This is not going to be the usual Islanders prediction preview where I spill the addition and subtraction of players and take a guess as to where the Islanders will land either in the Metro division or the Eastern Conference. Despite how I had warned you in the beginning of August about the drama-filled articles and the lower expectations from basically every hockey media and Vegas betting outlet, I will continue to write that the Islanders are not as bad as many are predicting them to be. I’m hoping that this is the completion of a transitional phase that started last year in the organization and everyone now simply don’t know where to put the Islanders in their predictions.
After going 17-17-8 halfway through the season, the Islanders replaced former head coach Jack Capuano with the current one, Dough Weight. Since the move, the Islanders had gone 24-12-4. Now if you’re a regular to this blog, you know I always go by the point pace which in this case was 107 points and the Islanders finished the season with 94 points while missing the playoffs by one. Now some will say that the players had no pressure since they were out of the playoffs in January. To that I say, false. When a new coach comes in, every player is now on notice and many were playing for their jobs and as the winning continued, they improved their chances of the postseason and barely missed. So the pressure was on the moment Weight took over. What impressed me about the Islanders was that this was not a 10 game or a 20 game span. This was half a season, so there is some merit to what fans saw last year. What you need to ask yourself for this year is: Can the Islanders repeat that kind of pace over the span of a full season?
The Islanders took an “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach this summer and they built on that point pace to make it last a full season. It started with the coaching/personnel overhaul, but these were people who fit into Weights style or philosophy. These coaches have brought with them enough hardware from when they were former players and coaches that I can see the entire Islanders culture getting a restructuring. Excellence is demanded and the “time to win is now” will be drilled into their heads at camp. The Isles made some salary-cap moves around the draft, letting go of Ryan Strome and brought in a winger in Jordan Eberle to play alongside Islanders captain John Tavares and Anders Lee. The Islanders also made a good value trade in Travis Hamonic when he was dealt to the Calgary flames. However, other than that, the team has remained the same.
Over the last few years, there was always a trio of rookies or younger players who the Islanders organization wanted to be a part of the core of the team. The most recent ones were Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome. Lee has shown that he will probably be part of the core for years to come, while Brock Nelson is not a sure thing at this point. No matter what was said about the three-headed goalie monster, if Ryan Strome had put up numbers similar to his rookie season, the Islanders make the playoffs. You can blame the former coach all you want and rightfully so, but thirty points (14pts w/Capuano, 16pts w/ Weight) to end the season on a second line wing just doesn’t cut it. Enter Josh-Ho Sang. When Josh started his NHL career back in March he showed everyone that he was ready for the NHL with his speed up and down the ice and puck handling skills while putting up ten points in twenty-one games. For this season is it realistic for him, if paired on a second line with Andrew Ladd and Brock Nelson, to not only reach his ten points but make up Strome’s lost thirty? I would say that’s a safe bet and you might see more from him. With Ho-Sang as his winger, could Brock Nelson reach the 30 goal mark and over 50 points? It could certainly be possible.
What really intrigues me will be the Islanders third line and who will be centering it. With possible wingers Jason Chimera and Josh Bailey on either side, it should be fierce camp battle between centers Anthony Beauvillier and Mathew Barzal. If Beauvillier makes the team, I think it would be fair to say that he would surpass his twenty-four points he racked up last year knowing he’ll get more playing time over the full season. But, is he good enough for a forty point season? I think you’ll see that Mathew Barzal may have a better chance at that. Barzal has been tearing it up at every level he’s played in and he should be as successful in the NHL if he makes the club this year. Asking 15 goals and 40 points from Barzal really doesn’t seem like a high expectation for him and I think it’s possible. He’s got future second-line center written all over him so putting him on a third line and “learn the pro game” role in his first year may be the right way to go. I believe it’s Barzal’s spot to lose but it would almost be a certainty that Beauvillier would be the first forward called up for a long stretch of games, so I’m looking forward to watching both play in Brooklyn and/or in Bridgeport.
What is really making fans and media outlets worry about the Islanders is the defense. Yes, they gave up a LOT of goals under Doug Weight. However when they lost games, it was epic. Remember that 24-12-4 record? Nine out of those twelve loses occurred when the Isles gave up five or more goals. The Islanders did go 9-5-4 in one goal games so again, epic is a good word for those losses and change was needed. Travis Hamonic did not have a great year to the point that the Isles went 22-7-4 without him. Now please consider that the Isles also replaced Capuano by this point, but the Isles went 1-1-1 during a three-game span in November when there record was 4-6-2 with him. Regardless, it’s safe to say that Hamonic was a non-factor last season. There’s no better time for Ryan Pulock to join the Islanders to replace one bad year from Hamonic. Having picked him myself in the 2013 Islanders mock entry draft and watching him progress, I can write with confidence that his overall defensive game will be better than Hamonic’s bad season last year. Yes, we can talk all we want about the slap shot, but he has more tools than that and notching the same fourteen points Hammer put up last season should be done by New Years for Pulock. Hamonic’s best point producing year was the 2014-15 season where he notched thirty-three. I believe that will be Pulock’s bench mark for this season. I think with a two-goalie system and certain progressions from players like Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield, this is basically the same defensive core that went to the second round of the playoffs two years ago. Nothing has drastically changed for me to think this team is on the verge of collapsing.
So what am I looking forward to as the Isles embark on this new season? I’m looking for a new core of young Islanders to emerge to help the Captain get beyond what others couldn’t do before. Over the last year the Islanders have completed the transition from Jack Capuano to Doug Weight; from Kyle Okposo to Josh Ho-Sang; from Travis Hamonic to Ryan Pulock; from Brian Strait to Scott Mayfield (sarcasm, but not hahaha) and from Frans Nielsen to Mathew Barzal (hopefully this year). Yes, the emergence of Anders Lee and the arrival of Jordan Eberle will make the first line a force. However, I can see all four lines doing damage and going on tears of their own as the season progresses all while watching a new core of young players grow in front of our eyes while experienced players like Tavares, Eberle, Ladd and Chimera, all help to push them to another level and as we’ve seen in recent playoffs, anything is possible. I’m hoping that there is also a new kind a transition: a cultural one. Many have the Islanders out of the playoffs because they are the Islanders. That kind of culture needs to be destroyed and never come back. It’s been around for too long and it needs to be expunged. Will this be the start of it? Like many fans who have been through a lot, their answer is “I’ll believe it when I see it” or “When Garth Snow is fired!” That’s fine. My hope for this season is that your mind-set and more importantly, your heart, gets reassurance that the Isles are on to better days ahead and that instead of “I’ll believe it when I see it” you’ll simply say “Yes! Yes! Yes!”