The New York Islanders will be the first to tell you their 2013-14 season was a massive disappointment.
After giving the Pittsburgh Penguins a scare in the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Islanders were expected to build off their first postseason appearance in six years. They didn't come close to meeting those expectations.
Instead, the Islanders won 13 games at home and finished in the bottom five of the NHL standings for the sixth time in seven seasons. They lost starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to a groin injury on Nov. 16 and went into a tailspin, going 0-8-2 over their next 10 games. This came after veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky sustained a concussion on Oct. 19, an injury that kept him sidelined for three months.
"It's disappointing, for sure," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We have passionate fans and to me that's what it's all about, giving them that same excitement that we gave them in that Pittsburgh series, so from that standpoint it was disappointing.
"November was a tough month for us again. Hopefully that's gonna change. Not to say anything about the goaltenders that stepped in (Kevin Poulin, Anders Nilsson) or the injuries that we had, but when Nabokov went down, obviously our record wasn't too good for a while. I thought looking at this summer, [general manager] Garth [Snow] obviously targeted that position. As a former goalie, he knows how important it is to have depth."
Snow wasted little time after the season to address the Islanders' biggest need. He acquired the rights to impending free agent goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals on May 1 and signed the 29-year-old to a four-year, $18 million contract three weeks later. Halak played 52 games between the St. Louis Blues and Capitals last season and went 29-13-7 with a 2.25 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts.
When the free agency period began on July 1, Snow shored up New York's backup goalie position as well with the signing of Chad Johnson to a two-year contract worth $2.6 million. Johnson, 28, went 17-4-3 with a 2.10 GAA and .925 save percentage for the Boston Bruins last season.
For a team that lost 13 games in which it possessed a two-goal lead, the Islanders should be better suited to protect leads this time around.
I thought we played pretty good down the stretch the last 12 or 15 games. It was a chance for Garth to take a look at some of the younger prospects. - Head Coach Jack Capuano
"I would say out of those dozen games, there was two or three that I thought we were still in good position, even structurally," Capuano said. "The puck had eyes. We have to make sure that our guys, and we will as a staff, that we perform under pressure. It's crucial.
"You talk about the playoffs and you talk about championships where in baseball and football it's pitching and quarterbacks, [in hockey] you build from your net out. They are the last line of defense and they get criticized quite a bit. At the end of the day, we try to play as a unit of five. But I think with those additions, we kind of secured a position that Garth obviously felt was needed. We've got Johnson, we've got Halak and we've got some young goalies, so we have some depth at that position."
Snow also added depth up front and on the blue line. He signed gritty wing Cory Conacher on July 1, as well as TJ Brennan, who last season won the Eddie Shore Award, which is given to the top defenseman in the American Hockey League. Brennan, 25, had 25 goals, 47 assists and 115 penalty minutes in 76 games for the Toronto Marlies.
One day later, Snow made his biggest splash when he signed forwards Mikhail Grabovski (four years, $20 million) and Nikolai Kulemin (four years, $16.75 million). Grabovski had 13 goals in 58 games for the Capitals last season, but was a three-time 20-goal scorer during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kulemin had nine goals last season for Toronto, but scored 30 in 2010-11 while skating alongside Grabovski.
Capuano said he hasn't decided yet if the two will skate on the same line for the Islanders, but he's excited that Grabovski's arrival should help ease the burden on center Frans Nielsen, who plays in all situations for New York.
"To me, it can alleviate some of the minutes that Frans plays," Capuano said. "He's a guy that plays our first-unit power play, he's on first-unit penalty kill. He logs a lot of minutes and a lot of crucial minutes. That's not gonna change to a certain point, but Grabovski's a guy Garth and I talked about two years ago. He's got a dimension to his game with speed and changing direction. He's got a great pace to the game and good hockey sense. With [Kulemin] on the left, you've got a big body guy that is gonna crash and bang and has proven he can score some big goals. They're two real good acquisitions for our hockey club."
Grabovski and Kulemin also provide the Islanders with more scoring balance, which should help John Tavares. New York's captain missed the final 22 games of the season after sustaining a partially torn MCL while playing for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The face of the Islanders franchise had 24 goals and 42 assists in 59 games.
"When he went down, it's a situation where Canadian-born players love to represent their country, and I don't blame them," said Capuano, who added that Tavares, who did not require surgery, will be ready for training camp. "He wasn't playing for us so it hurt a little bit, but I understand. Obviously when you lose a guy like that, it's a big blow to your hockey club.
"Other guys got a chance to step up and we learned a little bit about the eight or nine or I don't even know how many guys we had up from Bridgeport … I thought we played pretty good down the stretch the last 12 or 15 games. It was a chance for Garth to take a look at some of the younger prospects. But obviously you don't wanna see that happen to your captain."
It will be up to Tavares and the rest of the Islanders to give Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum a proper sendoff. The 2014-15 season will be New York's last in the building where it raised four consecutive Stanley Cup banners (1980-83) before the Islanders move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the fall of 2015.
"For me, every year is important," Capuano said. "I know how passionate the fans are. With this being the last year [at the Coliseum], we'd love to try to get back to the dance like we did against Pittsburgh and prove ourselves and go even further. It's an important year. Obviously the team is moving, but at the same time you can't forget what that fan base and what that building means to the organization. We'll go in with a singular focus. I know there will be a lot of talk about [the building], but for our staff and our players, it's just one goal and that's to get back to the dance."
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2013-14 record: 34-37-11, 79 pts, 8th in Metropolitan Division, 14th in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Additions: G Jaroslav Halak, G Chad Johnson, F Mikhail Grabovski, F Nikolai Kulemin, F Cory Conacher, D TJ Brennan
Subtractions: G Evgeni Nabokov, D Radek Martinek
Promotion candidates: F Anders Lee, F Ryan Strome, D Griffin Reinhart, D Ryan Pulock
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: LW Michael Dal Colle (No. 5), F Joshua Ho-Sang (No. 28)
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor