BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Fielding one of the youngest rosters in the NHL last season, the New York Islanders enjoyed a bounce-back season in which they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years. Their late-season run was sparked primarily by a young core that began to coalesce after a few years of grooming.
Looking to prove that 2012-13 wasn't a fluke, the Islanders might actually be getting younger.
"We've obviously got some great guys waiting in the wings that are going to be pushing guys. That's what's great about our organization. We've developed that depth and you've got guys knocking on the door every year and that really pushes guys on our team to be sure they're ready for camp," said John Tavares, who at age 22 is one of the NHL's youngest captains. "I wouldn't be surprised [if the team gets younger]. We have some great talent from the draft who did great in junior and in [the American Hockey League with] Bridgeport. Obviously we have some talent down there."
The Islanders have a number of prized prospects who could be ready to make the jump to the NHL. That is especially true of the team's blue line, which lost Mark Streit to free agency when the team's former captain signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. Streit's leaving for a division rival opens a glaring spot on the team's defense, one that could go to any number of prospects. But there's one high-profile defensive prospect who would like to make a play for that coveted spot.
"I'm expecting myself to play here. I just want to reach for the best," said Griffin Reinhart, the 6-foot-4 defenseman the Islanders took fourth in the 2012 NHL Draft. "If not, I'll go back to junior and I won't take it as a bad thing. I'll try to use it to get better."
During the leaner years when the Islanders finished last in their division for five consecutive seasons, the team did manage to stockpile a number of high picks in the draft. Last year's return to the playoffs was keyed by the emergence of many of those top picks, including Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, who were the team's first-round picks in 2009, 2006 and 2008, respectively.
After opening the team's training camp at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Islanders coach Jack Capuano asserted that his blue line was one of the few areas in which the team was looking for some new faces to compete for a spot. The forwards, on the other hand, were a unit Capuano expects will mostly stay the same from last season. But if there is one new face with a shot at cracking that area of the lineup, it could be another of the team's first-round picks.
Taken fifth in the 2011 draft, center Ryan Strome put up standout offensive numbers with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League before collecting two goals and seven points in 10 games with Bridgeport. After being hailed as the team's top prospect for a couple of years, Strome spent the summer focusing on specific tasks assigned to him by the Islanders' brain trust, including trying different offensive positions. That versatility up front could be Strome's best shot at cracking the lineup, especially considering the team's depth at center.
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"I want to play at the highest level I can. The last two years haven't gone exactly as I planned, so I have to try to do something different," Strome told NHL.com. "I've been working hard, I'm trying to keep getting better each day. Obviously I want to play in the NHL."
For Reinhart, Strome and a number of the Islanders' other prized prospects, the quest to make the opening-night roster will be an uphill climb. Whereas all of the players returning from last season's squad practiced on the club's Group A as training camp started, the majority of the team's younger prospects participated as part of Group B. That secondary group included Strome and Reinhart. But on the opening of training camp, the Islanders made it clear that whoever played best, whether it was a marquee prospect or a fringe free agent, would earn their spot on the team.
"I think that we've always been an organization that gives opportunity. They're friends in the room right now, but they're competing for jobs. We've always felt if there is somebody there who is going to help us win, they have a spot on our hockey team," Capuano said. "Just because the groups are where they are today, with A and B, once we get [preseason] games in, their play is going to dictate our decision making."
And if some of the team's top young players continue their development, a young team that turned some heads last season could potentially get even younger.