5 ways to make Islanders a contender
1 Make a decision on Rick DiPietro
With nine more years to go on DiPietro's deal, a buyout isn't realistic unless a new collective-bargaining agreement allows for amnesty buyouts, and that's not likely to be part of the new contract. So if DiPietro's here, general manager Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano need to settle on a course of action with their oft-injured goaltender, who signed a 15-year contract in 2006 for $67.5 million.
There was too much uncertainty with Evgeni Nabokov coming into this past training camp, and trying to keep three goaltenders happy and working helped contribute to the Isles' 2-10-4 skid that essentially dropped them from the playoff race by December. With Nabokov in the fold for another season and having proved he can be a 50-55 game goaltender, DiPietro would appear to be the backup, at best.
If that's the case, then Snow and Capuano need to make it clear from the outset in September. If Anders Nilsson or Kevin Poulin plays his way into being one of the two best netminders out of camp, then DiPietro must accept not playing.
No one can do anything about his contract now. But that doesn't mean DiPietro, with just 47 games played the last four seasons, can expect preferential treatment anymore.
2 Smarter free-agent choices
The pickings will be slim come July 1, and teams are certainly realizing that, with only slightly above-average defensemen such as Tim Gleason and Nick Grossman being locked up to long-term deals well before free agency. It's hard to see how making a big push for the likes of the Flyers' Matt Carle or the Panthers' Jason Garrison will vastly improve the Isles; the big-ticket guys, such as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, will always be worth pursuing, but are clearly long shots to come to the Island.
Snow has been shrewd in his waiver pickups and minor deals, but the collection of veterans picked up in free agency and via trade (Mark Eaton, Milan Jurcina, Brian Rolston) the last two seasons were mostly duds. The Isles would be better off spending a bit more on a midlevel free agent -- say, Johnny Oduya of the Hawks -- and filling in the gaps with their own prospects than committing to a hodgepodge of vets.
3 Become a draft-week buyer
Draft day and the days preceding and afterward are the time for trades these days. With the uncertainty of a new CBA on the horizon, teams will surely be looking to move some salary, which means a good player earning good money could be had for a pick and a prospect -- the Isles have plenty of both.
Snow would never demolish his build-from-within plan to land a Rick Nash, nor should he. But, as with free agency, now seems to be the time to dangle one of the many prospects the organization has acquired over the recent years for an under-30 NHL player who can shore up either the defense or the forward depth.
4 Stay committed to development
Which means, essentially, that Nino Niederreiter's spot is reserved for Bridgeport, not the Islanders, in 2012-13. He's had a lousy rookie season; many blame the Isles for rushing the 19-year-old, but what really killed his year was the groin injury he suffered after a pretty strong preseason. That missed six weeks felt like six years of development time, and Niederreiter never recovered, nor did the faith Capuano had in him.
Niederreiter can work out his flaws with 19 minutes a night for the Sound Tigers to begin next season. If it lasts the whole season without a call-up, that should be no big deal. The Islanders would be a better team with Niederreiter champing at the bit for a job in 2013-14 than on a yo-yo from the AHL next season.
5 More decisiveness from the bench
Capuano is a placid guy in games, trying not to get caught up in the emotion. To each his own on that front. But he could certainly be more active in stapling passive players to the bench for stretches, something that didn't happen enough this past season.