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Islanders have big decisions to make

by John Kreiser
The Olympic break couldn't have come at a better time for the New York Islanders.

The rebuilding Isles went from surprising holders of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference in late January to barely visible in the race by losing seven in a row and nine of their last 11 games before the break. There was plenty of blame to go around – the offense struggled to score, the undersized, wafer-thin defense couldn't slow down opposing forwards and the goaltending wasn't stealing games the way it had during an early January surge that had carried the Isles into the top eight.

It was a reality check for the Islanders and their fans, who had visions of making the playoffs one season after finishing with the worst record in the NHL. With 20 games remaining, they are 13th in the East, six points out of the final playoff berth.

"We have to win," said Matt Moulson, the team leader with 22 goals. "It's pretty simple."

With 58 points, the Islanders are only three shy of their total for all of last season, when they finished last in the overall standings with 61. But their 25-29-8 record is deceptive: 12 of the 25 victories have come in overtime or shootouts. In addition, five of the eight OT/shootout losses came in games that saw New York blow a lead.

The Islanders should get some reinforcements when they resume play against Chicago Tuesday. Defenseman Jack Hillen, sidelined since late January with a broken jaw, is scheduled to return. So are Tim Jackman, one of the Isles' few body-bangers up front, and Josh Bailey, whose play had improved significantly in his second season before he missed the last couple weeks before the break with an upper-body injury. The Isles also should be well-rested -- only defenseman Mark Streit took part in the Vancouver Games, and his Swiss team was eliminated Wednesday.

Owner Charles Wang said recently that GM Garth Snow would be given the financial flexibility to add players if he felt it would help. But the Isles might also go the other way – they are carrying three goaltenders, so either Martin Biron or Dwayne Roloson could be dealt. So could impending free-agent defenseman Andy Sutton (having an excellent season) and a couple other veterans.

Here's a breakdown of the Isles as they enter the final six weeks of the season:

Goaltending -- Rick DiPietro has had his ups and downs since returning from knee surgery that cost him a full year, but with a contract that runs through 2021, he's not going anywhere. The Isles brought in both Biron (one year) and Roloson (two years) last summer to share the job until DiPietro returned, but Roloson has gotten the majority of the work. Biron went six weeks without playing an NHL game, then won two starts in the final week before the break.

Assuming DiPietro stays healthy, figure he'll play at least half of the remaining 20 games. Depending on what offers Snow receives, either Biron or Roloson figures to be dealt by Wednesday's trade deadline.

Defense -- Streit hasn't been as productive as he was last season, but as he showed while captaining Switzerland at the Olympics, he's still a top-level defenseman capable of playing major minutes.

Sutton has stayed healthy and had his best season in years. He's also one of the few Islanders defensemen with any size and hitting skills. But he's also a free agent after this season -- and with defensemen at a premium, Snow will have to weigh the potential benefits of keeping Sutton for a try at the playoffs against what he might be able to get for him from a defense-hungry contender in a deal.

Hillen and minor-league callup Andy MacDonald (signed to a four-year extension during the break) have showed that they can play in the NHL. Youngster Bruno Gervais has plateaued and undersized Freddy Meyer is best suited to be a sixth or seventh defenseman. Dustin Kohn, called up when Brendan Witt was waived and sent to the minors, isn't a difference-maker. There's no one else in the minors who can help.

This is an area Snow will work to improve. The Isles' defense isn't big enough or skilled enough.

Forwards -- The Isles' reward for finishing last in '08-09 was the first pick in the Entry Draft – which they turned into center John Tavares. The 19-year-old got off to a sizzling start with 15 goals in 31 games, but got just 2 in the next 31.

"I can't count how many goalposts I've hit," Tavares said.

Islanders Coach Scott Gordon has pressed upon Tavares the importance of doing more than just scoring goals – and said he's been pleased with the way the rookie center has played defensively and done the little things that don't show up on a scoresheet.

"When he doesn't score, he's doing other things that are helping the team win," Gordon said.

Moulson, who signed as a free agent and has spent much of the season on Tavares' left wing, is the biggest surprise with 21 goals. 2006 first-rounder Kyle Okposo leads the Isles with 40 points and has been the team's best forward for much of the season. Bailey, the Isles' top pick in 2008, is improved from his rookie season. But overall, the Isles have struggled to put the puck in the net.

"We could have won some more games if we'd scored some goals," Gordon said.

Rookie center Rob Schremp has shown flashes of incredible skill. He and Frans Nielsen have given the Isles a tough top two in shootouts. But the rest of the forwards try hard but are neither skilled nor especially physical. February callup Matt Martin has added a little size and figures to get a chance to play his way into a bigger role.

Special teams -- Easily the worst in the NHL. Tavares' slump has gutted the power play – now last in the NHL. The penalty-killers have been almost as bad; they've had to improve to get up to 27th. The Isles' lack of size has been especially apparent on the penalty kill, where only the play of the goaltenders has kept things from being much worse.

Coaching and mental makeup -- Gordon was part of the Team USA brain trust at the Olympics. His task now is to bring some of the Americans' mental toughness to Long Island. The Isles are among the NHL leaders in losing games after leading by two or more goals – and that doesn't count four games in which they've led by three goals, blown those leads but won in shootouts. Their last game before the break was a microcosm of their season – they played well enough to lead 3-1 after two periods, couldn't cash in on a power play that would have extended the lead, then saw Ottawa score three quick goals to steal the win. This has been a problem in two years under Gordon, and there has been no sign of improvement.

Down the stretch --
Snow will have less than three days to decide if he's a buyer or a seller. After that, Gordon will try to keep them focused on making the playoffs – a goal that's probably not realistic at this stage of the franchise's rebuild. Though it might be heresy to suggest, the Isles could well be served by a bottom-three finish and another premium draft pick to follow Tavares – after all, Sidney Crosby's first-year Penguins finished 29th, added Evgeni Malkin and seem to have done OK since then, The Isles are better than they were last year at this time and have some good young talent on the way up, but they're still short in both size and skill for now.

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