Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Here’s part two for the New York Islanders.
2014-15 New York Islanders Part Two
You can find part one here.
While it’s difficult to really tell where everyone will land as the season begins, it’s always fun to make personal projections. The forward core is just about set in stone, especially when you look at the talent that creates an impressive top-9. The fourth and final line is really about who fits into the role on a game-by-game basis, but for the most part there are a few that can make a case for themselves every night. The defense is tougher to go through. There is a top-4 that almost seems certain, but the final pairing and extra defenseman is really a toss-up between 3-4 players and even a few prospects down in Bridgeport. With that said, here are our projected lines for the 2014-15 season.
Brock Nelson – John Tavares – Kyle Okposo
The duo of Tavares and Okposo is quite possibly one of the most lethal 1-2 punches in the entire league. When playing together, there is almost no stopping them. Okposo has shown he can do the job even without Tavares centering him, as seen last year when Tavares suffered his injury. Now with a healthy Tavares, Okposo is as dangerous as ever. Nelson comes into the mix and compliments the line. This trio saw powerplay time together and worked out well, now it’s time to see them get the job done on a consistent level, both on the powerplay and 5-on-5.
Nikolai Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Ryan Strome
No real shocker here. Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski signed with the same team at the same time and they are personal good friends. They mix well both on and off the ice and shared their personal best seasons when playing on the same line. Ryan Strome fits into the equation on the other wing, providing another scoring threat for Grabovski to look for while he stickhandles his way into the offensive zone. Naturally a center, Strome will find himself pushed to the wing in order to make room for the crafty Grabovski, which brings a ton of versatility to that line.
Michael Grabner – Frans Nielsen – Josh Bailey
When head coach Jack Capuano made it clear that Nielsen would not be moved to the wing due to his brilliant work down the middle, it made sense for him to be slotted in the third line center role. On his wings are the quick and feisty Grabner and Bailey, a player who seems to frustrate the Islanders faithful with his inconsistent play. While Bailey may not be perfect, he did show flashes of brilliance last season, which seems to further aggravate the fans. Management will bank on Bailey finding some consistency to his game while Nielsen and Grabner put in their work of puck cycling and utilizing their speed.
Matt Martin – Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck
Crash, bang and boom. Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck will provide the Islanders with toughness and grit while providing something most fourth lines in the NHL can’t — quality hockey. A Clutterbuck-caliber player on the bottom trio shows how promising this team is, offensively speaking. Clutterbuck provides a key source of determination to any line and together with Martin and Cizikas, this line has the capability of causing a lot of trouble for most other bottom lines in the NHL.
Calvin de Haan – Travis Hamonic
As previously mentioned, coach Capuano has already made up his mind on where de Haan will play. He’ll get a nice, long look at the top pair with Hamonic, where the two will utilize their mobility, foot speed, and ability to transition the puck up the ice. They both possess a touch of offense to go with their defensive game, which is a welcoming addition to any potent forward group. Hamonic will look to bounce back from his average season last year.
Thomas Hickey – Lubomir Visnovsky
With Visnovsky back and ready to go, he and the up-and-coming Hickey will be one of the more offensively stable pairings in the Eastern conference, granted Visnovsky is able to stay healthy over the duration of a season. This idea for a pairing could also see the both of them used as the first wave pairing on the powerplay, which would introduce Hickey’s offensive talent on the man advantage at a more consistent level. With Visnovsky to cater to Hickey’s upbringing and help him along the way, this could be the step Hickey takes to reach the next level.
Matt Donovan – Matt Carkner
For Donovan to earn his spot as a full-time NHL defenseman, he’ll need to find that consistency in his offensive game, which doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to rack up points but be able to move the puck up the ice every time the puck hits his stick. Back in the AHL last year, Donovan struggled to find his game before finally locating it in the last dozen games before the season ended. While his spot is nowhere near secure, the idea of a pairing with Carkner could work. Carkner provides leadership on the backend and he can help Donovan progress at the NHL level. If not, Brian Strait, T.J. Brennan and some AHL’ers could be scratching at the surface.
A shot of Bailey, Anyone?
The idea of Josh Bailey starting with the Islanders this year has left some fans less than thrilled. One way to create some room for players in the AHL, like Anders Lee, would be to trade Bailey, but the return would be quite minimal and that is considering there would be a team willing to take on a player of Bailey’s caliber at $3.3 million for the next four years. In a cap crunch world, the Islanders would have to take some salary back and that usually means taking on a player that is in the same situation as Bailey. They won’t get an upgrade at defense for Bailey alone, while sticking him in a package with a high-end prospect would be a large risk to take.
The belief is that Bailey will get off to a much better start and show more willingness to play the system and put up offensive numbers on a third line. If he can manage to, his stock will rise and the chances of getting a good return will increase. Not quality player return good, but at least getting a draft pick or something conditional for the belief that Bailey continues his ways over the next three years following this one. We know, not very likely to happen.
A Spot for Griffin
As complicated as the defense line-up situation may be, it could get even more complicated if Griffin Reinhart is considered in the mix. Drafted 4th overall in the 2012 draft, Reinhart has played five seasons in the WHL to date, all with Edmonton Oil Kings. Reinhart captained the Oil Kings to their first ever Memorial Cup last year, scoring 13 points in 21 games and imposing his large frame while utilizing his mobility.
On any team, a player of Reinhart’s size and speed is sought after. In a perfect world, Griffin makes the jump from the WHL straight to the NHL and turns into an excellent top-4 defenseman for years to come. However, progression of a young, large defenseman needs seasoning and he’ll likely fit into a top pairing role in Bridgeport before seeing time in the NHL. Playing 20-25 minutes a game in the AHL would serve Reinhart well and gives management some time to work out the players currently fighting for a spot. It also creates some competition down in Bridgeport, where Reinhart will join the likes of Ness, Czuczman, Mayfield, Pelech and Pokka.
Should a couple of injuries occur like they did last season, the Islanders only problem with replacements will be who they’ll select, as the possibilities are endless. The present on the blueline may not hold much promise but the future is bright.
Players to Watch:
Nikolai Kulemin: After playing the entirety of his career so far in Toronto, Kulemin ditches the Maple Leafs and dawns the royal blue and orange. After hitting 30 goals back in 2010-11, Kulemin has struggled to come close to that, failing to even hit the 20-goal mark. With a fresh outlook, a new team and a familiar linemate joining on board, Kulemin is a player everyone will be watching out for. Will he live up to his salary and term, justify a possible top-6 role, and hit the 30-goal mark once again?
Mikhail Grabovski: Much like his good friend, Grabovski will also attempt to earn the money he was given in free agency. In the case of Mikhail, his game is easier to predict the outcome of. He is a puck possession player and lived up to that label last season with the Washington Capitals. Grabovski put up a respectable 35-point campaign last year, including 13 goals, and will look to get Kulemin going. Should Strome be inserted onto the other wing, the sky is the limit for Grabovski and the amount chances he can create with two scoring wingers.
Cal Clutterbuck: During the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Cal was traded by the Minnesota Wild to the New York Islanders along with a third-round draft pick for forward Nino Niederreiter. Clutterbuck broke the record for hits in one season back in 2008-09 when he hit the 356 mark, surpassing Dustin Brown’s previous record of 311. He broke the record against the New York Islanders. The record has been broken since then, ironically enough by current Islanders forward Matt Martin, back in 2012. The two will certainly have some fun together if they play on the same trio.
Players on the Rise:
Calvin de Haan
Three players still in their youth and they all are about to take one giant leap in their NHL careers. Calvin de Haan, selected 12th overall in 2009, played 51 games with the Islanders last season and really stepped into his own with each game played. Impressing the coaching staff, de Haan earned his spot on the roster and exceeded expectations. With the coach putting complete confidence into de Haan and placing him on the top pairing going forward, de Haan will do his best to have a break-out season.
Ryan Strome put up three consecutive 30-goal seasons with the Niagara IceDogs back in the OHL before joining the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. A U17 Silver medalist and WJC Bronze medalist as part of Team Canada, Strome has been an effective player wherever he goes. Last season, Strome scored 7 goals in 37 games with the Islanders and earned some experience with the big boys. We fully expect him to crack the roster this upcoming season but, unlike others’ beliefs of him starting off in a bottom-6 role and earn his way up, we pencil in Strome on the second line to compliment Kulemin and Grabovski, adding another scoring threat on their wing. His offensive firepower would be wasted on a line with crash-and-bang forwards.
It was also announced that Nelson would find himself on the top line with Tavares and Okposo, given that line did the team well during their stints on the powerplay together last season. Nelson put on an impressive rookie campaign with the Islanders in 2013-14, scoring 14 goals and adding 12 assists in 72 games. 3 of his 14 goals and a third of his assists came on the powerplay. The 22-year-old will get a full-time stint with the top line and make the most of it. The interesting thing about this situation is that while Nelson thrived and justified earning more minutes and a bigger role with the team, Niederreiter, who was selected in the same draft year as Nelson, had a falling out and was traded for Cal Clutterbuck. Funny in what sense, you ask? Niederreiter was selected 5th overall by the Islanders in the 2010 draft. Nelson? He also went to the Islanders in the first round, but 30th overall.
Players on the Decline
He’ll be back and healthy to start the season and Islanders fans have a reason to be excited for the veteran defenseman to take his place in the line-up and especially on the powerplay. The problem is, how long will his 38-year-old body hold up now that he has gone through so many bumps and bruises? His play will still be good and his offense will be appreciated but for how long until Visnovsky suffers another setback?
Last season, the veteran defenseman played just 24 games due to concussion problems. His first, suffered back in October, sidelined him for 46 games and forced the Islanders to place him on injury reserve. Visnovsky would also miss the remaining 12 games due to more concussion problems. After a career with a handful of concussions, back injuries, and undergoing shoulder surgery, this season could very well be the last for Lubomir Visnovsky. Playing at his age, with his laundry list of accumulated injuries and the idea of Visnovsky possibly playing with a tad of caution in his stride, even if he lasts the entirety of an 82-game season, chances of him reaching his 2010-11 form when he scored 68 points with the Anaheim Ducks is unlikely. The idea of him hitting half of that seems to be more realistic at this point.
A surplus of offensive firepower and upgraded goaltending lead us to believe that the Islanders will make a jump in the standings. They won’t finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, nor will they fall to the basement of their division. The Islanders are a better team on paper today than they were last year. That is a given. The Islanders have depth and tons of it. Just last year, they went for long stretches without the likes of Tavares, Okposo and Visnovsky yet they finished as the 5th best team in the Eastern Conference in terms of shot differential.
Their defense will be their ultimate undoing. With not much improved upon and the possibilities of n upgrade becoming bleaker as we approach the regular season, it looks as though the Islanders will enter 2014-15 with a young defensive core where some players are stuck in roles that they are not quite ready for. As previously mentioned, they are just one top-4 defenseman away from being a playoff team and that also weighs heavily on if Halak will answer the bell and if the Kulemin and Grabovski additions pan out.
As of right now, the Islanders will once again finish on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. The only difference this time around is that they’ll be far more competitive and finish higher in the rankings than they did last year.
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