Enough rebuilding, Isles' goal is win now

The Islanders' Michael Grabner shoots the puck in

The Islanders' Michael Grabner shoots the puck in the first period against the Atlanta Thrashers. (Mar. 24, 2011) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

It's hard to remember back that far, but there was optimism around the Islanders at this time last season.

Before the thumbs down on the public arena referendum, before a fourth straight non-playoff season, before a ridiculous spate of injuries, a 1-17-3 skid and a coaching change, the young team was hoping for bigger and better things.

Even with all the indignities the Islanders suffered in 2010-11 -- and it all began in training camp, with Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit lost in a 48-hour span to nearly identical shoulder injuries -- there were good signs, including a 25-21-8 record after the 1-17-3 collapse.

As they prepare to open training camp Friday, the Islanders have reason to feel good about the upcoming season, and challenge themselves to rise above any distractions that might come their way.

"There's been a lot of talk of rebuilding, but I think it's enough rebuilding," said Streit, who missed the entire season. "We want to be a successful team. We want to win. We want to be in a race for the playoffs, to challenge teams. The rebuilding part is over. Now it's time to show what we can do as a team."

The team has a compelling mix of young talent, with John Tavares, Michael Grabner and Okposo all signed to contract extensions over the summer that will keep them in the organization beyond the end of the team's Nassau Coliseum lease, in 2014-15. Okposo, Streit and defensemen Andrew MacDonald, Mike Mottau and Mark Eaton, the last three having identical hip surgeries, are all healthy.

Add in some veteran depth in well-traveled centers Brian Rolston and Marty Reasoner and the Isles have a little more depth heading into camp than in years past.

"You know when you have a young group like this . . . people are going to dump on you," said Rolston, who waived his no-trade clause to come from the Devils for Trent Hunter. "How do you get out of that? You win hockey games. Then you start gaining respect. And you do that on a game-by- game basis, really. It's a good, young group, there's not a whole lot of egos in here. That's probably the most important thing aside from Xs and Os, that guys are tight. It seems like this group is a real tight group."

And in goal, a position that was also plagued by injuries last season -- Rick DiPietro's broken cheekbone, Kevin Poulin's dislocated kneecap -- there will be three veterans fighting for playing time. Evgeni Nabokov, who refused to report in January after being claimed off waivers, adding to the Isles' national punching-bag profile, is in camp, ready to compete for time with DiPietro, Al Montoya and Poulin.

"We have a lot of good competition at a lot of spots," coach Jack Capuano said. "Competition is good, it's healthy. We're evaluating everyone."

THREE QUESTIONS FOR THE ISLANDERS

1. Can they stay healthy?
Before the team had even played a preseason game last season, two of their top three scorers were gone to shoulder injuries. That was followed by three regular defensemen and three goaltenders lost for varying times. The Islanders hired Sean Donellen to be their director of sports performance to help with nagging injuries and conditioning, but the greatest thing they need is luck to avoid the crazy things that befell them a year ago.

2. Who's in goal?
Rick DiPietro is 30 now, but he still wants to prove he can be the team's No. 1 goaltender. Evgeni Nabokov spurned the Isles in January, but he's here on a cheap, one-year deal to try and prove he's still a legitimate NHL goalie. And Al Montoya, who had some nice games last season, is back as well. That's three veterans vying for time, and we haven't even mentioned the true top prospect, 21-year-old Kevin Poulin. This could be a mess or an area of real strength.

3. Will the defense hold up?
The forwards are a young, talented group, but the defense is a puzzle -- three of the projected top six defensemen are 33 or older, and those three (Mark Streit, Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau) totaled 54 games because of injuries. injuries. Expect improvement from Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic, but there isn't a ton of depth on the blue line.

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