Simply put if you do not follow New York Islander Hockey on a regular basis. only look at the standings on the final day of the season or only accept what a lot of professional reporters who cannot name five current players tell you but start with DiPietro's contract or the late nineties to supplement their lack of current knowledge this preview is not for you.
A lot of folks live for the page view/shock jock game and write things to simply get your attention or frankly to help generate interest in themselves as the club gets caught up in the middle of that avalanche far too often. Those folks will also provide the eye-candy pictures or jokes as they attempt to make a style based analysis that goes beyond any peripheral substance they can attempt to provide.
Truth is there is no comfort for a lot of the media in a substance based discussion of the current New York Islanders, worst of all this level of reporting has worn down a lot of long-time fans and influenced their viewpoint to where in the absence of quality coverage will now accept virtually anything in it's absence.
With that we begin our preview.
Last year when I did my 2007-08 preview I projected the New York Islanders to be a sixth place club.
At the time I felt the players imported would make up for the scoring lost with the returning players producing more. Satan, Hunter were in contract years, had the ability to improve and when I was done checking the numbers the Islanders on paper had replaced most of the scoring the club decided not to resign or could not resign in the case of Ryan Smyth.
On paper it looked good but either the system used by Ted Nolan or the talent was not up to that task from day one as most of the new players or returning forwards simply could not produce on a regular basis. Sillinger, Hunter and Satan did not pick up the scoring slack while at best we saw uneven performances from Comrie, Fedotenko, Guerin as most forwards had scoring slumps of twenty games or longer.
Garth Snow and Ted Nolan had most of October for this group to adjust with all the downtime or solve it's problems with players from other organizations, it simply did not improve with the coach constantly pointing out this club did not have the talent to compete in a wide-open game.
The group scored two goals or less fourteen games in a row when they were almost fully healthy (aside from John Sim) and only had eleven first period goals into mid-December. Many nights the club needed to get into the second period to generate a quality chance with a team defense that was terrible at even strength which was the virtual opposite of it's 06-07 counterpart.
The powerplay was one of the worst in franchise history just as prone to allow a chance with the man advantage as they could generate one that allowed fifteen goals with it's powerplay.
Having written about all this downside, where were the the 2007-08 New York Islanders were in January of 2008? Sixth Place.
They not only competed well in the Atlantic but very well dominating the Devils and Rangers, never looking out of place aside from it's special teams against Philadelphia which was self-inflicted too many games with respect to the Flyers talent.
Finally the flu produced one seven game losing streak that dropped the club out of it's playoff spot and despite a six game winning streak that pushed them back to within two points of eighth at the deadline, more injuries hit that finally were enough to send the club into a tailspin that they could not get out of with a lot of players unable to continue or playing hurt or ineffective during the final weeks.
From here on for the purposes of this preview lets get beyond Ted Nolan vs Garth Snow, both lied to the fans about their ability to work together.
A new coach is here in Scott Gordon but forgetting any coaches system or the usual fluff players give to the media about a new coach during the honeymoon period lets get down to talent and what players should be capable of doing under any coach which is why they are in the NHL.
Where will the 2008-09 New York Islanders Finish?
If they get over the injury problems still lingering from last season Sixth in Eastern Conference.
You wrote this is a group that lost sixty plus goals from the lowest scoring club in the league, sounds like a homer preview already NYIFC?
No pulling punches, if they cannot shake these injuries and improve their overall scoring and team play as a group, a playoff spot will not happen. I will explain why I think the scoring and team play can and should improve.
Anyone who watched the games last season know Blake Comeau and Sean Bergenheim outplayed and outworked the veterans on their lines far too many nights which even Bill Guerin acknowledged by the time the season was over.
This was not a situation where they were holding back veterans but exactly the opposite and both are at a point they can and should produce as the NHL game slows down for them at this level. Jeff Tambellini is also at that same point with his offensive skill or he will not be here much longer regardless of his contract. Kyle Okposo seems capable of doing this at a younger age as he generates chances and is a huge factor in this projection. Frans Nielsen was drafted in 2003 and has been playing against NHL veterans in tournaments for years. From early preseason reviews combined with his earlier cameo's with the club he is ready to play at this level and should contribute.
Josh Bailey for as long as he hangs around is a wild card and we'll see if his skills translate to this level.
Overall it was a quiet preseason for these players aside from Nielsen's four point game in Summerside but still the club went 4-3, this was a schedule that was more about getting healthy for many including Bergenheim and Tambellini.
I do not expect any passengers from these players desperate to prove themselves and build on what they been doing for years to get to this level, if not there are players hungry for an opportunity, the depth has not been this good in a long time and just as important a lot of that depth starting with Jeremy Colliton, Ben Walter and others are at a point they make it or move on.
Bottom line these young players will do more things that do not always appear on a score sheet to win a sixty minute hockey game that last year's group were not capable of doing. This will offset some of the numbers as they produce their share of offense while continuing to improve.
Veterans and Scoring?
It was a big hit to lose Jon Sim's speed, aggressive play and seventeen goals last year but no one should mistake him for a top six reliable scoring forward. Some media wrote about this but most did not, Sim seems to have fully recovered from his knee injury which is like signing an UFA who replaces one of the departing veterans numbers and hopefully can improve the club in other areas which was one of the reasons he was signed in the first place.
Doug Weight comes here and the questions are whether he was the fifty point player at this time a year ago or the player he was in Anaheim at the end of last season as a healthy scratch? Does he still has his passing skills and powerplay vision? If he is a fifty point player and can still set up a powerplay that should more than offset the uneven play Josef Vasieck provided in what seemed a season where he performed to his ceiling but still went almost thirty games between goals. if not someone is going to take Weight's spot because there are a lot of centers in this organization waiting for a chance along with the possible return of Mike Sillinger at some point.
Bill Guerin now has his friend and former teammate again at his side, coming back off a full year as captain acclimated once again with the Eastern Conference and a top six role expecting to produce more and reportedly ready to jump on anyone not pulling his weight. It's a more settled situation for him than a year ago that should provide him confidence to play within his capabilities as he often talked about his own confidence a year ago as he struggled to start and finished playing injured. He still has his shot off the wing and flashes of speed when it's time to get to high quality areas to make a play. Last year he spent far too long in low percentage shooting spots waiting for the puck to come his way, was that the system or a players declining skills?
Mike Comrie came here wanting to be the go to player on offense and a first line player, regardless how that plays out expect the most skilled offensive talents with the most upside on his wings whatever line it's called on paper that should push his play to it's highest level. He has to be healthy and should come in like Guerin with something to prove because this player only seemed to scratch the surface on the leagues lowest scoring club a year ago with his forty nine points.
Trent Hunter knows he can and should score more, his overall hard work should help the speed, skill around him produce and return the puck to him where he can be most effective. On paper this reads well, on the ice it has to happen and should because there is still an expectation of what we saw in 2003-04 before his knee on knee with Sean Brown. Hunter is the template for the kind of the character player this organization wants to build it's core around.
This time around I expect Richard Park and Andy Hilbert will be placed in roles realistic for their career production. No coach is going to make them consistent scorers unless Scott Gordon and Garth Snow get an amazing bonus that goes outside their respective career resumes. I do not see these players in this teams top nine forwards, if they are in those roles for any extended time the team will not be successful or in playoff contention unless it's in a defensive role to close out games the club is leading. We'll see where and how newly acquired Nate Thompson fits the mix as a center/winger but obviously Scott Gordon wanted him here with his speed and a physical element combined with AHL scoring ability.
Too early to tell but virtually nothing short of declining the powerplay would be worse than last year with a unit that allowed fifteen goals with it's man advantage and turned the momentum of several games to the opposition's favor as it took the ice. Mark Streit, Jack Hillen along with Chris Campoli's eventual return and Weight's powerplay talents combined with more chances from the skilled, faster young payers has to get the other clubs defense running around down low to wear them down.
Can Weight and Streit's vision/ability to make a play create more time and open space for this unit that keeps the opposition off balance and backing in? I think so and not because Garth Snow said he solved his powerplay by signing the former Hab.
Streit sounds like a very bright player who knows how to create a chance and has improved every season since coming to the NHL, he's one element to the solution.
All I do know is nothing could be worse than Richard Park, Bill Guerin or Miroslav Satan on the point last year as the unit looked desperate and concerned about turnovers which also included Berard, Bergeron, Campoli and a host of players still here who got a look but seemed lost when the opportunity came for them to get a chance. It would not even shock me to see Snow sign Berard now that he has been released from the Flyers to improve his depth.
The powerplay is going to improve because it's not possible for it to be any worse than it was a year ago, regardless of how little Scott Gordon has had to work on his special teams.
Shorthanded this group has several players who do well in this role that were solid last season that are back, I see no major weakness on paper with this unit to begin the season but over time we will find out trends for 2008-09.
Last year this club dropped it's shots against by 198.
The media forgot to pick up on that like they forget the club was in sixth place in January or ignored the six game winning streak when they got past the flu but as flawed as last year's club was they did manage to do this and should do even better now because it's a deeper group with virtually everyone signed for at least two years.
The injuries that define the individual resume of the defense are back with Chris Campoli, Andy Sutton already out and a waiver (Thomas Pock) claimed, if injuries go four or five deep all bets are off on the clubs success but you can write this about practically any team.
Starting from there this overall group even with it's current injuries is far deeper defensively than last year's version that was even more unsettled at the beginning a year ago waiting to sign Berard before he got hurt, Sutton's early struggles, Bergeron inconsistent along with Johnson not getting a chance before a practice injury put him out along with Freddy Meyer landing on waivers as he sat around and did not get an opportunity.
Radek Martinek and Brendan Witt with his new three year contract are steady and at times outstanding at shutting down star players as they move the puck well out of danger area's while Witt is also a shot blocking machine who not only plays big, but smart as he draws penalties and frustrates the opposition and leads by example. Witt's game rubbed off well on Sutton for a good stretch of the second half as other clubs tried to get him off the ice because he simply made solid defensive plays and kept the opposition off balance. Freddy Meyer finally got his chance to show what he could do and from early indications seems to have picked up where he left off as not only a very steady defender but someone who can make a hit and raise his game. Mark Streit and Thomas Pock will have to adjust to a new team but overall the returning group settled in very well last season, were effective when healthy and should pick up where they left off individually.
Bruno Gervais will be an interesting call as to where he fits Scott Gordon's depth chart which alone explains how much deeper this group is because when healthy this is a very solid defender who knows how to work the corner and clear the zone. Jack Hillen by all reports seems to belong as this level and provides an offensive element others lack that will give this college player a chance sooner, not later as Garth Snow seems to feel signing him was like getting an extra first rounder which I do agree with.
Beyond the injuries this is the biggest concern.
Scott Gordon can talk overspeed every single day but you can only get so much speed and positioning out of some players. This was a group that broke down last year that did not play with speed. During this camp his players broke down from a practice routine that even had him quoted as saying he has never seen anything like it and pointed to last years returning players prior habits which has to be a red flag.
The Islanders are going to travel more, play more games against the Western Conference and they are going to have to keep up and adapt from the style of the Atlantic. This is where we will get our best indication about whether this club can compete and I do feel the younger players have that extra step last year's team lacked which will have a positive effect.
I see these elements not as how many fights by appointment a club can win after a goal to change momentum, but how many hits they can make to frustrate the opposition into retaliation penalties and then put them away with powerplay goals. Whether it's Mitchell Fritz, Tim Jackman, Witt, Sutton, Comrie, Guerin or DiPietro fighting it will happen as it happens.
This is not the NHL of Gillies, Howatt any longer with bench clearing brawls, this group seems to take some hits but also seems able to dish them out. I see it as a wash over eighty two games and if anyone has watched Bergenheim, Sim and Comeau all three know when and how to initiate a hit and have a bit of a nasty edge. Hunter is never shy about finishing his checks but is not a big open ice hitter. Witt and Sutton at times pick their spots.
Rick DiPietro has to stay healthy for this club to have a chance at a playoff spot. He begins the season with virtually no game play aside from one exhibition game where the rust showed on a goal or two and only now is seeing his first pucks since March. Last year he backstopped a club that scored two goals or less fourteen games in a row into sixth place last January and keyed a six game winning streak with his second half play after starting the All-Star game and like many players on this roster hung in with injuries as long as the could. At his best DiPietro almost adds a third defender who's stick-handling was improved last season but only got attention once again for his mistakes from the media that make his contract and personality an issue for their own reasons, not for how he performs as one of the best goaltenders in the league according to future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur.
What's different this year is DiPietro will have far more second half breaks than he had after last year's huge break in October. Last year this team did not have one three day break after mid-December the rest of the season but now the club will also spending more time traveling so making a set schedule for the goaltenders play this far in advanced simply is not realistic despite the articles about it.
Joey MacDonald can both play at this level for a stretch of games and had limited stretches in the past with other organizations, when the chance comes he has to be ready and should be given the preseason. MacDonald
had a forty five shot 2-1 overtime loss against the Devils on 4/1 where he looked as sharp as Wade Dubielewicz in his final games but that was then, this is now.
Of course, unlike last season where he was a starter now he must adjust to being a backup and sitting for long stretches.
If last year's team was in sixth in January with so many flaws I do not see a reason (beyond injury) why they cannot be there again, only this time it should be a deeper group with better overall individual skills. Last year we saw a great first weekend followed by a team that was never any better. This year I expect the reverse with the club improving as the season progresses and being at it's best down the stretch.
All of what I wrote in this preview should lead to more goals in games, better survival skills to get games into overtime/shootouts and pile up the unbeaten in regulation streaks to keep the club in contention and push them over the top for a spot down the stretch.
I also believe we are going to see a much better reaction to adversity from the players along with management. I project as these young players improve and their confidence grows were going to discover this team is for real and built to last.
Depth is a funny thing, you go from not have it to having too much out of nowhere.
A lot of things are contagious on NHL teams from scoring, slumps, confidence, it goes both ways and turns quickly. The key for this group will be to prove they can get that first big stretch where they can score four goals in back to back games, all of a sudden you go from wondering if it can be done to knowing you can do it.
That's where this group will hit it's stride.
I suspect off the ice Garth Snow is going to stick to his plan and at best only if injuries happen to veterans will a similar player be brought in as a short-term fix.
On the bench Scott Gordon will have what seems an overdue trial by fire with the benefit of watching many of the clubs's AHL prospects for years as he learns the speed of this level combined with how to coach veterans. We will see how Gordon reacts to adversity he did not face in Providence if the club struggles which apparently Ted Nolan and Garth Snow did not react well to.
A good indicator if I'm correct will be how many games I write the Islanders played poorly but won because the opposition was even worse or how an ugly win still counts just the same as DiPietro carried the club. I have found myself writing that so many times the last six years despite the playoff spots it seemed a question of when, not if things would finally catch up with them whether they made the playoffs of not.
For myself, writing that early this season after games is not a big deal, however if I'm still writing it in late January every game win or lose, I suspect we'll have our answer as to what kind of team we have in 08-09.
If I thought the talent and ability was not there to finish sixth in 2008-09 it would not be my projection.
Mark it down, Sixth in the Eastern Conference if healthy.