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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

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."

New York Sports