Thursday, April 14, 2011

“Let’s See How Far We’ve Come:” Islanders Rising, What’s Left to Be Done?

When the New York Islanders are back in playoff contention, the 2010-2011 season will be viewed as the turning point that catapulted them into the upper echelons of the National Hockey League.

You might argue that the roots of their recent success were planted back in 2004, when the franchise drafted Frans Nielsen, or perhaps with 2006 or 2009, when the Isles selected Kyle Okposo and John Tavares, respectively.

Those were certainly key moments which would help shape the current roster, but what I am referring to here is something much deeper, a change occurring, not just on an individual level, but to an entire team.

A few clutch wins over Tampa Bay (overtime), Pittsburgh (defeated them in a shootout, ended Sidney Crosby's point-streak), Colorado and the Detroit Red Wings (also in overtime) had Islander Country buzzing with pride, while a 4-3 shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the NHL's top team, also demonstrated the Isles' mettle, despite them falling just short.

This string of moral victories would lay the foundation for their metamorphosis, but it would be another month until New York broke free from its shell.

Make no mistake, the night of February 11th, 2011, on which the Islanders literally knocked out the Pittsburgh Penguins 9-3, was the night this franchise turned everything around.

That convincing victory did not merely represent two points in the standings. It was a statement by this young team that they were no longer pushovers, they were capable of toppling even the toughest opponents and they were on their way to becoming a force in the National Hockey League.

On that particular evening, the Islanders underwent a psychological transformation, a realization that they were talented enough to be a good hockey team.

The Pens got the message, of that you can be sure. As did several other teams, because the Isles came out of the All-Star break red-hot, finishing with one of the best records in the league from that point until the conclusion of the regular season.

Suddenly, there was a sense of optimism and excitement surrounding the team. The Islanders' were going through a renaissance, both in the rink and the stands. The vast improvement of the on-ice product has revitalized the fanbase, with attendance at Nassau Coliseum surging. The organization announced that ticket prices will be reduced for next season, so expect that trend to persist.

Indeed, the Islanders are on the rise, but the process is not complete. There are still a few areas in which this team needs to improve and some additions that must be made, if the Isles are to compete for a playoff spot next season.

Let's start with the largest concern, team health. It goes without saying that the core players cannot miss time without the Isles suffering a major blow. They don't necessarily have the depth to cover for those losses (yet another issue), so, for example, when Kyle Okposo is out until late in the year and Mark Streit's sidelined indefinitely, the outlook for this team won't be very good.

In terms of the Isles' lack of depth, I think that's an issue that must be resolved through free agency this summer. There's certainly room on the roster for a couple of role-playing veterans (think John Madden, Kris Draper or Jamie Langenbrunner, all upcoming UFA's), and I think the addition of any one (or more) of those players would do wonders for this team, not just because they help solve the depth problem, but because they bring leadership and experience into a locker room that doesn't exactly overflow with those characteristics (yet).

The upcoming NHL Entry Draft provides Garth Snow with another opportunity to re-tool the franchise and add to his growing list of blue-chip prospect pool, and he'll have the fifth overall pick to work with in June's selection process.

I will continue to repeat this until it either happens or doesn't, but the Islanders should draft Niagara (OHL) defenseman Dougie Hamilton. While Larsson would be nice, I highly doubt he slips past the Oilers, Avalanche and Panthers, who hold the first, second and third picks in the upcoming draft.

What this team is missing, is a blueliner with, not only skill, but size and strength. Hamilton's a big defender who can hit, play tight defensively and possesses offensive flair. Just last night, he scored two goals in the IceDogs' playoff win over Medicine Hat.

He's also said to have leadership ability, a quality that any team, not just the Isles, would benefit from greatly.

On defense, the Islanders have made strides, and with Streit returning to the lineup next season, that unit should be even better. That being said, one more veteran rearguard with size couldn't hurt, though with Milan Jurcina and Mark Eaton under-contract for 2011-2012, it will be difficult to open up a roster spot for someone else. Therefore, I think a trade is imperative, likely one that involves either of those two players.

I think the Islanders' goaltending woes are but a thing in the past, now that Al Montoya will be back in the fold. Sure, we don't know which Rick DiPietro will show up next year, but, should he fail to pick up the wins, we can take comfort in the fact that there are other netminders, both on the current roster and in the system, who can step in and be effective.

Also, if New York is to be a threat in the Eastern Conference, they need to figure out how to run an efficient powerplay. It's absolutely perplexing how abysmal this team was with the man-advantage, throughout the 2010-2011 campaign.

It was almost at the point where I'd have preferred the Isles' to be on the penalty kill while trailing in a hockey game, because they were the best shorthanded team in the NHL this season, and contrary to what the stats might show, there wasn't a single team that approached their level.

Once again, with Streit back at the point, Isles should improve that aspect of their game, but the other players who see powerplay time will have to take it upon themselves to develop chemistry and consistency in those situations.

Finally, it goes without saying that Michael Grabner needs a contract extension, like yesterday. If potting 34 goals in your rookie season (only two of which came on the powerplay) doesn't prove your worth to an organization, I'm not sure what does. I believe they will re-sign him.

The worst-case scenario might be similar to last summer's Matt Moulson situation (which worked out, if I'm not mistaken), in that the two sides will go to arbitration, Grabner will receive a one-year contract and the Isles will work out a longer-term extension in the middle of next season.

If the New York Islanders can accomplish these tasks, I think they've got an excellent shot at punching their first postseason ticket since '06-'07, come next April.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter: @nyifaceoff360

Comments are welcome.


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