The New York Islanders failed to build off their appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013 and finished in the bottom five of the NHL standings last season. General manager Garth Snow has spent this offseason working diligently to add depth and fill the holes that were visible in 2013-14, particularly in goal.
With the additions of goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson and forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, the Islanders are deeper -- at least on paper -- than they have been in years. Now it's up to them to find a way back to the playoffs.
This season will be the Islanders' last at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum before they move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the start of the 2015-16 season. Coach Jack Capuano, who returns for a fourth full season in New York, would obviously like to make the Islanders' final season in Nassau County a memorable one.
Here are five questions facing the Islanders:
1. Is Griffin Reinhart ready to play in the NHL? -- The Islanders' first-round pick (No. 4) at the 2012 NHL Draft won a Memorial Cup with the Edmonton Oil Kings last season and will begin playing professionally this fall. Capuano said the 6-foot-4, 217-pound defenseman will be provided the chance to make the Islanders straight out of training camp.
"Anytime you can put a player in that situation … he played a lot of minutes," Capuano said of Reinhart, who had 21 points and a plus-20 rating in 45 games for the Oil Kings last season. "He was a horse for those guys and gained a great deal of experience, and most importantly winning a championship and how hard it is and how tough it is. The fact that he was able to do that, we're proud of him, and now he's going to get an opportunity come September.
"If he can help us win hockey games, there's no question he's gonna play, and he can play some big minutes. But you never wanna go out and say that somebody's gonna step right in, because it is a big jump for a young player. [But] I'm excited to see him in preseason."
2. What do the signings of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin mean for young players including Ryan Strome and Anders Lee? -- Prior to July 2, many were under the impression that Strome would be the Islanders' No. 2 center this season. New York's first-round pick (No. 5) in 2011 had 18 points in 37 games for the Islanders last season and showed flashes of the player they envision him being. More importantly, New York went 21-11-5 with Strome in the lineup.
Lee, a sixth-round pick (No. 152) in 2009, had 41 points in 54 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League last season and had nine goals and 14 points in 22 games for New York.
Strome and Lee have the potential to be top-six forwards in the NHL, but they find themselves facing some stiff competition following the free-agent signings of Grabovski and Kulemin. But Capuano said it's a signal every forward should come to camp ready to battle for a roster spot.
"I think it's everybody," Capuano said. "I don't think you can look at any two guys in particular and point guys out. When training camp rolls around, for the first time if we're healthy with the competition that we have, the guys that come in with the habits that we want, the work ethic that we want, the discipline that we want are the guys that are gonna be in the lineup. It's our time now. We have to win hockey games. We've developed along the way, we'll continue to teach and communicate with our players, but it comes from the desperation.
"You hear me talk about battle level, but when the game is on the line, that's what it's about. It's about the structure and the framework we need to play, but at the end of the day, we want to be a tough team to play against and those 12 [forwards] that are in the lineup opening night, those will be the guys that we feel comfortable with moving forward as a coaching staff on that particular night."
3. Can Greg Cronin fix the penalty kill? -- One of the biggest reasons for the Islanders' demise last season was their inability to kill penalties. New York finished 29th out of 30 teams in the NHL (78.1 percent), a statistic they're hoping will improve with the additions of Halak and Johnson. But the Islanders also sent Brent Thompson back to coach Bridgeport and hired Greg Cronin to be an assistant coach on Capuano's staff. Cronin, who spent the past three seasons with the Maple Leafs, returns to New York for a second stint; he was an Islanders assistant from 1999-2003.
"We went through the process and I thought he's a guy that would best fit our D," Capuano said of Cronin. "We share some similar views on our penalty kill and he's gonna help with that. I think he'll be a big part of our staff. I know he was in Toronto the last few years, but I've known him for a while now. I think that when you have good people around you, people that believe in what you're trying to do and people that you trust, I always think that it's a good fit.
"Our penalty kill wasn't very good last year. It was almost dead last in the League, and that's something we've gotta improve on."
4. Who plays left wing on the top line with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo? -- The Islanders were unable to convince Thomas Vanek to sign a long-term contract, and he was ultimately moved to the Montreal Canadiens at the NHL Trade Deadline. Snow tried one more time to sign Vanek when the free agency period began, but the skilled left wing opted for the Minnesota Wild.
That leaves a vacancy on the top line alongside Tavares and Okposo. The belief is it will be occupied by 22-year-old Brock Nelson, who had 14 goals and 12 assists in 72 games as a rookie last season. Capuano told NHL.com he's hesitant to make Nelson a full-time left wing, but believes the three can produce together. Still, he's going to wait until the end of training camp before making a decision.
"I think it's more of an open competition right now," Capuano said. "If you look at our team and you look at the intelligence of having [Nelson] with Johnny and Kyle, there's a distinct possibility of that happening. I know all three of those guys have got great chemistry on and off the ice, and that can lead to success on the ice as well. But I don't want to set in stone what I think that line is gonna be right now until we try a few things in camp."
5. Can Calvin de Haan build off his successful rookie season? -- The Islanders struggled after defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky went down with a concussion early in the season, but the injury created an opportunity for Calvin de Haan to show what he can do at the NHL level. A first-round draft pick (No. 12) in 2009, de Haan made his season debut on Nov. 30 and stayed with New York for good. His responsibilities grew along the way; de Haan ended up averaging 21:01 of ice time per game. It was quite impressive considering shoulder injuries limited the 23-year-old to 60 games (59 in the AHL) from 2011-13.
"If you had asked me about one guy, he's a guy that didn't play much hockey," Capuano said. "It just goes to show you how relentless he is to get in shape and prove to everybody that he deserves to play in the National Hockey League. He came in and he established himself as a top-four defenseman on our hockey club. He played some big minutes. He was well-rounded for us. He's a guy that has great intelligence for the game. He's very elusive on our breakout to beat their forecheck. He was huge on the second-unit power play as well. I was real pleased for him for the adversity that he's faced to come in and help us to win hockey games. He's got a bright future."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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