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."