Changes, Part Deux: The Defense and Goaltending
The defense is the one area where the Islanders will have the biggest changes - over half of the backliners will be new to the squad. The emphasis on defensemen with offensive ability and a quick transition game will be important factors in the new, wide-open, (hopefully) obstruction-free NHL. The Islanders certainly addressed those needs with the signing of Alexei Zhitnik and the trade for Brent Sopel. With Janne Niinimaa and Radek Martinek coming back for the upcoming season, the Islanders were looking to add one more veteran defenseman who was very strong in his own end of the rink, and they hit the jackpot with Brad Lukowich. So how will they be paired up? Here's how I see it:
Defense Pairing 1: Alexei Zhitnik - Brad Lukowich
This could be the new D pairing for Coach Stirling that will try to do what Kenny Jonsson and Adrian Aucoin did every night: play 25-30 minutes a game, always matched against the opposition's top lines, and try to provide some offense as well. Along with the obvious skills they possess, they both bring tremendous playoff experience as well. Lukowich is coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season with Tampa and has also won one with Dallas, while Zhitnik has gone to the Cup Finals with both Buffalo and Los Angeles. They would complement each other very well as partners at both even strength and on the penalty kill.
Defense Pairing 2: Janne Niinimaa - Brent Sopel
Two offensively-gifted blue liners that are solid in their own zone as well. I love the intensity and passion that Janne brings to every game, and the rule changes should help him return to the offensive numbers he put up as a member of the Flyers and Oilers. I think Sopel is really going to surprise a lot of folks who didn't get a chance to see him play in Vancouver. His point totals improved every single season with the Canucks, and he is coming to the Islanders just as he hits his prime at 28 years old. This could also be a potential power play pairing if Steve Stirling chooses not to use Miro Satan, Shawn Bates or another forward at the point on his man-advantage units.
Defense Pairing 3: Radek Martinek - ???
Radek very quietly had a excellent season in the Czech-2 League, scoring 30 points in 30 games and winning a championship. When he was healthy for the Islanders in his first two years, he was a solid two-way defenseman that can also join the rush to provide some offense. The battle to be his partner and for the # 7 spot is wide open.
Newly-signed Tomi Pettinen and veteran Joel Bouchard will both get a good look and may actually be fighting for one spot. I believe the Islanders will definitely leave one spot open for a kid on D. The guy to watch out for is Chris Campoli, a great skater and puck-mover who scored 49 points last year in his rookie season for Bridgeport. His 49 points led all AHL rookie defensemen and was fourth overall among Dmen in the league. There were so many times last season that I watched him single-handedly bring his team back into games by flying all over the ice, leading an odd-man rush, or perfectly setting up a teammate for a power play goal.
Campoli's yearlong partner at Bridgeport, Bruno Gervais, was the final defenseman cut by the Islanders in September of 2003 as a 19-year old. He and fellow Sound Tiger Ryan Caldwell were both watched very closely all season long by Steve Stirling. Gervais is just 20-years old, Campoli is 21 and Caldwell 24. They are certainly the future of the Islanders' blue line, but all three of them hope that future is now.
If I had to bet, I'd say Pettinen and Campoli get the last two spots on the blueline.
This is the lone area where there have been no changes at all for the Islanders. Rick DiPietro, who played 50 games in 2003-04, could play 60 this season. Ricky's shining moment was the playoff shutout in Tampa against the eventual Stanley Cup champs. He also gained some valuable experience in the World Cup, and should be Team USA's number one goalie for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy. At 24 years old, this is the season where he needs to prove he is among the elite goaltenders in the National Hockey League.
Garth Snow just might be the best backup goalie in the NHL. He is the only goalie that can sit for extended periods and still come off the bench to play as if he were the everyday starter. And he always steals a game or two for the Isles in Philly, plus many more during the season. The two have a solid working relationship, and Rick will really benefit from having a veteran like Garth at his side for at least the next three seasons.
So that's my take on how the 2005-06 Islanders might look out of the chute. The fun begins on Monday, Sept. 12 in Nova Scotia.