Isles Files

Your source for behind-the-scenes New York Islanders hockey news and information.

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Arthur Staple

Arthur Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, college sports, baseball, hockey and football.

Three questions for the Islanders entering training camp

John Tavares of the Islanders grimaces after falling

John Tavares of the Islanders grimaces after falling into the net during the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum. (Jan. 23, 2014) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

1. Who will be the odd men out among the crowded Islanders forward group?

The Isles have 16 forwards with NHL experience beginning camp. Several of them will end up disappointed; those could include familiar faces like Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald. Young talents Ryan Strome and Anders Lee played well at the end of last season but neither needs waivers to be sent to the AHL, which could factor in the final roster up front.

2. Will the Isles' defense improve?

Garth Snow made major moves this offseason, but not on defense. The current plan is to presume that the upgrades in goal, with Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson there, will offset the need for a big-name defenseman. Griffin Reinhart, the team's first-round pick in 2012, has the inside track on a spot, but there are a few teams near the salary cap with spare defensemen if the Isles don't like what they see.

3. Where does John Tavares stand?

At the head of the class, as usual. His high-profile knee injury at the Olympics ended what would have been his best statistical season, but the Isles captain felt he had a lot more to give. He badly wants to lead a winner and his typically relentless work this offseason means he's physically and mentally ready to bring the Islanders into a competitive season.

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It's no longer about rebuilding: It's time for Isles to produce

John Tavares #91 and Kyle Okposo #21 of

John Tavares #91 and Kyle Okposo #21 of the Islanders look on from the bench during the third period of a game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Travel deals

John Tavares was naming some of the Islanders' leaders the other day, by way of explaining how he has plenty of people to lean on in his second season as captain.

Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey are entering their seventh seasons with the Isles. Tavares is starting his sixth. Travis Hamonic and fan favorite Matt Martin are into their fifth seasons.

"We're young, but we've certainly got enough experience," Tavares was saying. He meant it as a positive, but there's the underlying negative: The Isles' core, the one that general manager Garth Snow built up and around after tearing everything down eight years ago, is getting to the point where success has to be part of the equation.

Snow may have been slow to realize that in the summer of 2013, when the Isles' hard-won playoff appearance and hard-fought loss to the Penguins in the first round led to a summer focused more on retaining two of those core players, Hamonic and Bailey, rather than shoring up weak areas through trades or free agency.

After a 2013-14 season that was not just a disappointment but at times a mess, Snow's bold move to acquire Thomas Vanek for longtime Tavares linemate Matt Moulson, plus a future first-round pick, produced nothing in the standings. It then brought very little return when Snow moved Vanek to the Canadiens at the trade deadline.

Another November/December swoon, this one a 2-13-3 slide, left the Isles looking up at everyone in the Metropolitan Division by Christmas.

Tavares was injured in Sochi for star-studded Team Canada, leaving the already flailing Isles without their only true star for the final 22 games. Okposo's breakout season ended 10 games early with an ankle injury. Bailey and Michael Grabner each went 30-plus games without scoring a goal.

It was a bad year for a franchise that has had too many of them in the past two decades.

But there was no complacency this offseason. Snow added roughly $16 million worth of 2014-15 salary-cap money via trade, for new No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak, and free agency; the training camp that begins on Thursday with conditioning tests will be fuller with NHL-experienced players than any other in recent Isles memory.

"It's a great team to play with, a lot of talented players," said Mikhail Grabovski, who signed a four-year, $20-million deal on July 2. "There's players who can win the games."

That is a must. The Islanders bid farewell to Nassau Coliseum and Long Island this spring after 43 seasons; nothing would please the organization and the long-suffering fans more than to cap it with some raucous playoff games.

Charles Wang is also bidding farewell to majority ownership of the team in 2016, with Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin coming aboard (provided the NHL Board of Governors approves the sale) with a minority stake this season and next before taking control.

That likely means Snow, coach Jack Capuano and the rest of the staff need this team to win now and make the mark Snow envisioned when he selected Tavares first overall back in 2009.

"They're looking to push everyone and they expect more from everyone. That's what the message was at the end of the season, that it wasn't good enough and it's not going to be tolerated," Tavares said.

The impending sale, the impending move, the big summer outlay, the ugliness of last season -- it all adds up to a different kind of training camp for the Islanders.

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Islanders' Jack Capuano is looking for players with work ethic

Jack Capuano skates during training camp at IceWorks

Jack Capuano skates during training camp at IceWorks in Syosset. (Sept. 14, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Travel deals

Jack Capuano and his coaching staff have made some changes to the Islanders' style of play, but nothing major. The major changes the Isles need to go from also-rans to contenders will, Capuano said, come from the players themselves, who will need to hit the ice fast when training camp opens on Friday.

"Did we make some changes to our penalty kill? Absolutely. Did we tweak our D-zone coverage? We did," Capuano told Newsday on Monday. "But you can draw up any system you want. If you don't work hard and execute it well, it doesn't matter what you want to play -- it won't work.

"We know what we need to do to be successful. We did it for a large part of our playoff season [2012-13], we did it for the last 20 or so games last season when we were missing a lot of our big guys and had kids who just wanted to work to stay in the lineup. So we can win with our system. We have to have the work ethic to make it successful."

Capuano made one change to his staff, adding Greg Cronin while Brent Thompson, an assistant the past three seasons, returned to be the head coach at Bridgeport. There's been plenty of change behind benches around the NHL -- Capuano is beginning his fifth season with the Islanders, making him the longest-tenured coach in the Metropolitan Division.

And Capuano is relying on the competition among a crowded roster to lift the Islanders out of their perennial first-half doldrums. They have had November swoons the past three full NHL seasons that dropped them from contention early in the season, and Capuano has presided over the last two of those.

"We're going to throw a lot at them the first three days [of camp]," Capuano said. He has divided the camp into three groups and the team has three straight days of workouts before two-thirds of the camp heads to St. John's, Newfoundland, to play split-squad games with the Senators on Monday.

"We have to find out who's going to play the way we need them to play to win us games, period," he said. "I'm sure the guys are well aware of how they need to play and what they need to show us.

"I've talked to a lot of our guys all summer long and they're saying the right things, about how they want to work. Now it's time to show us they mean it."

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Islanders forwards will be battling for jobs

Josh Bailey of the Islanders is seen on

Josh Bailey of the Islanders is seen on the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first period of the NHL hockey game at Nassau Coliseum. (Feb. 28, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

The Islanders haven't been as competitive as they would have liked the past few seasons, save for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. In fact, the Isles were pretty much out of the competition to make the postseason by the midway point of four of the past five years.

So competition is the watchword as the team gets ready to open the 2014-15 season on Thursday when players report for training camp physicals. Garth Snow added seven players with NHL experience this offseason; the only ones who left were Evgeni Nabokov and Anders Nilsson, two of the three goaltenders.

So the skaters, especially at forward, are very much bunched up for camp in an effort to force the winning of jobs for the season rather than the awarding of them.

"I don't know if everybody's a little too comfortable sometimes with their spot, even during the middle of the season," Frans Nielsen said. "Now there's going to be guys in Bridgeport, too, who are just as good as the guys here. If someone doesn't play well, I don't think they're going to hesitate to make switches and call up guys. Guys have to bring it every night or else someone will be here to take your place."

There are obvious Islanders who have their spots locked down. John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, who trained together for much of the offseason, almost certainly will start as top-line mates again. Nielsen, who had a breakout offensive season last year, is written in ink. Same for two of Snow's biggest offseason pickups, center Mikhail Grabovski and wing Nikolai Kulemin, who received four-year deals worth $20 million and $16.75 million to try to recreate some of their good chemistry from four seasons together with the Maple Leafs.

But beyond that small handful, everything is up for grabs. Which means longtime Isles mainstays such as Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner, who slogged through miserable stretches last season -- Bailey went 37 straight games without a goal, Grabner went 32 -- will have to take this camp's challenge and run with it.

"You have to take it that way," Bailey said. "You've got to use it to your advantage, let it motivate you to be better. If someone were to take it the opposite way, it wouldn't work out for them. There's certainly some points of inconsistency I'd like to correct and my goal totals aren't anywhere what I'm capable of or want them to be."

There are some now-seasoned youngsters who are jockeying for spots, too. Ryan Strome and Anders Lee showed enough talent last season to have spots awaiting them, but they are the only two NHL-experienced forwards in camp who can be sent down without clearing waivers. That option could help the Isles relieve a logjam but might not help two rising stars who believe they've done all they need to do in the minors.

Brock Nelson's spot on the Isles is assured after a 14-goal rookie season, but where he fits remains to be seen. He might get a crack at joining Tavares and Okposo on the top line to kick things off.

"Johnny and Kyle are great players. To play alongside them, you have to be precise and on top of your game every minute," Nelson said. "If you're there, there's pressure to produce."

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Jack Skille: I'm a stronger player now

Jack Skille signed with the Islanders in July.

Jack Skille signed with the Islanders in July. (Credit: AP)

Travel deals

Jack Skille is one of a group of new Islanders who probably thought, when they signed towards the end of a busy July 1, they had a better than decent shot to crack an opening-night roster in need of some overhauling.

Of course, that changed by the end of business on July 2. Skille, Cory Conacher, Harry Zolnierczyk and T.J. Brennan all signed on the first day of free agency -- Conacher and Brennan both signed one-way deals for $600,000; Skille and Zolnierczyk signed two-way deals that would pay each of them $300,000 if they're sent to the minors and $750,000 and $650,000 at the NHL level.

Garth Snow went for bigger fish on day two of free agency, adding Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin to a crowded forward group. Brennan is the only defensemen of these four young journeymen, so his roster chances were unaffected; Brennan has also been skating at IceWorks for a couple weeks, clearly trying to get acclimated as early as possible with an eye on grabbing a spot.

For the forwards, though, the Grabovski/Kulemin signings complicated matters. But players like Conacher, who just two seasons ago was the main piece going to the Senators from the Lightning for goaltender Ben Bishop, and Skille, who was the No. 7 pick by the Hawks in 2005, can find camp spots and work almost anywhere.

"Obviously, things change. Sometimes over the course of a season, sometimes over the course of 24 hours," Skille said after an IceWorks skate. "So, for me I'm long enough in my career, I'm not worried about things I can't control. I can't control what management is going to do, what the coaches will do, I can only control what I can bring to the table every day. That's my focus going into camp. I know it's going to be competitive and I'm going to have to earn a job."

Skille had that chance in Columbus last year after spending three seasons each with the Hawks and Panthers. He felt that he was in position to earn a spot with a team on the rise, but Skille was cut after what he called a disappointing camp. He ended up playing 16 games for the Blue Jackets and all six of their playoff games, but Skille still feels he missed an opportunity he doesn't want to miss again.

"I have a lot more confidence, I'm a stronger player in a lot of areas," Skille said. "I'm expecting to have a strong camp, to make a strong showing. I signed here for a reason. I think they're going to give me a good, strong look. A lot of it as a player in this situation, it goes on the coach's trust. You've got to earn his trust right away, get him on your side. That's through smart play, good decisions on the ice and accepting your role. When you consistently do that in practice, in games, you earn the coach's trust. It's a huge piece for a player in my situation."

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'Core four' forming among newest Islanders

New members of the Islanders: Mikhail Grabovski, left,

New members of the Islanders: Mikhail Grabovski, left, Nikolai Kulemin, Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson. (Credit: AP collage)

Travel deals

The newest Islanders have been trickling into IceWorks this week, trying to get acclimated to a new area and a new team. There's a core four of sorts among all the new faces who are crucially important to the team's success this coming season.

Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin have been close since the Leafs acquired Grabovski from the Canadiens in July of 2008. Grabovski was bought out by the Leafs last summer and signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Caps; once last season ended, the two pals had thoughts of signing free-agent deals with the same team, but didn't put too much stock in the idea until their mutual agent, Gary Greenstin, started putting a package deal together and the two wound up with the Isles.

"For me it's easy. He's my closest friend in North America," Grabovski said of Kulemin. "I was kind of surprised. I don't know if I go to the same team, we don't talk too much before. Our families are close, children are close -- it would just be easier for us to be somewhere new, to communicate better."

And both were ready for a fresh start to settle somewhere new. Grabovski is still a bit bruised by the Leafs' buyout -- it came just one year into a five-year, $27.5 million contract -- and Kulemin, a Leafs draft pick who scored 30 goals in 2010-11 as Grabovski's left wing but only 54 in his other five Leafs seasons combined, said he was tiring of the Toronto hockey spotlight.

"I think it's the biggest pressure up there," Kulemin said. "There's 40 media people in the dressing room every day, even in the summer -- it kind of makes big pressure on the players. Every practice you feel like they're around all the time. It can be hard to play for a team like that."

Former Islanders coach Scott Gordon, who was an assistant with the Leafs the past three seasons, told me last year that Kulemin was by far Toronto's best two-way forward. The Leafs have been run through the analytics grinder the past couple seasons and Kulemin's numbers were not great last season -- his Corsi was second-worst among regular Toronto forwards, though he had the second-lowest offensive zone start total among that same group of forwards.

But it seemed more that Kulemin didn't fit with the Leafs' pace-pushing, possession-be-damned style than that his game had slipped. And teaming again with Grabovski may give them both a level of confidence and comfort, especially if (as I expect) Jack Capuano pairs them to start camp.

The other two members of this new gang of four are in goal. Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson are the presumptive Nos. 1 and 2 -- the Isles also signed AHL veteran David Leggio and still have Kevin Poulin under contract -- and both have had winding journeys to the Island.

Halak was traded three times in a three-month span last spring: First the Blues, for whom he'd had three-plus decent seasons, dealt him to the Sabres in the Ryan Miller deal on Feb. 28. The Sabres flipped Halak a week later to the Caps, where he finished the season.

And finally on May 1, the Islanders acquired Halak for a fourth-round pick, then signed the 29-year-old to a four-year, $18 million deal a month later and well ahead of July 1 unrestricted free agency.

"It's always good to get it done early, then you have to focus on one thing, getting ready for the season," Halak said. "Getting your body ready. I was glad it happened so quick, early in the summer. I was glad they traded for me, showing interest in me and obviously it was from both sides."

As for Johnson, the onetime Rangers farmhand established himself last season as Tuukka Rask's backup in Boston. Johnson's gaudy numbers -- 17-4-3 record, 2.10 goals-against, .925 save percentage -- had plenty to do with playing behind the best team in the East. But the 28-year-old's confidence soared and the stellar season earned him a two-year, $2.6 million deal to back up Halak here.

"It was huge," Johnson said. "For me, just being able to get in the door and have a full season under my belt, be there in a backup role. It was huge to get that opportunity and I just want to come here and contribute when I have the opportunity. It was a fun year with the group of guys we had and now I'll hope for the same with this group of guys we have here."

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Training camp starts for Anders Lee, Ryan Strome and other Islanders hopefuls

Anders Lee celebrates a goal during a game

Anders Lee celebrates a goal during a game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place on March 6, 2014 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Credit: Getty Images / Derek Leung)

Travel deals

Anders Lee is still technically a rookie, with only 24 NHL games during two seasons. So his Islanders training camp begins Thursday, along with 26 other Isles prospects who will be at Nassau Coliseum for physicals and conditioning tests before hitting the ice on Friday under the tutelage of Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson.

Ryan Strome is no longer a rookie, having played 37 games with the Isles last season. But Strome will join Lee and defensemen Griffin Reinhart and Kevin Czuczman as rookie-camp participants who may have spots on the opening-night Isles roster if they can have a strong camp and preseason.

For Lee and Strome, the forward situation is awfully crowded. Once the Isles camp begins a week from today, there will be 16 other forwards with NHL experience who require waivers to be sent down to the AHL. Strome and Lee do not need waivers, so they will need to show quite a bit to bump an older veteran out of a spot.

"It really only makes the team better," Lee said of the roster competition. "I really feel I can help the team and if I can make the team better, then I'm in the right spot. I'm going to come in and play my game and hopefully things will fall into place. The end of last year was good, but that's last year. I showed them what I can do, even in a small sample, but I believe I can do that over a longer stretch of a whole season. Just come in, play my game and not think too much about it, I guess."

Lee may have only 24 NHL games, but he has 10 goals -- nine of them coming in his 22-game stint at the end of last season, when John Tavares was out and Kyle Okposo missed the final 10 games. Lee got top-line left wing minutes with Frans Nielsen and Okposo, and he got top-unit power play time. The results were there, with five assists to go with his nine goals.

"I just come in and play hard," Lee said. "I prepared all season for that opportunity last season and when it came, I did my best to take advantage of it. Except this year, I don't want to have to wait. If I come into camp and do what I can, things should work out."

Lee signed his one-year, $850,500 qualifying offer quite willingly. The hope is that another productive season will lead to something longer-term for the 24-year-old who spent three years at Notre Dame before turning pro.

But first, he has a few extra days on the ice to fine-tune things before NHL camp opens. That may seem like a slight to some, but Lee is not one to sulk.

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