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30 in 15: Islanders bank on young players to step up

by Brian Compton continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The New York Islanders are set to begin play in the new Metropolitan Division with a roster similar to the one that last season ended a six-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Expectations will be higher for a team that boasts a talented young core, led by recently anointed captain John Tavares.

Tavares is one of six first-round picks expected to be in the lineup when the Islanders open their regular season Oct. 4 against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center. That number could grow to 10 should forwards Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome and defensemen Griffin Reinhart and Calvin de Haan make the team.

The New York Islanders need their young forwards to step up if they hope to build on last season's trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo: Mike Stobe/NHLI)

"We're extremely bullish on where we stand now and in the future," said general manager Garth Snow, who began rebuilding the franchise after the 2006-07 season. "It's nice to see. I know it was painful at times, but it's been worth the wait."

Here are three storylines in training camp as New York prepares for the 2013-14 season:

1. Kyle Okposo aims to build off his postseason performance -- Okposo struggled during the regular season (he had four goals and 20 assists in 48 games) but found his game during New York's competitive first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. His fight with Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen gave the Islanders life in Game 2, the same night Okposo scored the game-winning goal to even the series. Now it's up to Okposo to prove he is a full-time top-six forward in the NHL.

"I was working hard, but maybe I wasn't working as smart as I could have been," Okposo told Newsday. "Our hunger as a team has been amplified this offseason and mine has as well."

2. Someone must replace Mark Streit's offense from the blue line -- The former captain, who was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in June after failing to agree to a new contract, struggled a bit at times in his own end last season, but he did put up 27 points in 48 games. Snow did not acquire any defensemen during the offseason to try to replace that offense, a clear sign he believes the answer can come from within.

Perhaps the biggest battle in training camp will come down to three players most capable of filling the void left by Streit's departure. Matt Donovan is likely the favorite after scoring 93 points during the past two seasons with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League. Calvin de Haan, a first-round pick (No. 12) in 2009, has offensive ability but missed almost all of last season with a shoulder injury.

The wild card is Griffin Reinhart, the fourth player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft. The 19-year-old could receive a nine-game tryout at the start of the season before the Islanders have to decide whether to keep him or return him to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League for one more season.

"This is a good chance for a few different things," coach Jack Capuano said. "We can evaluate our young guys pushing for a spot and see who needs more time in the American Hockey League. We'll also see some of our older guys and what kind of summers they had and where they're at. We have some new guys on our team, and that gives them an opportunity to get familiar with our system."

3. Brock Nelson could be the No. 3 center -- The Islanders had two second-round picks at the 2010 NHL Draft; Snow traded both of them to the Chicago Blackhawks in order to move up to the final selection of Round 1, where he took Nelson, a 6-foot-3 center now pushing for a spot on the big club.

Nelson is coming off a solid rookie pro season at Bridgeport, where he had 25 goals and 27 assists in 66 games. The Warroad, Minn., native is battling free-agent signee Peter Regin to be the No. 3 center, as Capuano seems set on keeping the fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald intact.

"I've seen enough of Brock to know that he's close," Capuano said. "He's a guy that's big and strong and has paid his dues in the offseason. He just goes about his business a certain way and we like the way he goes about it. He's going to get a real good look in this preseason."


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