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For Islanders, all eyes are on Tavares

by Brian Compton /
The New York Islanders are entering Season 2 of their rebuilding process, and this time with their biggest new piece to date.

John Tavares is the Isles' reward for finishing the 2008-09 season with the fewest points in the NHL (61), and is a certainty to make a roster that is desperate for goal scoring. The Islanders lit the lamp only 201 times last season, the fewest in the Eastern Conference.

That total is bound to increase with the addition of Tavares, who scored an Ontario Hockey League-record 215 goals during his junior career.

"It's an exciting time for the Islanders organization as we develop our young talent into a contender," Isles GM Garth Snow said. "John provides another important piece to help us achieve our ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup."

As expected, the Islanders will be incredibly young up front, as four of their projected top six forwards will be 25 or younger.

While coach Scott Gordon has until Oct. 3 to work on line combinations, it appears the top trio will feature Tavares, Doug Weight and Kyle Okposo.

Gordon, though, told he's trying to figure out a way to keep Tavares at his natural center position. If he plays with Weight and Okposo, it's likely Tavares would be the left wing.

"I think my preference would be to have him play center," Gordon said, "but we'll see as we go along how he handles it. You're now playing against men versus 16- or 17-year-olds. I think last year we had a pretty good idea of how Josh Bailey had to go through it. You're going to have your ups and downs. You get down low and you're battling some of these guys who are 6-foot-4, it's a little bit tougher. We'll see how he adapts."

 "Just at such an early age, his composure around the net ... I think if you talked to anybody, when he gets to the top of the circles you notice him right away," Gordon said. "Whether it's his shot, his ability to work around the defensemen with the puck is pretty unique."

Tavares' arrival should take some pressure off the shoulders of Bailey, who should be the team's second-line center this season. Bailey was the Isles' first choice (No. 9) at the 2008 Entry Draft and made the club out of training camp. He had 25 points (7 goals, 18 assists) in 68 games. He'll likely skate with Trent Hunter on the right and either Sean Bergenheim or Blake Comeau on the left.

"Everyone's going to put pressure on themselves to succeed, and obviously I'm going to have to do that," Bailey told "But obviously a lot of people are going to be watching John and seeing what he can do, too."

The Islanders also would really like to see what Jeff Tambellini can do at the NHL level, too. A dynamite player in the AHL, Tambellini, 25, has just 11 goals in 144 NHL games. Gordon is hoping the former first-round pick (Los Angeles, 2003) will have a breakout campaign.

"We want everybody to elevate their games ... not just Jeff," Gordon said of Tambellini, who could skate on the third line with Frans Nielsen and Richard Park. "The second half (of last season) for Jeff was probably the best that he's played in the NHL. But in saying that, we feel that he's got to even go a bit further. But the thing I do like about Jeff is that he took the next step in making himself versatile as far as that he made contributions outside of scoring goals. He became an asset away from the puck."

The fourth line is up for grabs. Nate Thompson, who played for Gordon when the latter coached AHL Providence, likely will center the line. On the wings, though, several players are in the mix, such as Jon Sim, Jesse Joensuu, Tim Jackman, Joel Rechlicz and Trevor Smith.

"I was coming off an injury, and things didn't go well for myself or the whole team," said Sim, who didn't bounce back in 2008-09 the way he had hoped after missing the final 80 games of the previous season. "I just came into camp with a positive attitude and looking for an opportunity to play."

In the summer of 2008, the big-time contracts for defensemen went to Brian Campbell (Chicago) and Wade Redden (New York Rangers). But from an economic standpoint, the Islanders hit the jackpot with the signing of Mark Streit.

Streit, who turns 32 in December, led all scorers on Long Island last season with 56 points (16 goals, 40 assists) in 74 games. Not only did he contribute offensively, but Streit also eliminated previous thoughts that he wasn't a solid player in his own end of the ice -- Streit was a team-best plus-5 on a team that was outscored by 76 goals. The Isles' No. 1 defenseman is excited about the potential his young team possesses.

"For everybody, it was a really tough year, Streit said. "I'm excited for next year. We already have so many great young players and the future looks bright."

Streit could be joined by Radek Martinek on the top pairing, which would give the Isles a left- and right-handed shot from the point. The second pairing -- another lefty/righty tandem -- could be veteran Brendan Witt and Bruno Gervais, who is entering his third full season on Long Island. He had 19 points in 69 games in 2008-09.

Andy Sutton returns after missing 59 games last season with hand and foot injuries. The hulking blueliner hasn't played a full campaign since 2005-06 with the Atlanta Thrashers, when he led the club with 195 blocked shots. He could be paired with the offensive-minded Jack Hillen, a Colorado College product who had 17 points in 33 games for AHL Bridgeport last season.

"He proved to be a reliable defenseman and should continue to be a productive player for our team," Isles GM Garth Snow said of Hillen. 

Hillen will battle for the position with Freddy Meyer (who played just 27 games last season) and rookie Andrew MacDonald, a 2006 sixth-round draft choice.

This is where the Islanders will have a much different look in 2009-10. After playing 77 games without franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro due to various knee and hip injuries, the Islanders went out this summer and signed two goalies capable of being the No. 1 -- veterans Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron.

DiPietro, who signed a record 15-year contract in 2006, is skating but likely won't be ready for the Oct. 3 opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But this time around, the Islanders are prepared to play without DiPietro.

"He's not ready to play yet, but we're very happy with the progress he's made," Gordon said. "We're excited that he hasn't had any complications."

Roloson was the first free agent to agree to a deal with the Islanders, as he signed a two-year contract July 1. Roloson, who turns 40 on Oct. 12, went 28-24-9 with a 2.77 goals-against average for the Edmonton Oilers last season.

The Isles then sent shockwaves across the hockey universe three weeks later when they signed Biron to a one-year deal. Biron, 32, went 29-19-5 with a 2.76 GAA and a .915 save percentage for the Philadelphia Flyers last season.

"As the days (of the free agency period) went on, it made more sense to come over here and be a part of the experience and the challenge it will be to have all these young, talented guys," Biron said. "I look forward to being a part of them progressing. I've been really excited since the day I signed and am looking forward to starting the season."

Gordon, entering his second season behind an NHL bench, is excited to have three established goalies on his roster this time. Last season, the duties were shared between Joey MacDonald and Yann Danis in DiPietro's absence.

"It's one thing to lose your No. 1 goaltender, but to have your marquee player out of your lineup, it's a double hit," Gordon said. "You look at the Boston Bruins -- they can play a little while without Marc Savard. They have Tim Thomas. For us, (Ricky's) our best player. Going into the season, if you had told me he was only going to play five games, I would have never have anticipated that. It's certainly not the way you want to start off your career in the NHL."

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