The 43rd and final season at The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was memorable. Their 47 wins and 101 points were the most since the 50 and 104 they had in their “Drive for Five” season of 1983-84. The season ultimately ended in disappointment as they failed to show up in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs the Washington Capitals. The Islanders opened the season strong winning 14 of their 20 games and headed into the All-Star break 31-14-1. Their 8-8-5 record in the final 21 games prevented them from opening up the playoffs at home.
A new era of Islanders hockey is set to begin at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Although the 3-year-old arena isn’t ideal for hockey (obstructive view, off-centered jumbotron), the arena is only 25 miles away from the old barn. Islanders fans have to be thankful that the team isn’t in Kansas City or Quebec. General Manager Garth Snow rebounded nicely from his poor 2013 off-season.
Snow first traded a 4th round pick to the Capitals for the rights to Jaroslav Halak. The goalie was quickly signed to a 4-year, $18-million dollar contract. He then signed forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. Snow waited until the eve of the regular season to address the team’s need for defensemen. He acquired Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in separate trades. The rebuild is finally done and the pieces are in place to make a deep run in the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
2014-15 record: 47-28-7, 101 pts (third in Metropolitan)
Goals For: 245 (4th)
Goals Against: 244 (22nd)
Power Play: 18.7% (16th)
Penalty Kill: 78% (26th)
- Anders Lee-John Tavares-Ryan Strome
- Brock Nelson-Frans Nielsen-Kyle Okposo
- Nikolay Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski-Josh Bailey
- Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck
It is hard to believe that the Islanders captain will be entering his 7th season in the NHL. Tavares rebounded nicely from the MCL injury he suffered at the 2014 Winter Olympics. He set career highs with 38 goals and 86 points. JT finished one point behind the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn for the Art Ross Trophy. Tavares has the flair for the dramatic as he broke the Islanders record for career overtime goals with 5 and scored just 15 seconds into overtime of Game 3 vs the Caps. The two-time Hart Trophy nominee still has to get better in his own end and on faceoffs. The great thing about Tavares is that he always comes to camp improving on a weakness in his game. Can someone be grossly underpaid at 6 million a year?
A numbers game cause the Minnesota native to begin last season in Bridgeport. Lee’s stay was short-lived as he made his Islander season debut in late October and didn’t look back. His 25 goals were second on the team and fourth among league rookies. He can attribute his goal scoring to his ability to get into the crease and score the dirty goal. Lee took a chance on himself and accepted his qualifying offer last off-season, parlaying it into a 4-year, $15 million dollar contract. Lee should increase his goal total playing a full season on Tavares’ wing.
Now that the contract drama is over, Nelson can focus on the season ahead. The 2010 first-round pick signed a 3-year, $7.5 million dollar contract just ahead of the Islanders self-imposed deadline of having restricted free agents signed before training camp opens. If the contract was not signed, Nelson would have been forced to sit out the season. The 23-year-old had a strong first half to his sophomore season, scoring 15 goals, 9 of which came on the power play. The second half was a different story. The Minnesota native scored just 5 goals, held scoreless in 18 straight games. Like the regular season, Nelson started the playoffs strong, scoring 2 goals in Game 1 vs the Caps. He was held scoreless for the remainder of the series and was scratched for Game 5.
The 31-year-old is entering the final season of a 4-year, $11 million dollar contract and is coming off an up and down 2014-15 season. His point total decreased by 15, from 58 to 43. He struggled last season with two of his strengths, faceoffs and the shootout. Nielsen only missed four games but played through an ankle injury the last two months of the season. Now that the ankle is fully healed, Nielsen would be a big boost to the team on the ice or as a trade chip for Garth Snow.
The new concussion spotters that are being introduced this season will certainly have their eyes on Grabovski, who suffered two concussions in the first year of his 4-year, $20 million dollar contract. Grabovski’s regular season ended February 19th on a vicious hit by Eric Nystrom. The 31-year-old registered 9 goals and 10 assists in 51 games. He returned for Game 5 in the series vs the Caps. Grabovski was brought in with Nikolay Kulemin in July 2014 to play on the same line together. That didn’t occur last season. I’m projected that they will this season.
Projected Defensive Pairings
- Johnny Boychuk-Nick Leddy
- Calvin de Haan-Travis Hamonic
- Thomas Hickey-Ryan Pulock
The Islanders got everything and more when they acquired Boychuk from the cap-strapped Boston Bruins. Boychuk immediately became the Isles top defenseman, provding leadership on and off the ice. “Johnny Rocket” set career highs with 9 goals, 26 assists. He was also a plus 15 and set career highs in hits, 171, shots, 192 and power play points, 15. Boychuk proved to the league that after being buried on the Bruins bottom pairing, he was a top pairing defenseman. Experts from around the league predicted that the impending unrestricted free agent would leave the Islanders or even be traded at the deadline. Snow proved the naysayers wrong as he locked up Boychuk to a 7-year, $42 million dollar contract in March. Boychuk would have gotten more on the open market but decided early on that this is where he wanted to be. The decision shows that the Islanders are a favorable destination for players.
While Boychuk got the majority of the headlines, Leddy was the Islanders best defenseman last season. The 24-year-old was acquired on the same day as Boychuk from the Chicago Blackhawks, who like the Bruins had cap issues. Leddy, like Boychuk, brought a Stanley Cup and over 50 games of playoff experience to the club. Leddy topped all Isles defensemen with 10 goals, 37 points and a plus 18. The Islanders cannot have imagined how good Leddy was immediately going to be. He’s a fast, smooth skating defenseman with great offensive talents. Leddy is fantastic at leading the rush into the offensive zone. He doesn’t get caught deep very often. Leddy missed four games with a shoulder injury in March and the Islanders lost all four games. The Islanders rewarded Leddy with a 7-year, $38.5 million dollar contract in February. Leddy will be nominated for the Norris Trophy during this contract.
The acquisitions of Boychuk and Leddy moved Hamonic to a role more suited for him, a second pairing defenseman. Hamonic improved in all aspects of his game last season. He tied his career high with 5 goals and set highs with 28 assists and 33 points. His plus 15 rating was also a personal best. Hammer also stepped up his physical game with a career high 213 hits. Hamonic suffered a torn MCL at the end of the regular season and was sorely missed in the series vs the Caps.
Calvin de Haan
The 2009 first-round pick had a very up and down 2014-15 season. The 24-year-old defenseman played a career high 65 games. de Haan recorded 12 points (1 goal, 11 assists) and the team went 11-1 when he recorded a point. He missed 9 games due to injury and was a healthy scratch for 6 straight games at the end of the season. Brian Strait had taken his spot. This is a big season for de Haan. He has to prove that he is a top 4 defenseman.
Player With the Most to Prove – Kyle Okposo
The 27-year-old was well on his way to a career season when Okposo suffered a detached retina that required surgery. He scored 14 goals and registered 30 assists through the first 47 games, his 44 points had him among the league leaders. Even with missing 22 games Kyle was still second on the team with 51 points. Okposo was clearly rusty when he returned in March. It took him five games to score his next goal, an empty netter vs the New Jersey Devils. He was taken off the first line and finished the season playing with Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey. In the final 6 games of the regular season Okposo scored 3 goals. He shook off the rust in time for the playoffs, bringing the same physicality and scoring touch (2 goals in the first 3 games vs the Capitals) he had back in the 2013 playoffs vs the Penguins. Okposo will be making $4.5 million this coming season with a $2.8 million cap hit. The cap hit will surely double as the winger will seek at least 6 million a year for 6 years in his next contract. Do you give a player that much money who has yet to score 30 goals or registered 70 points in a season? Do you give a player that much money who has only played 70 or more games three times in 6 full seasons? The Islanders will be in the race on February 29, 2016, the trade deadline. If there hasn’t been any discussions til that point, I do not see Snow attempting to trade him. He would clearly be a rental and do not see the Isles getting a big return. The Isles need to get out of the first round this season and trading Okposo would not help them achieve that.
Breakout Player: Ryan Strome
The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft scored 7 goals and registered 11 assists in his rookie season (2013- 14). Strome was a bit tentative and indecisive with his puck handling. The talent was there though. He made big strides in his sophomore season. The Mississauga, Ontario native scored 17 goals and 33 assists in 81 games. His plus 23 rating led the Islanders and was 16th in the NHL. Strome wasn’t one to shy away from contact either as the 6’1″ 196 pounder registered 92 hits and got into his first career fight. After being drafted and making it to the NHL as a center, Ryan Strome has been training this offseason to play on the wing. He played some last season alongside Tavares on the first line. Scoring-first attitude will be an adjustment for Strome. It’s pretty scary that Strome scored 17 goals focusing solely as a play-maker. 30-35 is not out of the question for the winger. His playmaking ability, hockey IQ and on-ice vision are all off the chart and he is only going to get better. Away from the puck Ryan displays a good defensive awareness and has the ability to be a complete hockey player.
The Islanders finally have a legitimate number one goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. The 29-year-old went 29-11 with a .911 save pct., 2.40 GAA and 4 shutouts in his first 40 games last season. Halak won 11 straight games from November 5th to December 4th, breaking Billy Smith’s 10-game record. He lost his next two starts, allowing 11 goals against his former team the St Louis Blues. He rebounded nicely by winning his next 7 starts. Jaro was the Isles first-half MVP. The first-time NHL all-star also broke the Islanders record for most wins by a goaltender. Halak became the first Isles goalie since 1975 to shut out the Rangers at MSG. He finished the season with a 38-17-4 record, .914 save pct., a 2.43 GAA and 6 shutouts.
Perhaps Jaroslav Halak’s biggest moment of the year came on April 7th in Philadelphia. The Isles rallied from a 2-goal deficit scoring twice in 86 seconds. New York was two seconds from overtime and securing at least one point. Flyers center Brayden Schenn’s shot just above the left faceoff circle somehow got past Halak and gave the Flyers a 5-4 win. The loss of the point proved to be costly as the Islanders lost the tiebreaker with the Capitals. Home ice advantage proved to be the difference in the series. Halak’s biggest flaw is his puck handling behind the net. It cost them a few times last season including in the series vs the Caps. He seems very indecisive when handling the puck behind the net. It’s something that he needs to approve heading into this season.
Garth Snow signed Thomas Griess to a 2-year, $3 million dollar contract to back up Halak. The 29-year-old went 9-6-3 with a .908 save pct. and a 2.59 GAA for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. The German is the perfect backup. He knows the role of a backup and is very dependable. The backup goalie position was an issue for the Isles last season as Chad Johnson (8-8-1 , .889 save pct., and 2.94 GAA) struggled. Johnson was traded to Buffalo for Michal Neuvirth at the deadline. Neuvirth signed a 2-year, $3.25 million dollar contract with the Flyers in July. Expect Greiss to play about 20 games this season.
There has not been this much pressure on and interest for the New York Islanders in decades. General Manager Garth Snow chose not to bring in any big name talent, either from free agency or trades. He is trusting Tavares and his young core to grow and take the next step. Snow has the cap space to make an addition at the trade deadline if need be. Head Coach Jack Capuano needs to repeat the start of last season in order to stay off the hot seat. The Metropolitan Division will be highly competitive. The special teams need to improve in order for this team to do real damage in the division. If the Hockey News simulation of NHL16 becomes reality, Islanders fans will celebrate. All kidding aside, The Islanders will indeed advance past the first round for the first time since 1993.
Noel Fogelman is a 5-time Emmy Winner and started his career working on the Buffalo Sabres Pre and postgame shows for the Empire Sports Network. He then went to Bristol, CT to work at ESPN on NHL2Night and its coverage of the Stanley Cup. Follow me on Twiter @thefirstnoel19