The New York Islanders are set to begin the 2010-11 season Saturday night as they host the Dallas Stars. The Isles are looking to improve on their 79 point season of a year ago and to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
While there was optimism surrounding the club as camp opened, injuries struck during training camp and had a huge affect on the team’s prospects for the coming season.
Top defenseman Mark Streit was lost for six months with a shoulder injury during the team’s scrimmage. Then, Kyle Okposo was lost for 2-3 months after he too, required shoulder surgery. Both players figure prominently on the power play and saw a lot of ice time for the Islanders.
After the injuries, the atmosphere around camp changed. “It’s devastating to our hockey club,” admitted captain Doug Weight. “We lost the highest minute taker of the forwards and arguably our best player in Mark Streit. I thought it was going to be a big year for him. It’s tough, but it makes opportunities for people in every aspect of the game. We’ve got plenty of talent here; we have guys that have grown up. We can’t quit, we have 82 games left. We still believe in this team and let’s put ourselves in great position for when these guys come back.”
The Islanders were already a team with questionable depth. Are these injuries too much for the team to overcome? Time will tell, but the loss of their top defenseman and one of their top line forwards certainly represents a big challenge for this young hockey club.
Here’s a look at the Islanders as we enter the 2010-11 season:
John Tavares returns for his second season. While comparisons to Steven Stamkos may be unfair given their respective supporting casts, expect the former top pick to improve his point totals and consistency from a year ago. Thirty goals and 75 points are not unrealistic expectations for JT as he continues to develop into the player the Isles expected.
Will Matt Moulson match his surprising 30 goal total of a year ago? He may not but don’t think that the Isles’ biggest surprise of a year ago was a fluke. Moulson has very good hockey sense and finds open space down low to get off shots from good positions. If he keeps working hard, Moulson should notch at least 25 goals this year, especially if he remains on the top line.
Blake Comeau finished the year strong and the Isles are counting on him to start this year the same way. When he gives all out effort and keeps things simple, Comeau is capable of being a productive point getter. He needs to maintain consistency. Due to injuries, he will start the season on the top line. This is a chance he needs to take advantage of.
Doug Weight is back and his shoulder is pain free. Weight has always been a very good playmaker and he adds leadership in the locker room. Josh Bailey continues to quietly improve while being overshadowed by Tavares and Okposo. Bailey has great hockey sense and continues to grow into his body. A breakthrough from Bailey may be one season away.
Rob Schremp will start the season on the injured list. He has amazing hands and skills. If he can be more consistent away from the puck, he can be a valuable secondary scorer and power play force. Frans Nielsen has good speed and is an underrated defensive center. Trent Hunter is healthy and the Isles need him to stay that way. He adds grit and the occasional scoring touch. P.A. Parenteau has looked good in camp and should get a shot at some minutes. He has been an offensive force in the AHL but has yet to play well enough at the NHL level to earn a full time job. This is a big chance for him. Top pick Nino Niederreiter may have a chance to stay with the big club due to Okposo’s injury. He will get the nine-game audition and then either returned to juniors or stay with the big club. If he can’t earn top six minutes, the Isles would probably be better off sending him back and letting him develop another year. Jon Sim adds experience and depth while Trevor Gillies adds size and toughness. Michael Grabner, a waiver pickup from Florida, has good skills but needs to be more consistent. Zenon Kenopka adds depth.
The loss of Streit hurts but the Isles have a lot of depth at this position. Garth Snow acquired Milan Jurcina, James Wisniewski and Mark Eaton, three established NHL “D” men. Without Streit, Wisniewski will be asked to do more offensively than ever before. So will Jack Hillen, who has shown steady improvement. A healthy Radek Martinek means a lot to Coach Scott Gordon but can he stay healthy? The Isles added Mike Mottau for depth after Streit went down. Young Andrew MacDonald showed promise last year but will he find enough ice time to continue his development? Bruno Gervais also adds depth. The Isles have eight defensemen on one-way contracts now, with youngsters Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic in the system.
Rick DiPietro is healthy and ready to start the season. The Isles are counting on their franchise goalie, who has shown more maturity after enduring more than two lost seasons due to injury. The duo of DP and Dwayne Roloson give the Isles a good one-two punch in net. But can Rick stay healthy and can he return to the promising form he showed three years ago? If he can, the Isles are in pretty good shape in goal this season with two proven starters.
OUTLOOK: The Isles would have struggled to make the postseason with a healthy Streit and Okposo. Now, it’s a tall order. Goal scoring will still be at a premium although the defensive depth and goaltending have improved. Look for the Isles to miss the playoffs again, with their best chance being if their youngsters all mature enough to take the team to the next level.