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30 in 30: Reasons for optimism, questions facing Islanders

by Brian Compton / New York Islanders



NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders are coming off their second straight season of at least 100 points and last season won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 23 years.

But they will have a different look when they open training camp next month. Left wing Andrew Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, signed a seven-year contract July 1 and is expected to skate on the top line with captain John Tavares. Veteran forward Jason Chimera, who scored 20 goals with the Washington Capitals last season, signed a two-year contract on the first day of free agency. Right wing PA Parenteau, who had 120 points over two seasons with Tavares from 2010-12, is back after signing on July 2.

The three will be expected to help ease the blow of three key losses, players who were a part of the Islanders' core for several years. Center Frans Nielsen (Detroit Red Wings), right wing Kyle Okposo (Buffalo Sabres) and left wing Matt Martin (Toronto Maple Leafs) each departed as an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Andrew Ladd's resume

You can never have enough players who have won championships in your locker room. Ladd has hoisted the Stanley Cup twice, once with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and again with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. A five-time 20-goal scorer, Ladd plays in all situations and could have his best offensive season yet should he be placed on a line with Tavares.

"Leadership is key obviously, and Andrew is obviously a great leader and a great player and a great person," coach Jack Capuano said. "More than anything, I just really like his character."

2. Adjusted to Barclays Center

The results in the Islanders' new home were ultimately positive; they went 25-11-5 in their first season at Barclays Center, where they also clinched their first postseason series win since 1993. But early last season, they decided to move their morning skates back to Nassau County so players with families could spend a few more hours at home, rather than spending all day in Brooklyn. There also were some complaints about the ice quality at Barclays Center, but the Islanders consistently found ways to win.

"I would say that sometimes it's blown a little bit out of proportion, but I'm not going to lie to you; it did take a little bit of an adjustment period with the schedule and me meeting with John about the times of practices or the days off because there was a little bit more travel involved," Capuano said. "I thought that the communication level with John and myself and the coaches were really good, and there was a lot of insight."
 
3. Emergence of Ryan Pulock

Capauno often stresses the importance of getting offense from his defense, and that should be the case on a more consistent basis this season with Ryan Pulock set to become a full-time NHL player.

Pulock, who will be 22 on Oct. 6, a first-round pick (No. 15) at the 2013 NHL Draft, had two goals and two assists in 15 regular-season games, and a goal and two assists in six playoff games. He possesses a booming right-handed shot and should provide a boost on special teams.

"I see him being a weapon on the power play," Capuano said. "We all know that he can shoot the puck. He knows that he can defend a little bit better and he's going to work hard on certain things that he needs to work on this summer. But I want to see Ryan Pulock play the way that he played in junior, play the way that he played in [the playoffs], getting up in the play, being that puck-moving guy, contributing offensively to our hockey club. He made great strides."

4. Taste of postseason success

The Islanders defeated the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference First Round before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round in five games. All they talked about afterwards was how difficult it is to win a seven-game series, a lesson they intend to carry with them into this season.

They realize now exactly what it takes. That experience should only help keep things trending in the right direction.

"Our goal was to win the Stanley Cup last year and we didn't, but we can build off that," Capuano said. "We've taken some baby steps.

"Guys know now what the standards are. I feel good about our team, the experience of our team and what [general manager] Garth [Snow] added to our hockey club. Hopefully we can take the next step."

Here are three key questions facing the Islanders:

1. Will they carry three goaltenders again?

Jaroslav Halak, who was New York's No. 1 goalie before sustaining a lower-body injury in March, did not hide his feelings about the Islanders' decision to also have Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube on the NHL roster.

But Berube signed a one-year contract July 5, meaning he likely is in New York to stay. Greiss was sensational for the Islanders in the playoffs, particularly in the first round, and had a .923 save percentage in 11 postseason starts.

Halak has two years remaining on his contract and is expected to be healthy when the season starts, so barring a move, it appears the Islanders are content with leaving the situation as is.

"Healthy competition is good," Capuano said. "I think if you look at whether you have eight defensemen or three goalies or 15 forwards … they're all good players back there, all three of them can help us. We'll see how it pans out. I'd be lying to you right now if I said anything different, because I don't know. It's a situation for me where all three guys were really good friends, they're a close-knit group, they're all quality goaltenders.

"If you look at quarterbacks in the NFL, or pitching in baseball, you're not going to win in the National Hockey League if you don't get goaltending. To have three guys capable of playing like that, really for us it's a strong point for our hockey club."

2. How do they replace Frans Nielsen?

This is likely to be the Islanders' biggest challenge. Nielsen had 153 points over the past three seasons, was terrific in his own end, and contributed regularly in shootouts.

It may not be one person who ultimately replaces Nielsen; the Islanders could look to a combination of Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome and Casey Cizikas to help fill a void that can't be understated. Nelson scored an NHL career-high 26 goals last season, and Cizikas, a tenacious two-way center, signed a five-year contract extension June 2.

But the wild card is Strome, who took a step back last season. After getting 50 points as a rookie in 2014-15, he had eight goals and 20 assists in 71 games. The plan is to move Strome, a restricted free agent who remains unsigned, back from the wing to center, his natural position. His ability to bounce back is crucial.

"Frans is one of those guys that always did everything right," Capuano said. "It was a defense-first mentality with Frans, he took a lot of pride in that. But at the same time, his offensive numbers in the last three or four years continued to grow. They were off the charts and really helped us. He was a first-unit penalty-killer, he was a first-unit power-play guy carrying the puck up the ice.

"I think Brock down the middle is going to be a big factor for us, and I think Ryan Strome is probably going to get a chance now to move down the middle where we drafted him and where he's played most of his hockey. I look for big things out of Ryan."

3. Is this roster as deep as last season?

Offensively, it appears the Islanders slightly improved, provided they receive similar production from Chimera that he had last season (20 goals, 20 assists) with the Capitals. Ladd should score between 20-30 goals playing with Tavares, and Parenteau should slide back in nicely on the top line.

New York will need a bounce-back season from defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who has six years remaining on his contract that carries an average annual value of $6 million. Boychuk, 32, appeared to run out of gas near the end of the regular season and did not have a point in 11 playoff games. He said afterwards that he was not dealing with a nagging injury.

Defenseman Travis Hamonic's decision to rescind his trade request after the season was huge for the Islanders, who keep one of their leaders in the fold and a defenseman capable of playing upwards of 25 minutes per game.

New York will need its returning players to take another step, but the newcomers must adjust and produce quickly in what is expected to be heated playoff race in the Eastern Conference from start to finish.

"Obviously with Frans and Kyle, we've lost two assistant captains," Capuano said. "But at the same time, with Garth bringing in Andrew Ladd and Chimera and Parenteau, they've had a lot of experience and good leadership roles that are going to help one way or another with our hockey club."


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