NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three questions facing the New York Islanders.
The New York Islanders took a step back last season and failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They should have one of the more formidable top lines in the Eastern Conference, with John Tavares at center between Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. But trading Travis Hamonic to the Calgary Flames for NHL Draft picks leaves a rather large hole on defense.
Doug Weight is preparing for his first training camp as Islanders coach after guiding them to a 24-12-4 record during the final 40 games last season.
[ISLANDERS 31 in 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the numbers]
1. Can Jaroslav Halak reclaim the No. 1 goaltending job?
After clearing waivers and being demoted to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League on Dec. 31, Halak returned to the Islanders and won his last five starts from March 31-April 8, nearly helping them clinch a playoff berth.
Halak is entering the final season of the four-year, $18 million contract ($4.5 million average annual value) he signed in 2014. Thomas Greiss, who appeared to wear down a bit during the second half of last season, signed a three-year contract extension reportedly valued at $10 million ($3.33 million average annual value) Jan. 30.
"Jaro's proven since he's gotten here that he's a great goaltender," Weight said. "He played at a high level [when he returned from Bridgeport]. He came in and he did well. I'm excited to see him in camp."
Video: NYI@NJD: Halak denies Hall with paddle of stick
2. Can Ryan Pulock emerge as a top-four defenseman?
With Hamonic traded to the Flames on June 24, Pulock, a first-round pick (No. 15) in the 2013 NHL Draft, likely will receive the first crack at replacing him in the lineup.
Pulock, a right-handed shot and power-play specialist, was injured on his first shift with the Islanders last season during a game against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 21. He didn't play in the NHL again but did have 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists) in 55 games for Bridgeport. He has four points (two goals, two assists) in 16 NHL games the past two seasons.
"I think Ryan's a stud," Weight said. "He's going to be an NHL defenseman. It's going to be a huge training camp. We've got nine [defensemen] that we look at and they're NHL defensemen in my mind, and he's one of them. I expect great things and hope it's soon."
Video: 31 in 31: New York Islanders 2017-18 season preview
3. Will John Tavares' contract situation become a distraction?
Tavares, the Islanders captain and face of their franchise, is entering the final season of a contract that has an average annual value of $5.5 million. He's been eligible to sign an extension since July 1, but an agreement on a contract has yet to be reached.
The questions regarding his future likely will be asked every day until Tavares signs an extension or becomes an unrestriced free agent July 1, 2018. It's hard to envision the situation impacting Tavares' day-to-day approach, but it'll be interesting nonetheless to see how he handles the process.
"It's only a distraction if you let it become a distraction," Tavares told Newsday. "It's not something that every single day I stress and worry about. I'm trying to just be myself, prepare for the season like any other season. Try to be the best captain I can be, the best player I can be for the Islanders and be the best teammate I can be.
"I think everybody knows me pretty well, how I approach things. I think some of that comes from the media standpoint and I understand why the questions get asked. But at the same time all I can control, and all we can control as a team, is how we approach every day and how we can get better and achieve our ultimate goal."
Tavares, the No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL Draft, has 537 points (235 goals, 302 assists) in 587 NHL games, all with New York.
"He's grown up in our organization. We think the world of him," general manager Garth Snow said. "We want him to retire as an Islander."
Video: NYI@CAR: Tavares buries game-winner in overtime