The New York Islanders
spent virtually all of last season trying to earn the respect of a doubting NHL public.
In fact, it wasn’t until they clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season, finishing with 92 points, that the Islanders and first-year coach Ted Nolan received credit for proving their critics wrong.
This season, the legion of doubters could slow traffic on the Long Island Expressway as the Islanders open the regular season without six key members of last year’s Cinderella team. Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake, Alexei Yashin, Viktor Kozlov, Richard Zednik and Arron Asham have switched uniforms and the Islanders are back where they were at this time last year: trying to convince a skeptical public they are still playoff contenders in a much-improved Atlantic Division.
“We like what we have,” said Islanders newly appointed captain Bill Guerin, who cut his NHL teeth with the rival New Jersey Devils back in 1991. “We're a hard working team, and we're going to play as a team. We have 82 games in front of us, and we're going to play hard in every single one of them."
The Isles finished the preseason with a respectable 3-4-2 record and begin playing for keeps Oct. 5 in Buffalo against the equally maligned Sabres. Despite their key losses over the summer, the Isles head into this season with a brand new top line of Guerin, Mike Comrie and Ruslan Fedotenko.
Guerin, 36, is a four-time All-Star coming off a 36-goal season in San Jose. Comrie, 27, signed a one-year deal with the Isles after netting 20 goals and leading the Ottawa Senators to last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
Apparently, Comrie also brings some star-power to the Islanders. Last week he invited multi-platinum recording artist and actress Hilary Duff to a pre-season game between the Isles and Rangers.
Fedotenko, who scored the Cup-clinching goal for the Lightning in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, is looking to rebound from a 12-goal season with the Bolts.
The Isles also added veteran winger Jon Sim, a 30-year-old journeyman who set a career high with 17 goals for the Thrashers last season.
Even with the signings, the Isles will be hard-pressed to fill the scoring voids left by Smyth (36 goals), Blake (40), Yashin (18), Kozlov (25) and Zednik (7). In fact, of the Islanders' top six point producers last season, only two -- Miroslav Satan and Mike Sillinger -- are back.
The Guerin-Comrie-Fedotenko “Three Nations Line” combined for 14 points in just three preseason games and the Isles were 3-0 in the three games they played together as a line.
Guerin showed Islanders fans the kind of leadership be brings to the ice in his final preseason game by dropping the gloves with Boston defenseman Mark Stuart early in the Isles’ 4-2 win over the Bruins Sunday night.
Under the heading of prodigal sons, Bryan Berard is again trying to resume a career that has suffered one setback after another. Berard had one assist in four preseason games and was still on the Islanders’ roster at the end of training camp.
“I'm coming off a tough season,” said Berard, who played just 11 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. “I was injured and I know I have a lot to prove. The Islanders offered me this opportunity and I'm going to repay them by making the most of it. I'm healthy and I'm determined to show Ted Nolan and the team that I can help."
Chris Simon, meanwhile, signed a one-year contract extension with the Islanders over the summer and needs to serve the final five games of a 25-game suspension before returning to the Isles on Oct. 13 in Philadelphia.
“I owe a lot to the Islanders for standing behind me the way they have,” Simon said.
One of Simon’s biggest supporters is Nolan, who coached him as a teenager with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and helped shepherd him through some difficult times early in his career. Last spring, Nolan said he considered Simon his greatest accomplishment as a hockey coach.
Around the Atlantic -- Speaking of former Islanders, Arron Asham is hoping to find happiness in North Jersey, where he’s now playing for the rival Devils. “The Islanders were going in a different direction and I thought it was time for a change,” Asham said. "They had some young kids over there. (Jeff) Tambellini was ready to play and they've got (Sean) Bergenheim. I had some options to go out west. For myself, the east is the way to go. There is less travel and it fits my game.” The ornery Asham has been playing with center Rod Pelley and left wing/center John Madden on the Devils’ checking line. “Lou (Lamoriello) runs a tight ship here. I'm at a point in my career where it's time to get serious and make a bid for the Cup.” … The Devils reportedly are interested in signing free-agent defenseman Danny Markov to strengthen their blue line. Markov was a plus-25 with the Red Wings last season and is perhaps the top blue liner remaining on the open market. With injuries to Colin White and John Oduya, the Devils’ backline is thin with Karel Rachunek, Vitaly Vishnevski, Richard Matvichuk, Paul Martin, Andy Greene and rookie Mike Mottau. … The Rangers have placed defenseman Darius Kasparaitis on waivers. “I wanted to give Darius a fair shot and I think the organization did that,” said Rangers coach Tom Renney. “But with our depth on defense and the combination of his contract situation under the cap and his play, it just wasn't going to happen for him. Once we determined that, we wanted to give Darius his best shot at being picked up by another organization, which is why we put him on waivers now instead of waiting until the end of the pre-season.” … The Penguins reportedly could open the regular season next year in Prague, Czech Republic. The two-game series could also feature the Tampa Bay Lightning. … The Flyers’ attempt to let Steve Downie play for the AHL Phantoms is not expected to be approved by AHL Commissioner Dave Andrews. Downie was suspended 20 games for his big hit on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond last week and it appears he’ll need to serve those 20 games in the Flyers’ weight room and on the club’s practice rink. If Downie serves all 20 games with the Flyers his NHL debut would be pushed back to Nov. 23 when the Flyers face the Washington Capitals. Asked about the hit, former Islander and current Maple Leaf Jason Blake told a Toronto radio station, “This (Downie) should not be (allowed) to play in the league again.”