The rebuild on Long Island is in its... what, fifth year?
I'm not even sure, honestly. I've kind of lost track. But in any event, they're still in the midst of the rebuild in Uniondale, and while things are certainly far from good, there were signs of progress a year ago.
The Isles were in playoff positioning around the New Year, and that alone is sign for optimism. It's no doubt that the team is going to get better from here on out, what with the youngsters in John Tavares, Jack Hillen, Kyle Okposo all expected to do nothing but improve each and every time they hit the ice.
Yes, the future is certainly bright on Long Island, but things just aren't quite there yet. While projected 14th in the East in SB Nation's Preseason NHL Power Rankings, the Isles do have a shot to be better that that. How high can they climb? Well, that depends on a few things... namely, the Five Burning Questions that plague the Islanders as we head for the 2010-11 NHL season.
1. Can Radek Martinek have a healthy season?
Dee Karl, 7th Woman: Drafted in 1999, the 34-year-old Czech has been classified as one of the most underrated D in the league. The trouble is, he just can't seem to stay on the ice long enough to prove it. Since donning an Islander jersey he has played as many as 74 games in the 05-06 season and as few at 16 in '09.
In the last year of his contract, at an affordable $1.5 million, should Martinek be able to play at least 70 games, he will be well worth it. Whether it is bad luck, bad positioning or if he is truly made of glass, each year it's just a matter of time before Radek is out for the season. Last year it was a torn right ACL. Before that it was a shoulder injury that kept him out of the line up. There was a fractured leg (which was frightening to watch), a fractured foot, a broken ankle. Is there a bone in that man's body that hasn't been broken?
So the burning question this season is... will the amount of time spent rehabbing pay off? Was the problem a strength and conditioning issue all these years, or does he just have a black cloud over his head. THAT is the burning question.History dictates those NHLers in the final year of their contract (and looking for extensions) have their best years. However, my personal opinon is -- I'm going for the black cloud. I give him 20 games before he's heading for an MRI on something.
2. Is Kyle Okposo a 30-goal scorer?
Dominik, Lighthouse Hockey: Kyle Okposo is 22 and already logs some of the highest and toughest minutes among Islanders forwards. Among their top scorers with 52 points last year, he's seen by most fans as a potential 30-goal scorer. But he hasn't broken the 20-goal barrier -- yet. Is this the year? He suffered from some tough-luck shooting percentage in 2009-10, but another factor may have been all those minutes he logged. In addition to 4:17 per game on the powerplay, he logged 1:49 per game on the PK. That's a lot of responsibility, without a lot of help. Another year of development for him and leading scorer John Tavares should help, but a key to increasing his production might be in Scott Gordon managing just how much the Isles "go to" their young go-to guy.
3. Is Garth Snow's blueline upgrade good enough for the Atlantic Division?
LH: Garth Snow sought to transform his blueline this offseason, and he certainly did that, adding Mark Eaton, James Wisniewski and Milan Jurcina. But his likely first-choice targets (think Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov types) went elsewhere...within the Atlantic Division. The Islanders finished 7-15-2 against Atlantic foes last season -- that's the kind of swing that keeps a team out of the playoffs. With Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Jersey each making blueline additions, can the Isles improve on that record? Wisniewski is a upper-pair upgrade, Eaton should be a minute-muncher. But on paper their defense is still weaker than their division rivals, leaving it in the hands of the Islanders goalies and young forwards to make up the difference.
4. How many games will Rick DiPietro play -- and will they be starter caliber?
LH: Despite superficial appearances, the Islanders goaltending is actually fine. Dwayne Roloson, though turning 41, has proven to be a durable and still-accomplished starter. But it doesn't make sense to run a 41-year-old into the ground, so a reportedly healthy Rick DiPietro's return is important. The Isles have depth at the position: Nathan Lawson and Mikko Koskinen are pros in Bridgeport, while Kevin Poulin is a hot prospect graduating from the Q.
So the big worry here for the Islanders might not be, "What if DiPietro gets hurt again?" but rather "What if DiPietro proves healthy -- but nowhere near his previous All-Star form?" That's when things would get awkward. Shutting him down for injury reasons is old hat by now. But telling him, "Sorry...you're just not playing well" would be entirely new and awkward territory. If it gets to that, it will be fascinating to watch.
5. Is Matt Moulson really a 30-goal scorer?
LH: The myth about Moulson's breakout year is that it was due to longtime friend John Tavares. That's simply not the case. This was no Rob Brown season. Not only did Moulson pile up plenty of goals without JT's help -- but Tavares' long mid-winter slump may have actually held teammates like Moulson and Kyle Okposo back from higher totals.
So while Moulson's 14.4 shooting percentage was high, it wasn't a departure from what he'd shown in the AHL and in brief NHL stints with the Kings. Rather, it was a reflection of his deft hands around the net, an area he's not afraid to crash. In other words, even if his 30 goals might prove to be a career peak, his production won't be falling off a cliff. Moulson is the real deal.
Be sure to check out a big, in-depth Isles preview over at Lighthouse Hockey. Also, there's an Atlantic Division preview over at From The Rink.