The New York Islanders qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, but their return was short-lived, eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. With a talented, young core a year older and more experienced, the Islanders won't be satisfied with simply making the playoffs in 2013-14.
Coach Jack Capuano returns for a third full season after guiding the team to a third-place finish (24-17-7) in the Atlantic Division. Garth Snow has been the general manager since July 2006 and, with the help of five straight lottery draft picks, has built one of the deeper prospect pools in the NHL. Some of those players had key roles in helping New York end its six-year playoff drought.
But with success comes greater expectations. Led by superstar center John Tavares, the Islanders can't afford to take a step back in 2013-14.
Here are six questions facing the Islanders:
1. Is John Tavares the next captain? -- It's all but certain Tavares will be named the 14th captain in franchise history before the regular season begins. The Islanders have yet to make any announcement, but it's a foregone conclusion No. 91 will replace Mark Streit after the latter was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in June.
The face of the franchise and a Hart Trophy finalist last season, Tavares leads by example on and off the ice. The 22-year-old is driven to be the best player on the ice every shift, and that rubs off on his teammates.
"I think that's something that Garth and I and our coaches will sit down [and discuss]," Capuano told NHL.com. "But we have a lot of leadership on this team. Johnny's been a guy that's really since my first day as coach here with the Islanders has really opened up. He was a pretty reserved guy at the start, but he's really opened up. He's a quiet leader. He's one of those guys that doesn't have to say much. He brings it every day.
"It starts in the summer with his training. I've always said it starts at home with his upbringing with his parents, and the way that he trains and prepares himself to be the best every day. Those are the kind of guys that you want as the leader of your hockey team. We've talked a little bit about it, but I'm sure when Garth and I sit down , it won't take us too long to make a decision on who we feel is going to be best to lead the team."
2. Can Ryan Strome and/or Griffin Reinhart make the team? -- New York's first-round draft choices in 2011 and 2012, Strome and Reinhart will be given an opportunity to make the NHL lineup. Strome, 20, had a brief taste of pro hockey last season when he had seven points (two goals) in 10 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League following the completion of his junior career. Likely pegged to play right wing (he is a natural center), Strome will return to Bridgeport should he not make the Islanders.
Reinhart, 19, is a 6-foot-4, 202-pound defenseman whom the Islanders envision playing roughly 25 minutes per night for years to come. If he doesn't make the team this fall, he will play another season for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League.
"I would never say never to any of those guys," Capuano told NHL.com. "It's a situation that as we go through camp, Garth and myself and the coaches will sit down and we'll evaluate every day and after every game and see where we are. If there's somebody that's going to help us win games and get us to where we ultimately want to be, that guy's going to be penciled in. I don't like to pencil guys in right now on the back end, and we pretty much know what we have up front, but there's going to be opportunities for guys."
3. Who will provide offense from the blue line? -- Streit struggled at times in his own end of the ice last season, but his departure leaves a gaping hole in offensive production. The Islanders' power-play quarterback had 27 points (six goals) in 48 games, including 11 points with New York up a man.
Lubomir Visnovsky will take on an increased role (especially on the power play), and 23-year-old Matt Donovan will get a long look in training camp after scoring 93 points during the past two seasons at Bridgeport.
"The one area going into the season that I would like to get a little more production -- and we were successful when we did it -- is we need to get some points from our back end," Capuano said. "There's going to be opportunities for young guys this year to step in with Mark Streit being gone now. The one thing a lot of teams talk about now is making it a unit of five on your offensive attack and making sure that fourth man is getting up in the play. It's going to be important for us. That's something we'll continue to stress as we hit training camp."
4. Can Evgeni Nabokov continue to carry the load in goal? -- Nabokov's solid regular-season numbers (23-11-7, 2.50 goals-against average, .910 save percentage) were instrumental in helping the Islanders return to the playoffs. However, the 38-year-old struggled in the postseason against the high-powered Penguins, allowing three or more goals in each of the six games.
Nabokov appeared in 26 games during the final two months of the regular season, which may have played a role in his playoff performance. He's still unquestionably the No. 1 goaltender, but Capuano will have to find some playing time for Kevin Poulin so Nabokov can have gas left in the tank come playoff time.
"He played a lot of games, there's no question," Capuano said. "When you play a team like Pittsburgh and you play that amount of hockey and the intensity, it was probably a little taxing on him. I haven't really thought about it. Nabby's one of those guys that wants to play every night. If you look at history, he's a guy that's played a lot of hockey. But we haven't really laid that out. What I like to do is I like to sit with [goaltending coach] Mike Dunham and get a little bit of a game plan.
GAA: 2.50 | SVP: 0.910
5. Can Kyle Okposo pick up where he left off? – Inconsistency has plagued the Islanders' first-round pick (No. 7) from 2006 for much of his time in New York. The power forward had four goals in 48 games during the regular season in 2012-13, but Islanders brass is hoping his performance in Game 2 against the Penguins proves to be the turning point of Okposo's career.
His biggest moment in the NHL came that night, when he floored Matt Niskanen with a right hand in the second period and scored what proved to be the game-winning goal midway through the third. He scored two more goals in that series, giving everyone a glimpse of the player he can be when on top of his game. It's possible the 25-year-old opens the season skating on the top line with Tavares and Matt Moulson, a spot that will provide Okposo every opportunity to produce.
6. Is there added pressure on the coaching staff and players to take the next step? -- Now that the Islanders have returned to the playoffs, they won't be surprising anyone in 2013-14, nor will they be taken lightly. Snow clearly believes the majority of pieces to contend are already in place, given his relatively quiet summer. The Islanders acquired right wing Cal Clutterbuck from the Minnesota Wild for 2010 first-round pick Nino Niederreiter at the NHL Draft, then signed forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin when free agency began July 5. Snow also re-signed core players Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic to long-term contracts.
With the majority of last season's team intact, it's up to Capuano and his staff to help the Islanders take the next step.
"I really never put a whole lot of pressure on myself, to be honest. I've never changed who I am," Capuano said. "I believe in a certain way to play and a certain way that we need to play. But I don't think there will be any added pressure on the guys or myself. I think I want them to come to the rink every day to make sure that we get better, that we're the best-conditioned team. Play within the team concept, play within the framework that makes us successful, and continue the habits that we need to have to continue to get better. I think that's the biggest thing.
"We've got a good, young core surrounded with guys that I wouldn't call veterans, but who have some experience under their belt and know what it takes to push one another. As coaches we have to hold guys accountable, but the successful teams, players hold themselves accountable. When players do that, you're going to have success. I'm starting to see that with our hockey club. That's the biggest thing for me."