Just when you thought that the rebuild for the New York Islanders was going well, finally making the playoffs in the 2013 season, the team takes a couple more steps back and falls into the basement of their division, this past year being the Metropolitan Division.
Management for the Islanders didn't help things much in the year, shuffling their feet and gambling on a deal that sent fan-favourite and potential unrestricted free agent Matt Moulson to Buffalo and bringing Thomas Vanek to the island for a look-see at what they had to offer. The deal cost the Islanders a 1st round pick in the process and didn't pan out in the end, as they moved Vanek out at the deadline and got very little in return.
The Islanders season wasn't without their positives, as they saw some breakout years from players they have been banking on for a while, but they were also hit with numerous injuries, which kept the offensive productivity off balance for the better part of the year. As bad as the season looks in the standings, I don't think the Islanders were too far away from being in that Wild Card playoff hunt.
For us poolies, the 2014 season on Long Island was hampered by those injuries, as they hit the better players on the team and reflected poorly in some of those key selections. I don't think anyone should shy away from the Islanders next year, as it was more bad luck than anything. If they are able to build on this past season, they should be back in the race next year.
One of those key breakout players in 2014 for the Islanders was also the team leader in points in the pool, as Kyle Okposo finally made a name for himself. Okposo scored 27 goals and 42 assists in 71 games this year, which was awful close to that point-per-game mark. Okposo ranked 33rd in overall pool scoring, which would make him into a 2nd round pick this year, if we were to have done the draft again, based on this year's scoring. That is a pretty good year, no matter which way you slice it.
Okposo had to pick up the slack, as John Tavares' season ended premature at 59 games, not before potting 66 points and finishing 42nd in overall pool scoring. Tavares has a legitimate shot at being a top 10 scorer in these pools, topping his previous career-high of 14th. Frans Nielsen (58 points in 80 games) had a decent year, finishing 70th, while Josh Bailey (38 points in 77 games) and Brock Nelson (26 points in 72 games) started their ascent into a reasonable NHL career.
On defense, the team also moved one of their better players, Andrew MacDonald, to Philadelphia, leaving a core that includes Thomas Hickey (22 points in all 82 games), Travis Hamonic (18 points in 69 games) and Calvin de Haan (16 points in 51 games). All three players were all highly-touted prospects at one time or another, so the Islanders are now finally starting to reap the benefits of their youth system. Those three may need some veteran help down the line, but that's what the off-season is for.
The goaltending situation on the island wasn't anywhere near where they wanted it to be in the 2014 season, as Evgeni Nabokov, who had 15 wins and 4 shutouts, didn't play near as much, thanks to injury, and his understudies didn't quite fill the bill in his absence. This is something that the Islanders have already addressed in the off-season with the acquisition of Jaroslav Halak's rights.
2015 Pool Outlook
As of May 22nd, the New York Islanders are best described as a work in progress. If you wanted another possible description of how I see the Islanders for the 2015 season... I may sway towards saying that they are just hoping to stay healthy and from there, good things can certainly happen. Of the 17 players I have locked into a position for the coming year, only two of them managed to play in 80 or more games, which means that being healthy is a huge concern for the team.
The Islanders are ripe with potential, but those 17 players, 11 forwards, five defensemen and a goalie, will need some help and this could be a make-it or break-it year for the team's management. After giving away Matt Moulson for next to nothing in the end, the team will need to hit some home runs with some new acquisitions to help this team improve and be a better team to pick from, fantasy-wise. Tavares will be strong, Okposo will remain a question mark for another big year and we'll hope that Michael Grabner can have a bounce back year.
The Islanders did sew up Jaroslav Halak to a new deal in this off-season already, not waiting long after they acquired his rights from the Washington Capitals. The inclusion of Halak should provide this young team with plenty of confidence, making everyone better in front of him.
If you're looking at the youth movement on Long Island, it may finally be a good time to give some thought to Ryan Strome, who came up in the middle of the season and showed some flashes at the NHL level. Strome scored at just under half a point-per game and had to fill in for the injured Tavares, someone he could potentially play with next year. On the blueline, Kevin Czuczman came up and played 13 games and didn't look too bad, while Griffin Reinhart may get a good look in camp, as he showed some flashes at the junior level this year.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Restricted free agency will be the most important look for the Islanders, as they'll have to re-sign Casey Cizikas, Calvin de Haan and Anders Lee from their skaters and they'll have to make some decisions on their goaltending, as Kevin Poulin needs a new contract. The team won't need to spend much here, but it is just work that needs to be done.
As for their UFA's, it doesn't look like Evgeni Nabokov will be back and I can't see Radek Martinek coming back either, both players well over the age of 35.
The 17 players that I have locked in for the Islanders at the end of May are coming in at a cap hit of about $44.3 million, which gives them all kinds of space to play with, as they move to sign on the veteran goalie and really only add a few more players to become whole in the 2015 season.
On May 22nd, the club announced that they will be keeping their 1st round pick for 2014 and they will send their 2015 1st round pick to the Buffalo Sabres to complete the deal for Thomas Vanek and that's probably a wise decision, as the team plans to improve greatly in 2015 and be in no shape to be in the hunt for Connor McDavid.
With that being said, I would be looking for the Islanders to build up their stable on the blueline, trying to find a steady defender that could work alongside Thomas Hickey or Griffin Reinhart down the stretch. This leads me to believe that a kid like Haydn Fleury would be the guy the Islanders may look to, as he has been drawing some rave reviews for his skating and strength.
It has been a pretty slow go for the Islanders in this rebuilding period, but thanks to the steadiness of John Tavares, the Islanders have been able to gain some respect in some circles, including the hockey pool circles. This team isn't too far away, just a couple of keen moves by management and they should be back in the playoff hunt, making the Eastern Conference races all the more exciting.
In offering up a prediction for the 2015 season, I would go so far as to say that the season will ride on the lapels of GM Garth Snow and how he can help Tavares and company. Finding a defenseman to guide his youngsters will be key, as Lubomir Visnovsky doesn't seem to be the guy, thanks to injuries and likely a lack of drive at age 37. If Snow can get a piece or two like this in order for the Islanders this Summer, I think we'll see some real excitement on Long Island and likely some good hockey pool draft picks. Oh yeah, and they'll be in the Wild Card race for the playoffs.