With the New York Islanders heading into another off-season without a playoff berth, the team will look to solidify its young core through the NHL draft, trades, and signings of free agents. (Robert Kowal/Flickr)
While the Isles might not be fortunate enough to land Nail Yakupov in this year's NHL Entry Draft, the team should focus on trying to scout the best defenseman out of this year's draft. Names like Trouba, Dumba, Rielly, Murray, and Reinhart are headlining the list of premier d-men that will be available to the Islanders come draft day in June.
Drafting a young defenseman will probably be the right choice for the Isles, but one can't simply ignore that New York has holes to fill for the 2012-2013 NHL Season. Mike Mottau, Milan Jurcina, Mark Eaton, and Steve Staios tried to do their jobs as veteran rearguards, but it was painfully obvious on certain nights that the Islanders' d-men were simply outmatched. If the Islanders want to stay in contention in a highly competitive Atlantic Division, then General Manager Garth Snow must exhaust all of his resources toward signing or acquiring a top 4 defenseman.
After allowing seven goals in an onslaught of a hockey game, the final buzzer at the Nationwide Arena would not only sound the ending of a massacre, but also signify the end of what was a disappointing season for the New York Islanders.
It was a disappointing year for many reasons. With the rebuild entering its fourth season, many expected this team's fortunes to change. For plenty, that meant making the playoffs instead of falling into the draft lottery. For yours truly, that meant climbing out of the cellar but not high enough to reach 8th place. I am sad to say that we were both wrong. The Islanders finished the year out of the playoffs and 27th overall in the league, giving them the fourth overall pick going into Tuesday night's draft lottery for the second year in a row.
On paper you can call the 2012 season just the same as any other. At 14th place in the Eastern Conference, the Isles finished the season with a 34-37-11 record with 79 points. That's only a six point improvement over last season and the SAME exact record as the year before that in 2010. It would almost appear that the rebuild has established a trend of not going up or down, but rather staying put.
The rebuild is only four years old, and although I use the word, "only," I understand how long that it has actually been for the loyal fans who continue to come out and support this team, waiting for them to finally return to glory. But the fact of the matter is that these things take time - a lot of time.
The St. Louis Blues are a prime example. They have only made the playoffs once since the lock out and are now finally poised to make a serious run for the Stanley Cup for the first time since Chris Pronger was on the team. President John Davidson has been building them through the draft while signing veteran free agents, much like what the Islanders have done. And the free agents they have signed haven't exactly been guys in their prime, such as Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. They also had trouble scoring goals for a long time as well. But finally, things are starting to fall into place and they are on the brink of becoming a power house hockey team in the Western Conference.
The Isles, much like the Blues, are still building toward that stature. But one thing is for certain; the Islanders farm team next season is going to play a major role in the rebuild.
It's hard to predict the roster for 2013 when 2012 hasn't even finished yet, let alone the fact that Garth Snow hasn't decided which of his impending UFA's will be brought back. Free agency is still a far away fantasy as well. But for some hockey players currently wearing Islanders uniforms, the immediate future has been fresh in their minds for quite some time.
Players like Casey Cizikas, David Ullstrom, Dylan Reese and Nino Niederreiter will be looking to make some lasting impressions on the coaching staff over the next seven games that will close out the Islanders' season. The first three will more than likely be sent back to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers once the NHL regular season ends in order to assist the farm team with their playoff run.
Yesterday the New York Islanders announced that goaltender Evgeni Nabokov will remain an Islander through the 2013 season after signing a one-year contract extension. According to TSN, the contract is worth $2.75 million, a more than reasonable price for his services.
I've had the pleasure of talking with Travis Hamonic several times throughout my years with the NYI Blog Box. I've actually been in touch with him since his days in the WHL, then with the Moose Jaw Warriors. If you read my interview with him when he was only 19 years old and still hoping to make it to the NHL, you would see that this kid had plenty to say before he was earning a professional paycheck.
Not much has changed with the one that everyone calls, "Hammer." He's just a kid living the dream that loves to play hockey. To be honest, judging from my time spent in the locker room, he is easily, if not the biggest heart and soul player they have on that team. He always wears his heart on his sleeve and is quick to defend his team on the ice, and with his words. I remember asking him once what "the problem" was with his team's play, and he was quick to turn that around and say there aren't any problems, just areas that went wrong that could be fixed. He bleeds orange and blue amongst the best of them.
It shows merit to the Islanders scouts and management, who have not only done a good job of drafting young talent, but finding character guys with leadership qualities as well. That's why Hamonic has become one of Snow's best draft moves in 2008.
I have said that I believe it would be better for the Islanders to finish between 10th and 12th place in the Eastern Conference as opposed to going the 'Fail for Nail' route and trying to get a top-five lottery pick for this summer's 2012 Entry Draft. But if the season ended today, the Isles would go into the lottery with the fifth pick in the draft. Although that is the least likely position to be in when hoping to move up to number one, the Islanders are almost guaranteed to at least have a selection in this year's top 10 class.
With the playoff picture painting itself out on a permanent canvas over the next two weeks, let's put ourselves in the shoes of some NHL scouts and take a quick glance at what the Islanders will be looking at in between game 82 and draft day.
Nail Yakupov is the clear choice for first overall, having a lot of Alexander Ovechkin comparisons made about his play. After Nail comes Mikhail Grigorenko, who has often been compared to Evgeni Malkin. Both of these Russian prospects will probably be out of the Islanders grasp barring a significant change on the day of the lottery. After these two goal-scoring forwards lie plenty of top-rated defenseman.
Many were immediately calling for the removal of head coach Jack Capuano at the start of the season once the New York Islanders' record began to slip from 3-1 to way below .500. However, there were some, like myself, who argued that it was premature to blame the coaching staff for the poor start due to the fact that the roster from last season hadn't changed much and for the other simple fact - the season was still young. (Photo Credit: Robert Kowal/Flickr)
Since then, the Islanders have managed to be a consistent below .500 team for the year. They have come close on a few occasions from jumping over the hurdle but would then find a way to take two steps back after taking one step forward. This past week has been the most disheartening of the year for Isles fans in relation to how the team has continued to perform. Not only have they lost games, but they have done it with such depression that even the U.S. economy cringed.
Three of the last eight games saw the Islanders either blow a three-goal lead or lose the game in the final few minutes of the third period. It started when the Islanders went into the second period against the Washington Capitals with a 2-0 lead on February 28th. The Caps would score two goals in the final three minutes of the game and then go on to have Alexander Ovechkin score the early game winning goal in the extra frame. The Islanders also had a 1-0 lead against the New Jersey Devils just this past Saturday, only to see their opponent score two goals just 14 seconds apart in the final two minutes of the hockey game. And most recently, the Islanders blew a 4-1 lead last night against the Caps to lose 5-4 in the shootout.
There's John Tavares with 66 points, just one goal/point shy of tying his career high from last season; there's Matt Moulson with 58 points, continuing his increased season output this season so far by five points; and of course there is P.A. Parenteau with 61 points, having the best season of his NHL career being tied for fifth in the league for assists (46) with Evgeni Malkin. And after that?
Well there's Mark Streit with 36 points, likely to finish 10 points less than he did two years ago. Streit has had his most disappointing season in an Islanders uniform. He's a -23 and only has two power play goals this year. He had nine and ten in his previous two seasons, respectively.
There lies your biggest problem heading into the end of the season. The Islanders offense was expected to be one of the team's bright sides going into 2012. To the contrary, they have the third worst offense in the NHL and have suffered a major drought when it's come to secondary scoring.
The playoffs might be further out of sight, and the reality that the Islanders aren't a playoff team has become more and more apparent with every weakening loss, but this is not the time to "fail for Nail."
Nail Yakupov is considered to be the obvious choice for the number one overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The 19-year old Russian sniper scored 101 points (49 goals, 52 assists) in 65 games played for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. He currently has 31 goals and 37 assists for 68 points for Sarnia and is a +14. The Islanders, like every other team in the NHL, could certainly benefit from having another scoring winger added to their line-up.
So why do I say that the Islanders shouldn't look to drop in the Eastern Conference standings?