The New York Islanders are back. In April, they made their first trip to the postseason in five years. This year they will set their sights on their first playoff series victory since 1993. With 22-year-old superstar John Tavares assuming the captaincy this season, the free-scoring Isles are entering a new golden age.
First overall picks can define a franchise, and that has certainly been the case on Long Island in recent years. The Rick DiPietro selection in 2000 hobbled the organization for more than a decade. The Islanders foolishly traded a young Roberto Luongo to make room for their shiny new toy, only to see a tragic string of injuries rob DiPietro of what could have been a great career.
The Islanders bought out the goalie’s absurd contract this summer, finally washing their hands of the pick. The team made much better use of the first choice in 2009. John Tavares has rapidly developed into one of the NHL’s very best. He was sensational in 2013, finishing third in both goals scored and Hart Trophy votes.
One of the most dynamic offensive talents in recent memory, Tavares should be a perennial MVP candidate in the coming years. He is just one of those players that makes his teammates better. Much like Sidney Crosby, Tavares has made role-players into stars.
Matt Moulson is certainly a capable goal-scoring winger, but Tavares has turned him into a point-per-game player. The center also managed to make a power-play machine out of Brad Boyes, helping the 31-year-old muster his best season since 2009. Boyes is an unrestricted free agent at the moment, so he is unlikely to return in 2013-14. However, any player that lines up on the Islanders’ top-line or first power-play unit is destined for success.
2013′s seventh ranked offense is about to get even better. The Isles should be much improved at the center position on their second and third lines. The signing of Pierre-Marc Bouchard gives coach Jack Capuano a reliable veteran capable of playing in the top-six, but the arrival of top prospect Ryan Strome should have an even bigger impact.
Selected fifth overall in 2011, Strome is one of the most promising offensive prospects in the game. He has been a dominant force in the Ontario Hockey League over the last few years, and he certainly looks NHL ready. A lethal scorer and clever playmaker, Strome improved his defensive game quite a bit in 2012-13.
He could be New York’s number two center on opening night if camp goes well, and winger Kyle Okposo might benefit handsomely from the injection of offensive skill on his line. Strome looks like a clear Calder Trophy favorite this season. When he reaches his prime, he could give the Islanders a pair of centers second only to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ duo of Crosby and Malkin.
Griffin Reinhart is another rookie capable of breaking out this season. Selected fourth overall in 2012, Reinhart projects to be an elite defensive-defenseman. That happens to be exactly what the Islanders need. Reinhart hasn’t quite learned how to make the most of his size, but he is very mature for his age. He might be able to plug in to the top four this season, and he should be a core player moving forward.
Reinhart’s potential arrival might be necessitated by the departure of former-captain Mark Streit, who signed with Philadelphia this summer. The New York defense ranked 21st last season, but they ought to improve this winter. 37-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky was very good last season, and he can fill Streit’s role as a veteran puck-mover on the blue line. Travis Hamonic continued to develop in his third NHL season, and Briant Strait’s play was encouraging before injuries derailed his season. This unit won’t be elite, but they should be better.
Evgeni Nabokov remains a question mark in net. The 38-year-old Russian is hardly an ideal starting goalie at this point in his career. He won a respectable 23 games last season, but his .910 save-percentage was disappointing. If anything holds the Isles back this season, it will be Nabokov.
With more cap space than any other team, the New York Islanders could be wise to invite free agent Tim Thomas to training camp. Thomas has failed to attract much interest from teams after sitting out last season. He’d be a temporary solution for a franchise with a bright future, but the two-time Vezina winner just might be able to help this team compete for a title now.
The Isles finished eighth in the east last season, but their position in the standings is somewhat deceiving. With just three more points, the Isles would have had the conference’s fourth best record. With more overtime losses than any playoff team in their conference, they could have had those points quite easily.
The Islanders have some really special talent, and they will make their penultimate season on Long Island a memorable one. This team will surprise once again in 2013, and they could be a threat in the postseason. They aren’t ready to take the Metropolitan Division from the Penguins, and they certainly don’t look experienced enough to hoist the Cup. That said, the Islanders will be very good, and they may not have to wait long for a championship once they move to Brooklyn in 2015-16.