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Islanders again hope for breakthrough season

by Brian Compton

Expectations were high for the New York Islanders a season ago. They were coming off a strong second half in 2010-11 and appeared to be on the verge of bigger and better things.

Instead, the 2011-12 campaign provided more anguish. The Islanders stumbled through the month of November -- they won four of 13 games and were shut out four times -- and never fully recovered. They ended up finishing in the bottom five of the NHL standings for a fifth straight year.

"I think consistency had a big part in that," coach Jack Capuano told over the summer regarding the team's shortcomings. "I thought that times throughout the year, our battle level was high and our will to compete was high, but special teams went through a little bit of a funk. We just didn't generate the offense like we did in the second half of the year.

Season Preview: Atlantic Division

"It's about coming to the rink every day to get better. We talk about these things and the intangibles for what it's going to take for our team to get to the postseason. Some of our younger players now are at that point now where I think they're going to take that next step."

The Islanders used their latest lottery pick on hulking defenseman Griffin Reinhart, who met the team's brass on the podium at the Consol Energy Center only moments after the club acquired blueliner Lubomir Visnovsky from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round pick in 2013.

New York, which finished 23 points out of fourth place in the Atlantic Division, made more subtle changes this summer via free agency. The Islanders watched wing PA Parenteau -- who put up 120 points in two seasons -- sign a four-year, $16 million contract with the Colorado Avalanche, then replaced him with Brad Boyes on a one-year, $1 million deal.

Boyes, who had 43 goals for the St. Louis Blues in 2007-08, scored eight times in 65 games for the Buffalo Sabres last season. Boyes will likely get to skate with John Tavares, the budding superstar who had 81 points (31 goals, 50 assists) in his third NHL season and emerged as a leader in New York's dressing room.

Frans Nielsen continues to be one of the more underrated centers in the League and was rewarded with a new four-year contract last season, but will he be the Islanders' No. 2 or No. 3 center? That depends on Ryan Strome, their first-round pick from 2011. It's likely Strome will receive a five-game look in the NHL before the Islanders determine whether to keep him or return him to the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League. If Strome stays and performs, the Isles suddenly become strong down the middle with Tavares, Strome, Nielsen, Casey Cizikas and Marty Reasoner all in the mix.

"We have to make a push this year, and to me, the young guys that come in if they compete and do the job, there's always going to be a spot on our team," Capuano said. "If the coaching staff thinks they can step in and help our team win, then they're going to get every opportunity. A lot of these kids are highly skilled, and that's something that we need with the production we put up last year with the goals for versus goals against (203 for, 255 against)."

Matt Moulson -- one of the better finds by any NHL team in the past few seasons -- is coming off his third straight 30-goal season and leads the Islanders' young group of wingers. Kyle Okposo struggled out of the gate, but finished strong with 24 goals. Michael Grabner, a finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2011 who saw his goals total dip from 34 to 20, suffered an abdominal tear while playing in Europe during the work stoppage but is healthy and looking to bounce back this season. Josh Bailey was converted from center to wing during the 2011-12 campaign and had 17 points in his final 19 games, but could miss the start of the season with an injury.

Matt Martin, 23, led the entire League in hits (374) and could see his role grow. The same goes for David Ullstrom, who split last season between New York and Bridgeport. Veteran enforcer Eric Boulton, who spent 2011-12 with the New Jersey Devils, is also in the fold after signing a one-year contract.

Nino Niederreiter -- the club's first-round pick (No. 5) in 2010 -- struggled as a rookie in the NHL, scoring one goal in 55 games. The Swiss winger, who turned 20 in September, seemingly found his touch playing for Bridgeport during the work stoppage, leading the team in scoring and ranking among the league leaders in goals and points. Despite this, he was not one of the players recalled from Bridgeport for the start of camp.

Nino Niederreiter
Nino Niederreiter
Right Wing - NYI
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 1
SOG: 74 | +/-: -29

"Nino and I have had some great talks," Capuano said during the summer. "He didn't have the year he wanted or the year we thought he'd have, but he's still just a young kid and I think you can lose sight of that. It was a good learning experience for him. Coming off the year that he had, there's no question you know what your expectations are for yourself now. You know exactly the mistakes that you've made and some of the good things you've done. I think Nino has a real good understanding now if he wants to be a successful player, he knows exactly what he has to do now."

Needing an upgrade in toughness on their blue line, the Islanders signed defenseman Matt Carkner to a three-year contract. Carkner, 31, was limited to 29 regular-season games for the Ottawa Senators last season because of a knee injury, but returned for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Matt was in Binghamton when I was in Bridgeport and we played against him quite a bit and had our battles," Capuano said. "To have that size and grit on our blue line is something we need for sure. He's excited about coming to Long Island and being a part of the Islanders. It's definitely going to give us a boost on the back end."

Carkner could find himself on a third-pairing with either Matt Donovan or Aaron Ness, rookies who had brief NHL stints last season and have been stalwarts on the Bridgeport blue line during the work stoppage. Calvin de Haan also figured to factor into that mix before a dislocated shoulder suffered playing for the Sound Tigers in late October sidelined him for the season.

"The coaching staff in Bridgeport did a great job with the kids," Capuano said during the summer. "The one thing that I saw in those guys besides the hockey sense is their body and how they change and how they mature and their strength. When they came up, they played well for us."

Expected to lead the way on the Islanders' blue line, 22-year-old Travis Hamonic, a second-round pick from 2008 who had 24 points and a plus-6 rating in 73 games last season, is working his way back from a concussion while playing for Bridgeport. Joined by team captain Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Visnovsky, a healthy Hamonic would give the Isles a solid top-four.

"Travis is one of those guys ... he's very mature for his age and he's a leader on and off the ice," Capuano said. "He's a special player and a special person. He and Andrew MacDonald -- two young kids -- they've played real well for us and accepted the challenge of playing against top lines. When you miss a year like Streit did, he really started to come on the second half of the year. He's a great leader for us. When you talk about those three guys, it's a great foundation for our team."

"The coaching staff in Bridgeport did a great job with the kids. The one thing that I saw in those guys besides the hockey sense is their body and how they change and how they mature and their strength. When they came up, they played well for us." -- Jack Capuano

Visnovksy's contribution this season remains to be determined. He has stated he does not want to leave the Kontinental Hockey League to join the Islanders, but the team expects him to arrive and play. He could be suspended, and a pact between the NHL and KHL should make him ineligible to play for Bratislava Slovan as well.

Evgeni Nabokov returns as the club's No. 1 goaltender after putting up solid numbers (19-18-3, 2.55 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) in 2011-12. He will be backed up by some combination of Rick DiPietro, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson. DiPietro is healthy after injuries again limited him to fewer than 10 appearances last season (he had a 3.73 GAA and .876 save percentage in eight games). Should the injury bug continue to haunt him, Poulin and Nilsson had cups of coffee in New York last season and are capable of backup duty at the NHL level.

Can the Islanders compete in an Atlantic Division that boasted four 100-point teams in 2011-12? That remains to be seen, but Capuano knows it begins with faring better against the four biggest foes after going 8-13-3 within the Atlantic last season.

"When you break it all down, that division is as tough as it gets," Capuano said. "It starts with the goaltenders in that division. All games are critical, but when you play within the division, they're four-point games. We understand that. I think the confidence in the guys is there. They know that if we play within the framework and the foundation of how we want to play, we can have success."

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