run in 2010-11?