Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
For a team that has had four top-five draft picks in the past four years (including their 2008 selection, the 5th overall, that was traded to Toronto), the New York Islanders don’t seem like the poster-child for an organization that is on the rise. In fact, with the fifth overall pick again in the 2011 Entry Draft, it would seem like the Islanders are treading water at best.
Team General Manager Garth Snow showed once again on Wednesday afternoon that he is making the right moves to keep the team moving forward, as he signed 23-year old Kyle Okposo to a 5-year extension that comes with a $2.8 million a season cap hit. The American-born forward has battled injuries throughout his career, but has managed to pick up 116 points (44 goals, 72 assists) in 192 career games. He has also shown a tenacity on the ice that has won over teammates and fans alike, and this contract extension is proof that the Islanders have faith that he is going to be a tremendous asset for many years to come.
This announcement came on the heels of the unsurprising revelation that team captain Doug Weight will be retiring after a long and successful career. He only played in 18 games in the 2010-11 season, and he spent a lot of his time mentoring the younger players on the team. With his departure, it opens up the captaincy of the team, and the signing of Okposo could very well signal that they are leaning towards putting the “C” on his jersey.
Outside of Okposo, there are plenty of other signs that the team is moving forward. Another prospective captain for the team is John Tavares, who had a splendid sophomore campaign, scoring 29 goals and dishing out 38 assists in 79 games this season. He also won 52.5% of his draws on the season, and that is a good mark for a guy who plays in a division with some pretty talented centers. He is also under contract through the end of next season, so it will be interesting to see what kind of extension the Islanders offer their talented center.
The re-signing of Okposo is also a continuation of Snow’s attempts to lock up the core of his team. Earlier this spring, Michael Grabner was rewarded for his stellar rookie season with a 5-year, $15 million contract extension. He scored 34 goals in the regular season, and was named as a Calder Trophy finalist and will head to Las Vegas to duel with Logan Couture and Jeff Skinner for the honors. The flashy 23-year old has a big time game, and he has earned a fond spot in the hearts of Islanders fans with his explosive goal-scoring ability and his enthusiasm for the game.
Even lower-tier guys have been brought back into the fold in this off-season. Snow also re-upped with goaltender Al Montoya, who looked really solid in some limited action for the Isles late in the season. In his short NHL career, Montoya has a 12-6-1 record with a respectable 2.34 GAA and a .922 save percentage. He will almost certainly go into camp battling oft-injured Rick DiPietro for the team’s starting goaltender role, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he were between the pipes for the Isles’ opener in October.
Even guys who are coming down the pipe for New York are showing some encouraging spark. Nino Niederreiter, the 5th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, had a stellar season for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, scoring 41 goals and adding 29 assists in 58 games. He also had a great playoff for the Winterhawks, picking up 27 points (9 G, 18 A) in 21 postseason games. He is almost a shoe-in to make the big league roster coming out of camp next season, and the talented winger is going to provide the team with a great sniper for many years to come.
With all of this young talent, there is some justifiable excitement surrounding this team moving forward, and this almost certainly a driving force behind a new initiative to build the team a new arena on Long Island. The $400 million project, which faces a lot of hurdles to jump before it can begin, would build the team a replacement for the aging Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, and would also build a new minor league baseball facility nearby. Hundreds of local union workers showed up at the meeting of the County Board to support the project, saying that it would bring much needed jobs to the area.
Lawmakers will vote next week as to whether or not to include a referendum on the ballot to authorize selling bonds to pay for the construction of the venues. A revenue-sharing agreement is also being worked out with team owner Charles Wang to help reimburse the county for the bond sale, but that is still not finalized yet.
Even if voters approve the measure, which would be voted on August 1st, it would still have to be approved by the county legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. The second part of that would be a challenge, considering that the group declared a fiscal emergency in the county and took over the county’s finances due to excessive debt. Adding $400 million more to that amount doesn’t seem like a likely expenditure, but with the jobs that the project has the potential of creating, as well as the fact that a revenue sharing agreement will likely come with it, it could very well happen.
At any rate, the culture of hockey on Long Island is slowly but surely changing. With the prospects of a new arena brighter than they have been in quite some time, and with a young group of players who are bringing excitement to a long dormant team, fans of the Islanders finally have a reason to be excited again. Could they take a big step next season and return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign? They potentially could, but at any rate, optimism is reigning on the Island, and that is always a good thing.