STATE OF THE UNION
With less than a month to go before their first preseason game, one word aptly describes the New York Islanders as they head into the 2009-10 campaign.
With owner Charles Wang's Lighthouse Project gaining momentum in recent months, combined with the selection of John Tavares with the No. 1 pick at the 2009 Entry Draft, things could finally be looking up for the former dynasty that last won a playoff series in 1993.
Wang is hoping to get an answer from the Town of Hempstead as to whether his $4 billion vision will be approved by Oct. 3 -- when the Isles open the regular season at the 37-year-old Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum against the Pittsburgh Penguins. If the Lighthouse Project is not approved, the Isles' future on Long Island will be on life support.
"The widespread support for the Lighthouse Project has been overwhelming," Wang said at a public hearing in Hempstead on Aug. 4. "We are closer than we've ever been before, but we're not there yet. We need to keep pushing ahead until we get the shovel in the ground."
In the meantime, the Islanders will look to improve drastically off their last-place finish -- as they ended an injury-riddled season with just 61 points. When all was said and done, the team lost close to 600 man-games to injury. Rick DiPietro, the team's No. 1 goaltender who is entering the fourth year of a 15-year contract, made just five appearances.
Although DiPietro's health remains uncertain, Isles GM Garth Snow addressed the issue this summer with the free-agent signings of Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron, who combined to win 57 games last season with Edmonton and Philadelphia, respectively. With or without DiPietro, the Islanders have one of the strongest goaltending tandems in the League.
"The biggest thing is we don't have any question marks going into the season as far as goaltending. That's a huge weight off the organization's shoulders. It will allow Ricky to stay with his timetable. We know that he doesn't have to put himself in a compromising situation."
-- Islanders coach Scott Gordon
"We are thrilled to add Dwayne to our lineup," Snow said. "He is a proven winner, having led the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, and we look forward to him bringing his veteran leadership to the Islanders."
Roloson was probably as shocked as everyone else on Long Island when Biron joined the mix three weeks later. The 32-year-old has a 2.59 GAA in 433 career games. Biron, who signed a one-year deal worth $1.4 million, is expected to become trade bait if/when DiPietro returns.
"The biggest thing is we don't have any question marks going into the season as far as goaltending," Isles coach Scott Gordon told NHL.com. "That's a huge weight off the organization's shoulders. It will allow Ricky to stay with his timetable. We know that he doesn't have to put himself in a compromising situation."
Those three No. 1 goalies will be playing in front of another young group that made some strides during the second half of last season. Kyle Okposo, just 21 years old, led the team with 18 goals. Sean Bergenheim, 25, jumped from 10 goals in 2007-08 to 15 last season and could be emerging as a potential top-six forward.
Josh Bailey -- the team's first-round pick (No. 9) in 2008 -- played the entire season with the Islanders and finished with 25 points (7 goals, 18 assists) in 68 games. Bailey, who turns 20 on Oct. 2, likely will feel less pressure this season, especially with Tavares on board.
"The biggest pressure that comes off Josh Bailey is knowing that he's got his first season behind him," Gordon said. "When we were evaluating what to do with Josh last November, was it best for Josh to go back to junior and get a ton of points or was it to get himself acclimated to the pro game? The way we looked at it is if he was to come into training camp having played junior, his confidence might have been higher from a production standpoint, but he wouldn't have been any more prepared to play the NHL game. He's had a good summer of training to get stronger."
Snow made it clear some time ago that the Islanders were going to start from scratch and build through the draft. To this point, he has stuck to his guns.
The GM used the past two Entry Drafts to select 20 players -- 13 in 2008 and seven more this year. Among those selections are John Tavares -- the first player taken at this year's draft in Montreal -- and Josh Bailey, the team's first selection (No. 9) last year. Bailey made the jump from the Ontario Hockey League to the NHL and had 25 points in 68 games.
Here is a look at the Islanders' five biggest prospects:
Aaron Ness -- The second of three selections in the second round in 2008, Ness has emerged as one of the their top prospects on the blue line. He's already gained roughly 20 pounds since last June as he enters his sophomore season with the University of Minnesota, where he had 17 points in 37 games as a freshman.
Jesse Joensuu -- The Finnish power forward hopes to land a full-time role with the Islanders after a solid rookie season in the American Hockey League. In 71 appearances, the 6-foot-4 left wing had 20 goals and 19 assists for Bridgeport. A second-round pick in 2006 (No. 60), Joensuu also had a goal and 2 assists in seven games with the big club.
Justin DiBenedetto -- A 2008 sixth-round draft choice, DiBenedetto enjoyed another phenomenal season with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, collecting a team-high 45 goals and 93 points. He finished the season with Bridgeport in the AHL and had a goal in three contests. Barring an unbelievable training camp, DiBenedetto will start the season in Bridgeport.
Kirill Petrov -- A rare combination of size, speed and skill, Petrov has three years remaining on his KHL deal. With a second pick in the third round last year, the Russian winger (No. 73) remains worth the risk.
Travis Hamonic -- The third of the Isles' three second-round picks in 2008 (No. 53), Hamonic has a solid chance to represent Canada at the 2010 World Junior Championships. In 57 games last season, the defenseman had 40 points (13 goals, 27 assists) and 126 penalty minutes with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League.
Snow could have come out on that night back in April when his team won the draft lottery and told the hockey world that John Tavares was going to be selected by the New York Islanders.
But he didn't. Instead, he kept it a secret -- to the point where, less than an hour before the top selection was made, at least one publication had the Isles drafting Matt Duchene (who went No. 3 to Colorado). But Snow didn't disappoint the 10,000-plus fans who showed up at the Nassau Coliseum for the team's draft party, as he grabbed the Ontario Hockey League's all-time leading goal-scorer with the No. 1 selection.
With Tavares already on board, Snow traded up twice, from No. 26 to No. 12, to draft the defenseman he and his staff had targeted, then used the later rounds to replenish his goaltending depth -- or lack thereof.
"We do have a system we're using, a process," Snow said, "and we believe in it. The key is when we identify a prospect, we can move up or we can move down and acquire picks. We stick to our guns and we're going to get them."
Here is a closer look at the seven selections the Islanders made in Montreal this June:
John Tavares -- After scoring 215 goals in the OHL, Tavares -- taken first overall -- brings his breathtaking skill to Long Island, which desperately needs it after tallying only 201 goals last season and finishing with the fewest points in the League. He'll play his first game with the club Oct. 3 against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Calvin de Haan -- He clearly was the other player the Islanders wanted in Round 1, evidenced by their willingness to move up twice, from No. 26 to No. 16 to No. 12. While others had him pegged to go later in the first round, the Isles weren't about to let the puck-moving defenseman get away. In his first season of junior hockey, de Haan had 63 points in 68 games for the Oshawa Generals.
Mikko Koskinen -- The hulking goaltender (6-foot-5, 187 pounds) was the first selection of the second round (No. 31) and already hassigned an entry-level deal with the Islanders. Koskinen, a late bloomer who is already 21 years old, posted a 1.97 goals-against average in 33 games for the Espoo Blues in the Finnish Elite League. Koskinen will play for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL this season.
Anders Nilsson -- Another 6-foot-5 goaltender, only this one is Swedish. Taken in the third round (No. 62), Nilsson had a 2.05 GAA and four shutouts in 37 games for Lulea's junior team.
Casey Cizikas -- Intriguing fourth-round selection (No. 92), as Cizikas was charged with manslaughter in connection with the death of a 15-year-old and sentenced to one year probation and 100 hours of community service following a tackle made in a rugby game. With the case finally behind him, the Isles hope Cizikas can focus on hockey again. The 5-foot-10 center had 36 points in 55 games for Mississauga (OHL) last season.
Anton Klementyev -- Grabbed in the fifth round (No. 122), the Russian defenseman spent time between the country's Under-20 squad and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL. Known to be the stay-at-home, reliable type.
Anders Lee -- The Isles' sixth-round selection (No. 152) has chosen hockey over football despite a promising career as a quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound center had 20 goals and 46 assists for Edina (Minn.) High School last season and is expected to play at Notre Dame in the fall.