After five consecutive last-place finishes in the division, the promise of hope in the future for the New York Islanders arrived in the present in 2012-13.
The face of the franchise and leader of the renaissance, John Tavares, became a legitimate MVP candidate, and the Islanders returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006-07. Though they put a scare into the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, there is more work to be done at Nassau Coliseum before the franchise heads west on the Long Island Expressway to Barclays Center in Brooklyn or the Islanders become a full-fledged Stanley Cup contender.
General manager Garth Snow continued to be patient, looking for low-risk additions who could add value without drastically altering what the Islanders have built around Tavares. Pierre-Marc Bouchard has concussion issues, but he could be a classic bounce-back candidate playing next to Tavares and Matt Moulson.
2013-14 FANTASY PREVIEW: ISLANDERS
Under-valued: Travis Hamonic -- With Mark Streit gone, Hamonic should see his role increase with the Islanders, especially on the power play (he averaged 1:14 per game there last season). Lubomir Visnovsky will see plenty of power-play time, but Hamonic's ability to chip in penalty minutes (101 over the last 121 games) and his quickly developing offensive game could make him the most valuable defenseman on Long Island.
Over-valued: Pierre-Marc Bouchard -- Over the past five seasons, Bouchard has averaged 0.60 points per game (equivalent to 49 points over an 82-game season) while missing 165 games. Between his lack of production (hardly any PIMs and shots on goal) and his health problems, the forward is not worth drafting, even if he ends up on the top line with Tavares and Moulson.
Sleeper: Ryan Strome -- Strome has dominated the Ontario Hockey League (268 points in his past 164 games), and though the forward hasn't seen much American Hockey League time (seven points in 10 games), this likely will be the year he makes his NHL debut. It might not come at the start of the season, but eventually he'll get the call, and that means he should be selected late in fantasy drafts (he's worth stashing).
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There was friction with Nino Niederreiter, and he was traded to the Minnesota Wild for someone who can add physical play and some scoring depth: Cal Clutterbuck. Snow locked up underrated Travis Hamonic to a No. 3 defenseman-type contract even though he's the team's No. 1. Evgeni Nabokov was re-signed as the short-term option in goal.
The next step is incorporating the next wave. Core players Tavares, Hamonic, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo are fully developed or close to it. Exciting prospects Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart will be counted on to push the Islanders upward.
The Islanders moved past the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils last season and likely will need to stay ahead of one or both to book another postseason berth out of the Metropolitan Division. The future remains bright and it continues to get closer.
Here is the projected 2013-14 lineup for the Islanders:
NOTES: Bouchard makes sense as a replacement for Brad Boyes, and his playmaking could mean extra goals for Tavares and Moulson. Strome could fit on the wing of the second line or end up in the middle of the third. Anders Lee and Brock Nelson could vie for a spot in the opening-night lineup.
If Reinhart has a great camp, it will be hard to keep him off the roster. Donovan, like Nelson, had a great season for Bridgeport in the American Hockey League. There are other young defensemen, Calvin de Haan and Scott Mayfield, who could be in the mix.
The Islanders have enough solid, competent NHL players they aren't desperate for any of the top prospects to make the team, but there should be opportunities for them to find regular minutes.