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. Today, the New York Islanders.
2013-2014 Season Recap
The New York Islanders ended a five year drought by making the Stanley Cup playoffs in the lockout-shortened season just two years ago, but one year later they fell right back into the bottom, finishing dead last in the Metropolitan Division.
Finishing with a 34-37-11 record, the Islanders had an inconceivable mountain to climb with several road blocks thrown their way. An ordinary defense, shaky goaltending and a number of injuries to key contributors are just a few factors that led to the Islanders demise.
No injury hurt the team more than the torn MCL John Tavares suffered while in Sochi as part of Team Canada during the Winter Olympics. The injury forced Tavares to miss the rest of the tournament and the remainder of the NHL season as well. Despite the Islanders posting a 12-7-3 record without their star forward, the Islanders never reached the post-season.
Winger Matt Moulson was traded to the Buffalo Sabres along with a 2014 1st round pick and a 2015 2nd round pick for goal-scoring winger Tomas Vanek. The trade came as a shock at first, given Moulson’s popularity on Long Island and his love for the city, but the fans embraced Vanek and his nose for the net. While the trade worked out well during his time with the Islanders, he scored 44 points in 47 games, the end result was a disaster.
With the trade deadline looming and Vanek unwilling to re-sign with the Islanders on a long term contract, Garth Snow made the decision to trade the player he traded Moulson for. Playing the waiting game worked against Snow and he had to settle for a trade with the Montreal Canadiens, sending the 30-year-old to La Belle Province with a conditional 5th round pick for prospect Sebastian Collberg and a conditional 2nd round pick.
The youth on defense mixed with veterans like Lubomir Visnovsky and Matt Carkner was a breath of fresh air, despite it being the weak link to the Islanders game. By the end of the season, 12 defensemen had suited for the team, including prospects Scott Mayfield (21), Kevin Czuczman (23) and Aaron Ness (24). Thomas Hickey (25) provided 22 points in 82 games, which is impressive considering he saw little time on the powerplay and was still second in scoring for defenseman on the team behind Andrew MacDonald, who is now a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The goaltending on the team was another story. Starter Evgeni Nabokov sported a 15-14-8 record with 4 shutouts but only started 40 games. Nabokov was sidelines by a few injuries, namely a groin injury that put him on the shelf early on for 11 games and a lower-body injury suffered in January during a game against the Dallas Stars. The 38-year-old surrendered his crease to the tandem of Kevin Poulin (11-16-1) and Anders Nilsson (8-7-2) to make up for the remainder of the season. With the aforementioned defense being sub-par, the Islanders never had much of a chance regardless of how potent their offense was, with or without Tavares.
A terrible finish to a season always has a silver lining and for the Islanders, it came in the form of a 5th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. With a crop of defensemen in their system already, Garth Snow and his organization opted to select forward Michael Dal Colle, who is largely known for is incredible stick-handling ability. The Islanders also picked up a young man who is never afraid to speak his mind, Joshua Ho-Sang, further improving their depth up front within their prospect pool. To read a full prospect report on both Dal Colle and Ho-Sang, check out the articles published by our very own Ben Kerr.
Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 New York Islanders
A major revamping occurred with the Islanders during the off-season. At every position, changes were made for the 2014-15 season.
Starting at the forward group, head coach Jack Capuano made it clear that winger Brock Nelson would get a shot on the top line with captain Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Nelson has some chemistry with the line, as he played with them on the powerplay, so the potential is definitely there. Frans Nielsen, whom many wanted to see get a shot on the wing, will be sticking to the center position. “Frans is one of the smartest players in hockey. And he thinks the game as a center,” Capuano explained when asked about Nielsen’s role with the team. The question is, does Nielsen become the second or third line center?
The major reason for that question is the dual signings the Islanders made during free agency. It came as a shock to the hockey world when it was announced that both Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin had signed with the Islanders. Not because they both signed together with the same team, that was expected by most, but their decision to sign with the team that they did. It made sense. There were openings in the top-6 rotation and both Grabovski and Kulemin are likely to find themselves in that role, maybe even together on the same line.
On defense, the major upgrade is the presence of Calvin de Haan, who will be paired with Travis Hamonic this upcoming season, according to Capuano. A healthy Visnovsky will add some stability on the blue line, especially their powerplay where Visnovsky is their bread and butter. Hickey, who we mentioned put up 22 points last season, will hope to get his turn in the rotation on the powerplay as well. Then the likes of Matt Donovan, Brian Strait and T.J. Brennan will all be competing for a spot in the defensive pairings, with likely one spot available.
At the goaltending position, a complete overhaul was accomplished. Nabokov signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, leaving the number one spot open for business. Without confidence in Nilsson and Poulin for their ability to provide stable play for the Islanders, Garth Snow went out and found himself a new starter, trading for the rights to Jaroslav Halak. The Slovakian Sensation posted a 29-13-7 record last season, split with the St. Louis Blues and the Washington Capitals. Chad Johnson, formerly with the Boston Bruins, was also brought over to create an excellent tandem. The duo establishes a perfect balance in goal, possibly masking the defensive flaws on the team.
The Kulemin-Grabovski Connection
It’s no secret that the Islanders management overpaid for both Kulemin and Grabovski. During free agent frenzy, it always happens. The Florida Panthers, for instance, handed out a few overvalued contracts themselves. The Calgary Flames gave Deryk Engelland a contract that is worthy of years of torment. Yet when you look at the team the Islanders were last season and you inject Kulemin and Grabovski, who both signed 4-year deals, into the top-6 and stick Halak in goal, the team is miles better than they were last season.
Kulemin and Grabovski have tons of chemistry together. During their years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two forwards played together and shared their best campaign on a line completed by Clarke MacArthur in the 2010-11 season. Kulemin was a 30-goal scorer that year, which was several steps above his 16-goal season the year before, while Grabovski centered the line and ended up with a 58-point season. Following his disappointing run in 2012-13, Grabovski was placed on waivers and bought out by the Maple Leafs. Kulemin’s numbers, as a result of the trade, dropped as well.
Re-united and it feels so good? We think so. If both Kulemin and Grabovski can re-kindle their 2010-11 form, they’ll be an unstoppable force with the Islanders. Last year, Grabovski was easily the Capitals best puck possession player. His crafty stick-work and vision are a prime reason why he is so good in the offensive zone. Kulemin, a solid two-way winger, can play either side which provides versatility when constructing lines. He can play up to his 6’1, 225 pound frame and he is a smart player. Finding open ice is natural for him and provided he plays with Grabovski, receiving passes will come just as naturally.
Together on a second line, Grabovski and Kulemin give the Islanders that 1-2 punch on a second line that they will be more than happy to have. It creates a deep top-6, perhaps one of the deepest in the NHL. On paper, that is. On the ice, it will be up to the two Gary Greenstin clients to prove their worth and live up to their hefty contracts.
The Collberg Report
When Garth Snow traded Thomas Vanek at the deadline, he became somewhat of a laughing stock for the remainder of the season. That comes as no surprise when you remember he had to give up a first-line winger, a first and second round draft pick just to obtain his services. So when all he was able to muster up was a prospect and a conditional second round pick, many eyebrows were raised.
Just like every bad scenario, this one came with a glimmer of hope; Sebastian Collberg. Within the Montreal Canadiens organization, Collberg was an expendable asset. With Sven Andrighetto, Charles Hudon and Arturri Lehkonen already in the system, the Canadiens had their fair share of skilled, undersized wingers. Add to the mix that these three wingers were surpassing Collberg in development, combined with Collberg’s struggles in Sweden, and the Canadiens were comfortable in letting him go.
Collberg played for Frolunda HC for a few years and his playing time was inexplicably low. Often stapled to the bench to watch the game before him, Collberg saw ice time that represented a goon more than a sniper with good vision. After signing a three year Entry Level Contract with the Canadiens, Collberg finished up his contract extension in the SHL before finally being able to move on. Collberg will have the opportunity to come over to North America and play for Bridgeport in the AHL this upcoming season.
Collberg projects to be a top-6 winger at the NHL level. He possesses an accurate and lethal wrist shot, good skating and a willingness to get his nose dirty in the corners. His downside is his size and lack of two-way play. Defensively, Collberg can stand to learn more while adding some weight to his frame in order to keep his balance.
With the goaltending situation looking up after the Halak and Johnson signings, the glaring weakness of the Islanders is on the blueline. With not much improvement outside of possible full-time promotions of a few young guns, the Islanders defense won’t look much different from their 2013-14 form.
The welcoming back of Lubomir Visnovsky will be largely appreciated on the powerplay. Last year, Visnovsky had a rough time remaining healthy and was relegated to just 24 games, amassing 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists). A fresh start could bring him right back to his point producing ways. In regards to points, Thomas Hickey will look to add his presence to the powerplay. His solid play and offensive capability led him to a 22-point campaign last year and he only received a handful of minutes on the powerplay. Look for boosted time on the man advantage for Hickey.
Then you have Calvin de Haan. Promoted to the Islanders club last season, de Haan played 51 games in the NHL. His offensive upside did not show as much as everyone had hoped, still he managed 16 points, including 2 even strength goals and 1 on the powerplay. De Haan’s fluid skating was appreciated by the coaching staff, enough to believe he can be a top pairing defenseman this upcoming season. He’ll get his chance alongside Travis Hamonic.
Outside of the top-4? It’s quite the log jam. Plenty of possibilities arise for the bottom pairing role and even the 7th defenseman spot. Despite the departures of Radek Martinek and Andrew MacDonald, there is still a crop of defensemen ready to chomp at the bit. Among them are veteran Matt Carkner, Brian Strait, T.J. Brennan and Matt Donovan. Even Griffin Reinhart’s name has come up into arguments, the same goes for Kevin Czuczman. With only a few spots open, some will find themselves down in Bridgeport or watching from the press box.
The quantity is there, but the quality is suffering. Visnovsky’s health is questionable. Time will only tell how de Haan pans out in a top pairing role and the Islanders are also banking on Hickey to replicate his offensive numbers on a grander scale. It’s a whole lot of question marks before the season has even started. The belief is the Islanders are a team that can contend for a playoff spot once they add another top-4 defenseman into the mix. Until then, their results will be hindered by the lack of a consistent defensive group.
After a miserable season butchered by injuries and playing on a team with sub-par defense, Nabokov said thanks but no thanks and signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. His numbers from the previous season led the Islanders to believe that Nabokov could be like fine wine, looking better as he got older. He had the stats to back it up as he posted a 23-11-7 record with a .910 save percentage. Those days came and went and the following year, along with injuries, his overall play dropped and his age started to show signs of regression.
Poulin and Nilsson did their best to keep the Islanders afloat but, at the end of the day, they were two AHL goaltenders playing the part of NHL goaltenders and they were failing. Nilsson looking a shade better, however neither were able to solidify the role as an NHL starting goaltender.
That’s where Halak comes in. The 29-year-old Slovak has had an up-and-down career since leaving the Montreal Canadiens back in the 2009-10 campaign. Habs fans will remember him best for his stellar performances in the post-season against both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, two playoff series’ that saw him get bombarded with shots every game. In his four seasons with the St. Louis Blues, Halak managed to make the post-season just once and went through his fair share of injuries while battling for his spot as number one against Brian Elliott.
There is still hope for Halak. He possesses the qualities of an above average goaltender, especially when he receives consistent starts as a number one goaltender. He’ll have his hands full backing the Islanders defense but he found himself in a similar position four years ago with the Canadiens, a city where he flourished. He’ll need to use every last part of his body to keep the puck from going into the net but, luckily for the Islanders, he is more than willing to do that job.
Playing back-up, Johnson is an upgrade over both Nilsson and Poulin at the NHL level. With the Bruins last year, Johnson started 27 games and posted a 17-4-3 record. Earning two wins via shutout, Johnson’s .925 save percentage is a smudge better than Halak’s .921 save percentage. Considered to be one of the better back-up goaltenders in the league, some can even make the argument that he could overtake a few starting jobs in the NHL right now. He’s been passed around a few times, from the New York Rangers to the Phoenix Coyotes, and he made his place with the Bruins last year before signing with the Islanders this off-season.
With a younger tandem that harbors better statistics and overall shows better promise than the trio of goaltending iced last year, there is hope yet.
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