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Islanders look to take big step forward

by John Kreiser
New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow has spent the last four years rebuilding, working to assemble a base of young talent after taking over a franchise that was relying on pickups and free agents due to years of poor drafting and trading.

There was plenty of optimism entering last season, but injuries derailed the Islanders -- they lost more than 600 man-games to injury and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference. Snow fired coach Scott Gordon before Thanksgiving and brought up Jack Capuano from the Isles' AHL affiliate in Bridgeport to take over on an interim basis.

Despite the barrage of injuries -- they played six goaltenders and 15 defensemen -- Capuano righted the ship and the Islanders were among the NHL's more successful teams from Christmas through late March, before they ran out of healthy bodies, especially on defense. The improvement under Capuano, however, earned him a full-time job -- and the continuing influx of young talent has Snow feeling that his rebuild is about to pay off.


ones to watch
"We're in Year 4 of it, and if you look at the players who are playing for us -- John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, we were fortunate enough to get Michael Grabner on waivers, Travis Hamonic, Andrew McDonald, and right on down the line -- you see a good nucleus of core players that will help us to be in a position to bring a Stanley Cup back to Long Island," he said.

There doesn't figure to be a Stanley Cup on the Island this season -- for now, Snow and the rest of the organization would be more than happy with the team's first playoff berth since 2007.

"Everyone in the room wants to make the playoffs, obviously, and go from there," said Grabner, who went from waiver-wire pickup to Calder Trophy finalist by scoring 34 goals. "I think the way we played the last three or four months after Christmas -- I think we kept up with every team in the League. We beat a lot of the best teams in the League, and we played some pretty good hockey. It's up to us to take the next step, to start off (well) and keep building on that and make it to the playoffs.

As he enters his third NHL season with a new six-year contract in his pocket, Tavares is on the brink of stardom. The first pick of the 2009 Entry Draft improved from 24 goals and 54 points as a rookie to 29 and 67, respectively, last season. He's improved his skating and strength, and his confidence appears to be growing as well. For the Islanders to make the playoffs, Tavares has to continue to rise.

"The Stanley Cup is what we want," Tavares said after signing the extension Sept. 15 -- assuring that he'll stay through the 2017-18 season. "That's what pushes us. That's what we're driven for. Obviously, sooner rather than later would be great. For us, this season it's one day at a time. Being a young team, we have a little bit more experience now. I think it's time for us to take that next step."

Tavares recently said he wants to take more of a leadership role, something that Capuano feels he's ready to do.

"He wants to be the go-to guy," Capuano told "I really like his attitude. He has that leadership about him.


IN: Marty Reasoner, C (free agent, Panthers); Brian Rolston, LW (trade, Devils); Steve Staios, D (tryout, Flames)

OUT: Bruno Gervais, D (trade, Lightning); Jack Hillen, D (free agent, Predators); Trent Hunter, RW (trade, Devils); Radek Martinek, D (free agent, Blue Jackets); Doug Weight, C (retired)
"John, ever since he was young, has had a lot of pressure on him. He loves the challenge, and that's what we love about him as a coaching staff. He wants to be in a position to take the team on his back."

In addition to solid drafting, Snow has done a terrific job shopping in the NHL's bargain basement. Two years ago he came up with Matt Moulson, a back-to-back 30-goal scorer who's been an excellent fit with Tavares. Last season, it was Grabner and PA Parenteau, who had 20 goals and 33 assists and filled out the top line with Tavares and Moulson.

In addition to signing Tavares, Snow has gotten Moulson (three years), Okposo (five) and Grabner (five) locked up long-term.

Okposo, the Isles' first-rounder in 2006, missed half the season with a shoulder injury but looked like a good fit with Grabner and center Frans Nielsen, who recorded 44 points and a League-leading 7 shorthanded goals. Josh Bailey, the ninth pick of the 2009 draft, has shown flashes of potential, while Blake Comeau is coming off a career-high 24-goal season and has the ability to do more. Brian Rolston, acquired from New Jersey during the summer, brings experience, success and a still-potent slap shot to the mix.

The Isles let NHL penalty minutes leader Zenon Konopka leave as a free agent and replaced him as their fourth-line center with veteran Marty Reasoner, who had 14 goals and 32 points with Florida last season while winning more than 54 percent of his faceoffs.

2010 first-round pick Nino Niederreiter is a good bet to earn a spot this season. He didn't look out of place in a nine-game tryout last season, and then totaled 41 goals and 70 points in 55 games with Portland of the Western Hockey League. It's a measure of the Isles' improved talent level that 2011 first pick Ryan Strome likely will be returned to his junior team rather than be pushed into the NHL before he's ready.

The most dangerous place in hockey last season was on the Islanders' blue line. Injuries forced the team to use 15 defensemen, none of whom played as many as 65 games. Mark Streit, the Isles' best blueliner, never even made it to a preseason game -- he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury during an intrasquad scrimmage in September.

When healthy, Streit plays about 25 minutes a game, in all situations. He was named team captain on Sept. 21, and figures to be an ideal mentor for the Isles' kiddie corps. He's reportedly healthy again, but the cast around him has changed a lot.

The good news stemming from all the injuries was that youngsters like Hamonic, MacDonald and midseason acquisition Ty Wishart got extended opportunities to show what they could do -- and showed they were capable of playing at the NHL level.

"The kids got a chance to work and they played extremely well," Capuano told "Sometimes when they come up there might be a little more structure and it may be an easier game for some kids to play. I was extremely happy with their passion, their work ethic on and off the ice."

Perhaps the most impressive was Hamonic, a 2008 second-round pick who was recalled from AHL Bridgeport early in the season due to injuries and played so well the Isles couldn't send him back. Not only did Hamonic provide some much-needed physicality to the blue line, he also had 5 goals and 21 assists in 62 games while playing an average of 21:34 a night. He partnered well with MacDonald, a sixth-rounder in 2006 who led the defense in scoring with 27 points and was plus-9 on a team that was outscored by 33 goals. Wishart played 20 games after coming from Tampa Bay in a midseason trade and didn't look out of place with 1 goal and 5 points.

They may be joined by another youngster, Calvin de Haan, the Isles' second first-rounder in 2009. De Haan has spent two seasons working on his strength, while his skills are NHL-ready now. He may need some time in Bridgeport, but few doubt he has the talent to be an impact player.

Streit isn't the only veteran returning healthy, as Mike Mottau, Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina all missed significant time with injuries last season.

If it's true that when you have two No. 1 goalies you don't really have any, what's it like when you have six?

That's how many the Islanders used last season -- they dealt away 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson at midseason, then watched as one goalie after another went down with injuries. Snow stabilized the situation in February by acquiring Al Montoya, a 2004 first-round pick by the Rangers, from Phoenix for a 2011 sixth-round pick. Montoya, a backup in the AHL, not only provided a healthy body in goal, he also played well enough to earn a contract and a chance to compete for the top job.

To get it, he'll have to beat out a mix of veterans and rookies.

Rick DiPietro, whose last healthy season was 2007-08, played 26 games but was the NHL's bottom-ranked goaltender among 47 qualifiers with a 3.44 goals-against average. Former Shark Evgeni Nabokov refused to report when the Isles claimed him in February but came to camp looking for a job. Youngsters Kevin Poulin, Mikko Koskinen and Anders Nilsson also are trying to make an impression.

With 10 years remaining on his contract, it's tough to imagine DiPietro won't have a job; that could leave Nabokov (if he's not traded) and Montoya fighting for one spot. Two of the three youngsters could wind up at Bridgeport; Nilsson played in Sweden last season and could be sent there rather than to the minors.

Capuano said he'll use the preseason as a chance to sort out who will play and who won't.

"Competition is great," he said, "and the guy who stops the puck and wins the job is going to play."
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