30 in 15: Islanders face expectations after making playoffs
Saturday, 09.21.2013 / 3:00 AM
By Brian Compton
NHL continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
No more excuses.
That's the mentality the New York Islanders had as they entered training camp with hopes of building off what they accomplished last season, when they ended a six-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With greater results come greater expectations. With new captain John Tavares leading the way, the Islanders will no longer be able to take teams by surprise. They're expected to be in the hunt for a playoff spot again, which means they need to find consistency from the moment the regular season begins Oct. 4 against the New Jersey Devils.
"I think you're going to have to understand that's what it's going to be like," Tavares told NHL.com. "The more successful you become, the more expectations grow and the harder it gets. No one's taking us by surprise, no one's going to not expect anything from us like they maybe have in the past. It's going to be a challenge. We played good for a good 5-7 weeks there; now we've got to do that for seven or eight months.
"I think we found our identity, and it's getting back to that and knowing that it even has to be raised to a higher level and understanding consistency that needs to come with that.
"I think that mindset has to be there right from Day One. We still haven't had a good start to the season since I've been here, and that's going to be really important for us this year and every year going forward. With the realignment and things like that, it's only going to make things harder for us, so we've got to know it's a challenge. But it's something we should be looking forward to and understand it's part of what it's going to take to be successful and ultimately get to the ultimate prize."
The moment Mark Streit was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, Tavares became the unquestioned leader of the Islanders. The face of the franchise and the club's No. 1 center was a Hart Trophy finalist last season after scoring 28 goals and 19 assists in 48 games.
It appears Tavares will have a different player on his right side for a third straight season after PA Parenteau signed with the Colorado Avalanche in July 2012 and the Islanders opted to not re-sign Brad Boyes following last season. Enter Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract with New York on July 5. Bouchard, who had 20 points (eight goals) in 43 games for the Minnesota Wild last season, said the idea of skating alongside Tavares is what enticed him to sign with the Islanders.
"He's a great player," Bouchard said. "He's an elite player in the NHL. I'm definitely looking forward to playing with him. It's a great opportunity."
Tavares and Bouchard will be joined by Matt Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer who is entering the final year of his contract. Moulson had 44 points (15 goals) in 47 games last season.
New York's second line of Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo showed some chemistry down the stretch last season. Okposo struggled at the start of the season and finished with four goals, but is hoping to build off his strong play in the postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bailey, armed with a new five-year contract, has shown to be more efficient on the wing as opposed to center and could be primed for his biggest offensive season. Nielsen is a strong two-way center who is the Islanders' most dangerous weapon in the shootout.
The third line was a question mark entering training camp, and it's now an even bigger one after right wing Cal Clutterbuck suffered a lacerated leg in a game against the Calgary Flames on Sept. 17. Clutterbuck, acquired in June from the Wild in a trade for Nino Niederreiter, will miss 4-6 weeks. Michael Grabner is slated to play left wing, with a competition for the center spot between 2010 first-round pick (No. 30) Brock Nelson and free-agent signee Peter Regin.
Clutterbuck's injury also could open the door for 2011 first-round pick (No. 5) Ryan Strome to start with New York rather than with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League. Strome had 34 goals and 60 assists in 53 games for the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald will provide grit and the ability to score some goals on the fourth line, giving the Islanders a more balanced lineup than what fans had been accustomed to prior to last season.
"To me, the Martin-Cizikas-McDonald line really was one of our best lines," Capuano said. "They knew their role, they knew their responsibility. They scored some big goals."
The Islanders have a vacancy on their blue line due to Streit's departure, and they will fill it internally after Snow did not sign nor trade for a defenseman during the offseason. Perhaps the most likely candidate is 23-year-old Matt Donovan, a fourth-round pick (No. 96) in 2008 who had 93 points during the past two seasons in Bridgeport. Donovan is battling first-round picks Calvin de Haan (No. 12, 2009) and Griffin Reinhart (No. 4, 2012) for the position.
With Streit gone, Travis Hamonic emerges as the leader and anchor of New York's defense. The 23-year-old is always on the ice against the opposition's top line and is a respected voice in the dressing room. Hamonic, who averaged 22:48 of ice time per game last season and signed a seven-year, $27 million contract in July, said he's ready to take on more of a leadership role.
"One hundred percent, I am," Hamonic said. "I think I've had a lot of growth in my career. I think I've learned a lot and I have a lot more to give offensively and I'd like the chance to maybe prove myself a little bit more in that regard. I know that the team really relies on me defensively, and we have a lot of guys that can play with the puck on the offensive side, but I know that I can definitely chip in.
"As far as being a leader back there, I think I am really ready. This is my fourth year now, and I think it's time for me to really step up and show the organization that I can do it and that they made the right choice in giving me that contract."
Andrew MacDonald, who led the club in ice time per game last season (23:31), is primed for a big pay day next summer should he put forth his usual performance in 2013-14. The 27-year-old has been paired with Hamonic in the past, but Capuano could split the duo with hopes of balancing his defense a bit more.
Lubomir Visnovsky, 37, is the veteran of the group. In his first season with the Islanders, Visnovsky had three goals and 11 assists in 35 games.
Hamonic, MacDonald and Visnovsky will be joined by Brian Strait and Thomas Hickey, each a waiver-wire acquisition prior to the start of last season. Strait (three years) and Hickey (two years) impressed to the point where they were signed to a new contract.
Matt Carkner and Joe Finley are in the mix and will provide depth and a physical element when needed.
It took until the opening day of free agency, but Evgeni Nabokov is back after signing a one-year, $3.25 million contract.
Nabokov struggled in New York's opening-round playoff loss to the Penguins, but his regular-season performance played a huge role in the Islanders' return to the postseason. In 41 games, Nabokov went 23-11-7 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. He turned 38 on July 25.
"With me, 2-3 weeks and it's out of the window. We have to move on," Nabokov told Newsday regarding his playoff performance. "We can't continue to think about what happened last year. Last year is last year; it was a 48-game season, was totally different. That's in the past. Who cares? I don't care."
Nabokov likely will be backed up by Kevin Poulin, who is battling Anders Nilsson for the job. Nilsson missed most of last season with Bridgeport due to illness and seems more likely to be the No. 1 goalie for the Sound Tigers this season.
Poulin, 23, appeared in five NHL games last season. He went 1-3-0 with a 3.02 GAA and .893 save percentage. His workload is bound to increase with the Islanders aiming to keep Nabokov fresh for the stretch run.