The Islanders made some changes, but they don’t want to change the direction in which they’ve been headed the past two seasons.
Gone are Kyle Okposo, their second-leading scorer the last three years; Frans Nielsen, the do-it-all center, and Matt Martin, the heart and soul of the team. That’s a collective 1,573 games of Isles-only experience out the door, just a few months after the team won a playoff series for the first time since 1993.
Garth Snow brought in three veteran forwards to replace those three. Andrew Ladd brings five years as a captain and two Stanley Cup rings; Jason Chimera has 16 seasons and 20 goals a year ago with the Capitals under his belt, and PA Parenteau brings back his good chemistry with John Tavares, albeit from five seasons ago.
What the Islanders need to keep their upward trajectory in the packed Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference is to have their familiar faces reinvigorated. Tavares had a sluggish first half of last season before turning it on late and into that six-game series win over the Panthers. Now in his eighth season, Tavares wants more from himself and more from a team that has back-to-back 100-point seasons but still appears a notch below the Capitals and defending Cup champion Penguins in the division.
“We lost three guys that meant a lot to the organization, not just with what they brought on the ice but with the type of people they were,” Tavares said. “But we certainly added some quality players and some quality people in their own right. I think those three can have a big impact.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Outside of Tavares, who was one of the true stars of the World Cup and is always the focus here, the Islanders need improvements over last season from three young forwards: Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. Nelson was second on the team with 26 goals but faded down the stretch and in the playoffs. Lee dipped from 25 goals in 2014-15 to 15 a season ago. Strome had a miserable season that bottomed out when he was a healthy scratch in the playoffs.
All three will figure in the Islanders’ offense, particularly with Snow and Jack Capuano deciding that Strome should be back at center. He and Nelson will anchor the middle two lines, which must support Tavares’ efforts and draw some attention away from the captain.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
The three new forward additions are all 30 and over, but there are potentially a couple of real kids who could be around next week and beyond. Mathew Barzal, the 16th overall pick in 2015, and Anthony Beauvillier, the 28th pick the same year, have played well in camp and the two 19-year-old forwards may have roster spots on opening night.
Beauvillier has shown the sort of versatility the Isles lost with Nielsen — the 5-foot-11 youngster has played center and wing, killed penalties and worked the power play. Barzal has higher-end skill but is strictly a center for now, which is a crowded spot.
Joshua Ho-Sang had a stellar training camp and will start the season in Bridgeport, but here’s betting he’ll be back before too long. “Some nights he was one of our best players in the exhibition games,” Capuano said.
1. What’s happening in goal?
Jaroslav Halak had the most important World Cup of any NHLer, backstopping Team Europe to the final and restoring the Isles’ faith in him. Thomas Greiss appears set to return to the backup role he was signed for. J-F Berube, who got the bulk of the preseason work in camp, is still stuck as the No. 3. He may end up on waivers to break the logjam, but it seems the three-goaltender situation from last season is still a reality.
2. HAVE THEY SOLVED THEIR BREAKOUT ISSUES?
Certainly the Isles have been working on it these past two weeks. Transition out of the defensive zone is key and the defensemen who struggle with the first pass aren’t going to play — decision-making was a key reason Scott Mayfield was sent down and that Ryan Pulock may not start opening night.
3. HAVE THEY SETTLED SPECIAL TEAMS UNITS?
The Isles appear to be sticking with four forwards and Nick Leddy on the top power-play unit, with Ladd taking the net-front spot. Chimera has replaced Nielsen on the penalty kill and Nelson and Josh Bailey are getting regular PK work in camp.
BREAKING DOWN THE LINES
The top line since Ladd and Parenteau signed on in July, Tavares may be hoping it works to keep from the cycle of wingers he had last season.
Strome did not have a superb camp and the pressure could be on with Barzal hanging around.
Beauvillier/Alan Quine-Nelson-Josh Bailey
Beauvillier’s well-rounded game has been the biggest surprise of camp.
Nikolay Kulemin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck
The new fourth line, with Kulemin replacing Martin as the big body clearing space for CC and CC.
Thursday at Rangers
TV: MSG, MS+2
Radio: AM 970
CIRCLE THESE DATES
Oct. 30 vs. Toronto
Dec. 4 vs. Detroit
Dec. 23 vs. Buffalo
Those are the homecomings for Martin, Nielsen and Okposo. Expect video tributes and loud support for three long-serving Islanders who played well through the bad times and helped get the team out of the darkness
— Travis Hamonic needs five games for 400, a number few thought he’d reach after his trade request a season ago that he rescinded in May.
— John Tavares needs 29 points for 500. He’d be the first Islander to hit that mark since Pat Lafontaine during the 1990-91 season.
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