Last year, the Islanders came into the season with a bunch of new faces. Over the Summer, they brought in a couple of free agents, and then made the September deals for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk that completely remade the defense. The team then went out and piled up over 100 points and a playoff appearance that ended a bit sooner than many of us had hoped, in the first round against the Caps.
This year, the Islanders made precious few changes to the roster, obviously expecting that a return to health of some key players, and improvement from a bunch of core, young, players would leave them even better than last season. I have no doubt that will happen, but can we really expect them to repeat, or improve, on last season’s results? I’m not so sure.
The reality is, the Metro Division boasts 5 of the top 10 teams in the entire NHL, arguably. The Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Caps and Islanders are predicted to finish in some order in the top 5 spots in the division, and take 5 of the 8 Eastern Conference playoff spots. The Islanders could, quite frankly, wind up anywhere in that mix. They could be on top, they could be the 5th team and have a first round date with a team like Tampa Bay.
Heck, if the team suffers a few key injuries, we could even see them lose out on a playoff spot altogether, while still being a very, very good team. Think about it, the Flyers, if they can keep Mason healthy, could be better, and that will close the gap between 5 and 6. Also, in order for the Metro to get 5 playoff teams, the Atlantic will only have 3. We can assume Montreal and Tampa will be 1-2 over there, but 3rd will be competitive, with a quality Ottawa team along with perennial playoff team Detroit and an up and coming Panther team all involved. For the Metro to have 5 teams qualify, two of those last three won’t make it.
So, while the Isles should be an improved team this season, there are a whole lot of other teams that also improved themselves coming into the season. That makes the whole thing a gamble, but I think there are some keys that will decide the Isles fate:
- Division record. – Simply put, with the top 5 of the Metro as talented as it is, the record against each other will determine the order of finish. Win those games, and they’ll be fine. Struggle against those teams, and it could get dicey.
- Home Ice Advantage? – The Islanders move to Brooklyn this season, into a new arena. Will the atmosphere from the last season in the old barn, follow the team? Will it turn home games into an advantage with a raucous crowd, or will it be a little too quiet, a little too “hipster”?
- Health and Greiss – I have already mentioned how much key injuries could derail a season. It appears the Isles will head into the season with Jaro Halak missing a couple of games. Last season, the Isles did not get very good play in goal when Halak was sitting. Will Thomas Greiss improve on that? How many points will that be worth compared to last season? We’ll find out early, as the team opens with a home and home against the defending champs, without Halak. A full season from Grabovski and Okposo will also help a lot.
- Improvements – The Isles will be counting on consistent efforts and improvements from their core group of young players. Can Strome, Nelson, Lee, Pulock, Mayfield, etc. provide that? Will Petrov eventually be in Brooklyn when there are injuries, and can he continue to impress? If they don’t, I don’t think they can keep up in this hyper-competitive group. Will the special teams actually be half way consistent? They have to be better than they were last season if they expect to go further than they did last season. The future is now for this club, time to keep moving forward.
Will they do it? Again, I don’t really know. My gut says to expect this to be a year where the team improves slightly, but takes a step back in results. But I would not be surprised by anything at this point. The team is talented enough to win the division, and inconsistent enough to not make the playoffs. It all comes down to how well they can execute. My best guess is that they will fall somewhere in the middle, finishing 3rd in the division and hopefully winning a playoff series, but that will also be tough. Whether they win or not may just come down to who they play and how well they match up.
Either way, it’s hockey season. Let’s get it on!