2013-2014 Islanders Season Preview, The Goaltending Factor

Our season preview for the New York Islanders continues with a look at the goaltending.

A team can live and die by it’s goaltending or lack there of. Goaltending can steal a game that a team has no business being in, or it can blow a game that a team should easily have won. Anyone who follows hockey understands the importance of the man between the pipes. He can be your extra penalty killer, he can be the game changer at a critical moment, and he can carry your team to the promise land just as easily as fail you when you need him most.

This season, if there is an area that might lead some fans with some concerns, it is the goaltending for the New York Islanders. More precisely, it is a matter of the Who will back up Evgeni Nabokov with a full season of 82 games ahead of us and the Olympics to add to that. So, I will spend the next few paragraphs discussing where the Isles stand when it comes to goaltending, in my humble opinion.The off season and free agency, as it often does, brought us all kinds of rumors, especially when the Islanders chose to close the book on the Rick DiPietro saga by buying him out and cutting ties with him. In particular, there was the talk of Jonathan Bernierd and Roberto Luongo coming to the Isles by way of trades. In some places, these rumors seemed to take on a life of their own, though I don’t believe anyone at Isles Talk actually felt that they were really true.

When the smoke cleared, however, Evgeni Nabokov signed on for another season with the Isles. To me personally, I had believed this to be the most likely scenario, though, of course, I hadn’t been fully certain of it until the deal was announced.

Nabby carried the vast amount of the goaltending load. With Rick DiPietro unable to recapture his past form and Anders Nilsson suffering from an illness that didn’t get identified until late into the season, the Isles had little choice. Kevin Poulin, who acted as Nabokov’s backup once the Islanders sent DiPietro down to Bridgeport, seemed shaky at times, and didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in many people among Islander Country. Nabokov ended up playing in 41 regular season games and finished with a 2.50 goals against average, a 23-11-7 record and a .910 save percentage. During the Islanders stretch run in March and April, he flat out shined, and it can be argued that he often carried the team and kept them in some big games.

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a lot of goals on Nabby in the six games of the playoffs, and Nabokov ended up with a rather unimpressive GAA over 4. It was clear that having played in so many games during a compressed regular season and his age were not a combination that turned out well for the Islanders in the end. This is not at all a knock on #20 either, as he has always been a work horse, and did play a major role in getting the Islanders to the level of success they achieved.

The question this season, though, is how much of the load can Nabokov carry in an 82 game, full season, plus any games he might play for Russia in the Olympics? It is clear that the Islanders cannot expect him to play 65-70 games, as he is a year older and things will not be any easier with the new alignment and the division the Isles will be playing in. There must be a backup solution that the Isles can rely on, and this is probably the biggest “concern” when it comes to goaltending. I have no doubts that Evgeni Nabokov can take the Isles far, but he cannot be relied on to start as many games as he has done to keep him fresh for the playoffs, especially with the Islanders having to play in 18 back to back game situations this season.

Thus, will it be Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson who will be called upon to backup Nabby? That will be the question that must be answered and answered quickly during training camp. Most likely, Poulin will start the season backing Nabokov as Nilsson will be healthy and will need some time in Bridgeport to get his form back. At least, this is the way things look at the moment.

Of course, a lot can change, but Poulin’s 1-3 record of last season, his 3.02 GAA and .893 SV% are stats that must be improved upon. Kevin Poulin will have to recapture his form from the 2011-2012 season when he looked a lot more like the future goaltender of the franchise. Likewise, Anders Nilsson will have to prove himself to be back to full health and also repeat his impressive play from two seasons earlier.

Overall, we know that Evgeni Nabokov will return again to be the #1 goaltender for the New York Islanders. How much of the load he will have to carry and who will emerge as the guy to give Nabby rests is the one factor that could be a critical component for the Islanders. Personally, as long as Nabby gets his games off and whether it is Poulin or Nilsson, I believe the Isles will be fine. However, these questions will surely be answered after October 4.

You can follow me on Twitter, @hockeyblindside

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