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After retooling roster, Islanders believe they are a contender

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

The goal, as stated by everyone from Islanders general manager Garth Snow on down, has been the same the past few seasons: Make the playoffs, win a Stanley Cup.

But there's a bit more conviction behind those goals as the 2014-15 season dawns. Instead of hoping that a few homegrown young players or somewhat-past-their-prime veterans could get hot and carry the Islanders to an unlikely playoff berth, there is genuine belief this season, thanks to Snow's many offseason and preseason moves and John Tavares' drive to get back to his perch as one of the league's best players after an injury-shortened 2013-14 season.

"We're all aware what a disappointment last season was," Tavares said. "Garth was pretty aggressive this summer and the message is that last season wasn't good enough for anyone. We've been building for a long time and it's on us now to take that next step."

Snow began his offseason makeover early, trading a fourth-round pick to the Capitals for goaltender Jaroslav Halak on May 1 and signing the new No. 1 goalie to a four-year, $18-million deal a month later.

On July 1, Snow signed a veteran backup goaltender, Chad Johnson, plus a handful of depth forwards. Out of those, 24-year-old Cory Conacher emerged on the opening-night roster, playing alongside Tavares and Kyle Okposo on the top line.

The next day, Snow surprised the league by inking former Maple Leafs teammates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin to four-year deals, giving the Isles serious depth among their forwards.

And the remodeling continued all the way into this past weekend, when Snow again gave the league a jolt by trading for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy simultaneously, adding two Stanley Cup-winning defensemen to a banged-up young corps just a week before the season.

"There's good things happening here," Boychuk said upon his arrival.

All led by Tavares, whose first season as captain was one he might just as soon forget. Snow traded Matt Moulson, Tavares' longtime linemate and closest friend on the team, to the Sabres along with three draft picks for Thomas Vanek just a couple of weeks into the season. That trade provided a couple of incredible months for the top line but the team continued to fizzle, blowing 15 two-goal leads (2-6-7 record in those games) and getting the league's worst goaltending.

Then came the Olympics and Tavares' first opportunity to represent Canada, but he suffered a sprained knee in the first elimination game, ending his NHL season with 22 games left. Vanek was traded for a pittance compared to what Snow gave up and the Isles ended the season meekly once again.

"It's a new experience being a captain and you learn a lot from going through it," Tavares said. "We had a lot of challenging times last year, so there was a lot of reflecting, trying to figure things out. You're a leader, you're always the one looking yourself in the mirror to try and find solutions and help the team, bring the team together."

Tavares can do that better on the ice than anywhere else. The new additions have slotted longtime Islanders such as Frans Nielsen and Travis Hamonic into better roles, so coach Jack Capuano will have flexibility in how to allocate ice time.

Second-year forwards Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome are starting the season on the same line. Rookie Griffin Reinhart will make his NHL debut on Friday night with key defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Calvin de Haan starting the season on injured reserve.

Ten players will dress for Friday night's opener against the Hurricanes who weren't in uniform when the 2013-14 season began.

"We feel good about the group we have," Okposo said. "It's on us now."

Surgery for Grabner. Michael Grabner underwent sports hernia surgery Thursday and is out indefinitely. Grabner was placed on injured reserve on Monday, so the Islanders were not counting on him in the short term. The recovery time typically is four to six weeks, but Grabner had only a week of training camp, so he could be out longer.

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