The New York Islanders begin the 2011-2012 season Saturday night when they take on the Florida Panthers at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Islanders once again finished last in the Atlantic Division last season, but were one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference after the All-Star Break. They look to continue that strong play to start off this season.
Last season the Islanders were bitten hard by the injury bug. They lost two of their biggest stars, Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo before the season even began. Okposo came back in late January, but Streit was lost for the season. The Islanders led the league in man-games lost to injury with almost 600. The Islanders have the potential to be a very good team, but need to stay healthy.
The Islanders top two lines have the potential to be very deadly this season, but there is still a question mark for the top line. Last season the first line consisted of Matt Moulson, John Tavares and P.A. Parenteau. Throughout training camp so far it has been Nino Niederreiter with Tavares and Moulson instead of Parenteau. It seemed like that combination would be the top line for the season opener, but Niederreiter has been placed on the seven-day Injured Reserve. So for now it is not known who will be on the top line. The second line will be the combination of Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, and Michael Grabner. That line was the most deadly for the Islanders in the second half of last season for multiple reasons. All three players are fast, great defensively, and can finish. This line may once again be the best line for the Islanders this season.
The bottom two lines is where it really gets confusing. There are multiple possibilities for the third-line combination. Josh Bailey will be at center with Blake Comeau on one wing. The other winger could possibly be Niederreiter, Parenteau, or Brian Rolston who was acquired in a trade with the Devils in late July. If Niederreiter is healthy, the Islanders could place him on the first or third line, and same with Parenteau. If Niederreiter is not healthy, that will most likely mean that Parenteau will be on the top line, and Brian Rolston is on the third line. The fourth line will most likely be Marty Reasoner, whom the Islanders signed via free agency in July, and Matt Martin. The other winger could be Rolston, or possibly even Jay Pandolfo if he is signed from his training camp try-out.
The Islanders are very strong at the forward position. They outscored many teams in the Eastern Conference last season. They should do so again this season.
The Islanders' biggest worry entering this season should be on defense. Currently the defense consists of Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald, Mark Eaton, Mike Mottau, Steve Staios, and Milan Jurcina. Ty Wishart was waived and sent to Bridgeport of the AHL last week. The Islanders do not have the depth on defense that is necessary to make the playoffs. Their defense is also consistently injured. Streit was out all of last season, and MacDonald, Eaton, Mottau, and Jurcina all missed huge chunks of time last season due to injuries. If the defense can stay healthy they can be decent. Hamonic and MacDonald showed great chemistry and poise last season, Staios has looked good in training camp, and Streit looks better than ever. The defense would be in much better shape if they could acquire just one more top-four defenseman. They tried over the summer when Garth Snow traded for the rights of free-agent defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, but failed to get him signed. Ehrhoff ultimately signed with Buffalo.
Goaltending is always a question when referring to the Islanders. Rick DiPietro is the goalie with the big contract, but is always injured. This summer was the first summer in a long time that DiPietro was not rehabbing an injury, but rather just preparing for the season. DiPietro looked great throughout training camp, so that is a good sign for the Islanders. The Isles also have Al Montoya whom they traded for late last season. Montoya looked great down the stretch, and played well enough to earn himself a one-year contract. Then there is Nabokov. Nabokov was claimed off of waivers in January, but refused to report to the team. The Islanders than tolled his one year contract, making him Islanders property throughout this season rather than letting the contract expire in July. Nabokov has reported to camp, and seems to be embracing his new team. However, his play in his few training camp experiences was not very good.
The Islanders also have Kevin Poulin in Bridgeport to start out the season. He looked sharp in goal for the Islanders last season when he was called up before he went down with a knee injury. Poulin will get another chance with the big club eventually, but for now he is better served starting as many games as possible in the AHL.
The Islanders will roll with a three-headed monster in net for much of the season, and that may be for the best. There is always mystery surrounding Rick DiPietro because you never know when he will get injured again. And if he does get injured again, the Islanders have two capable goalies to carry the load when he is down.
The New York Islanders can make the playoffs if they can stay healthy. There will be no shortage of goals for the Islanders, so that will not be a cause for concern. However, the defense and goaltending will be, and that all stems from injuries. The defense can be good if it remains healthy, but if the defense gets decimated by injuries like last season it will be another long season for the Islanders.
My guess is the Islanders will finish around ninth or tenth in the Eastern Conference and will be in contention for the playoffs right to the very end.