Changes, Part I: The Forward Line Combinations
What a busy August it was for general manager Mike Milbury. When the "new" New York Islanders hit the ice to kick off the 2005-06 season, there will be lots of familiar names in the lineup, but also a lot of new faces to replace some of the recent departures. Gone are Kenny Jonsson, Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, Michael Peca and Dave Scatchard. Newcomers Alexei Zhitnik, Brad Lukowich, Brent Sopel, Miroslav Satan and Mike York will give the Isles a faster, more offensive-minded team. There will also be many young prospects that will battle for the final roster spots in what promises to be a very competitive training camp.
Those of you who have listened to our Islanders radio broadcasts over the years know how much I love trying to come up with the correct line combinations and defense pairings on a nightly basis. So let's take an educated guess as to what we'll see on Steve Stirling's lineup card for the season opener Oct. 5 in Buffalo. Steve will have a much deeper group of forwards than last season, a defense that will play an up-tempo, quick transition game, and a pair of goaltenders that give him a legitimate chance to win every night. So how will he deploy them? Here's my take:
Line 1: Mattias Weinhandl - Alexei Yashin - Miroslav Satan
The head coach sort tipped his hand in his email-based column on this site that this is the "All-Euro" trio he may put together early in training camp as his potential top line. (However, the coach also made it clear that these things are always subject to change). Weinhandl is coming off a terrific season in Sweden where he was tied for the league lead in goal scoring, third overall in total points and was the leading scorer on a Modo team that featured Peter Forsberg and the Sedin twins. The 25-year old winger has always had good chemistry with Yashin and could be poised for a breakout season. The Yashin-Satan pairing is the one most anxiously anticipated by all Islander fans. The two should be custom-made for each other. In his three years on Long Island, Alexei has never had a true sniper to ride shotgun. In his seven years in upstate New York, Satan has never been paired with a center as multi-talented as Yashin. Yet Miro found a way to finish first or second for the Sabres in goals and points in every one of those seven campaigns. Now it's up to Yashin to deliver an MVP-type season like he did for the Senators in 1998-99. Because of the Islanders' depth at forward, the opposition will no longer be able to focus solely on shutting down the top line to win the game.
Line 2: Jason Blake - Oleg Kvasha - Trent Hunter
The Islanders' top three returning scorers from 2003-04 just may get the chance to play together as a line in 2005-06. Blake has scored 20+ goals in each of his last two seasons and continues to be the biggest thorn in the side of the opposition every night. Kvasha set career highs in goals, assists and points in '03-04 and was tied for the team lead in points. Hunter is coming off an incredible season in which he was the only rookie in the NHL to lead his team in both goals and points, resulting in a nomination for the Calder Trophy. Together they would provide a great combination of speed, playmaking and finishing ability.
Line 3: Shawn Bates - Mike York - Mark Parrish
This "All-American" line reunites Lucky Sevens wingers Bates and Parrish with a new center in York who is a speedy, creative playmaker that can also score goals. That both Bates and York can play center or wing gives the head coach plenty of options each time he sends this unit on the ice. Bates is looking for a bounce-back season coming off a subpar 2003-04. York's smarts and vision on the ice should complement his wingers well. Parrish was just terrific for Team USA in the World Cup and could have another 30-goal season playing with York.
Line 4: ???
This is where the biggest battle of training camp will take place. There are just too many possibilities for this line and the two extra forward spots that will be available. Arron Asham, Justin Papineau and Steve Webb, if signed, all have plenty of experience to offer. Sean Bergenheim, Justin Mapletoft and Eric Godard played together as a line for almost the entire 2004-05 season in Bridgeport, with Steve Stirling there to watch them every night. There were many games when they were the best three players on the ice for either team. Just some of the forwards at Islanders rookie camp include Jeremy Colliton, Blake Comeau, potential sleeper prospect Masi Marjamaki, 2004 first round pick Petteri Nokelainen, and 2005 first round pick Ryan O'Marra. Everyone will be trying to prove they deserve at shot with the big club.
Now remember, these are my line combinations, not Coach Stirling's. The expected signing of 2003 first round pick Robert Nilsson, which could be finalized as early as next week, could really mess my predictions up. If Nilsson is signed, my guess is that the Islanders will give him every chance to start the season in the NHL -- and play on one of the first three lines. If the supremely gifted Nilsson comes over, perhaps he goes to the left of York and Parrish and then Bates centers what could be a very strong fourth line.
Isn't it great to be talking hockey again?
[NEXT WEEK: The Defensemen and Goaltenders]