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Islanders poised to face new challenges in new home

by Brian Compton / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

NEW YORK -- After 43 years at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, the New York Islanders have a new address.

The Islanders will open the 2015-16 season against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 9 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The players are excited about the opportunity to play their home games in a state-of-the-art arena, but the days of driving 10-15 minutes from their homes to the Coliseum are in the rearview mirror.

So if they plan on qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in four seasons, the Islanders know they will have to get acclimated to their new surroundings quickly.

"It's going to be different," right wing Kyle Okposo said. "There's some new challenges, new adjustments that are going to have to be made by everybody. It's going to be a feeling-out process kind of getting used to the routine and that whole bit, because we'd been at Nassau and successful and it's easy for us to live out on the Island. We're just going to have to get used to everything, but we're excited about the new facilities and the new building."

Forwards

The Islanders essentially are returning the same forward group that helped them win 47 games last season. It's led by captain John Tavares, who didn't miss a game and finished second in the NHL in scoring with 86 points (38 goals, 48 assists). He could center a line with two young players; left wing Anders Lee, 25, scored 25 goals as a rookie last season and Ryan Strome, 22, had 17 goals and 33 assists in 81 games.

It's a big season for Okposo, who is playing for a contract. Okposo missed nearly two months because of a detached retina, an injury he believes won't be an issue moving forward. There's a chance Okposo also will receive time on a line with Tavares.

"Eye's good. Normal," Okposo said. "I have a scary situation behind me and now I can just focus on playing hockey."

Entering his eighth season, center Frans Nielsen is the longest-tenured player on the Islanders, but also is playing for a contract. Nielsen was hampered by an ankle injury down the stretch last season but has a clean bill of health and could be primed to return to the form that saw him score 25 goals in 2013-14.

Mikhail Grabovski, who can play center or wing, also returns after injuries limited him to 51 games last season, his first with the Islanders. The 31-year-old is capable of scoring 20 goals if he can stay on the ice.

The Islanders also boast arguably the most rugged fourth line in the NHL with Casey Cizikas centering Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Martin (382) and Clutterbuck (343) were 1-2 in the League in hits last season and combined to score 15 goals.

Perhaps the most intriguing story up front for the Islanders in training camp is forward Kirill Petrov, who is in North America after being selected by New York in the third round (No. 73) of the 2008 NHL Draft. Petrov, who spent the previous nine seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, has impressed during the past two weeks.

Defensemen

Islanders general manager Garth Snow made huge splashes one week prior to the start of last season when he acquired Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks and Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins. The two immediately clicked as the Islanders' top defensive pairing, played against the opposition's best on a nightly basis and contributed consistently at each end of the ice.

Boychuk could have been an unrestricted free agent July 1, but on March 12 he signed a seven-year, $42 million contract to remain with the Islanders. Leddy signed a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in February.

Travis Hamonic missed the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs after sustaining a knee injury in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamonic, who was missed during the Islanders' physical Eastern Conference First Round series against the Washington Capitals, led New York in average ice time per game at 21:47.

"The knee's felt great all summer. I haven't had any issues," Hamonic said.

Calvin de Haan is expected to be Hamonic's defense partner. De Haan struggled down the stretch and was injured during the playoffs, but the hope is the 24-year-old will bounce back.

COMING AND GOING



2014-15 record:
47-28-7, 3rd in Metropolitan Division

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost against Washington Capitals in Eastern Conference First Round in seven games

Key additions: D Marek Zidlicky, G Thomas Greiss

Key subtractions: D Lubomir Visnovsky, D Griffin Reinhart, G Michal Neuvirth, RW Michael Grabner

Marek Zidlicky, 38, signed a one-year contract with the Islanders on the second day of training camp and is expected to skate on the third pairing. Zidlicky had 11 points in 21 games for the Detroit Red Wings after being acquired from the New Jersey Devils on March 2. He will be expected to help a power play that was inconsistent last season and was 0-for-14 in seven playoff games against Washington.

Zidlicky's partner was expected to be Thomas Hickey, but Hickey will miss a month because of an upper-body injury. Veteran Brian Strait, who was expected to be the seventh defenseman this season, likely will start the season in a top-six role.

To fill out the roster the Islanders could keep 2013 first-round pick (No. 15) Ryan Pulock to start the season. He had 17 goals and 29 points in 54 games with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League last season. They also could recall Scott Mayfield, a 2011 second-round pick (No. 34), who was sent to Bridgeport on Sept. 29.

When Hickey is healthy he'll likely go back with Zidlicky. At that point the Islanders could have some tough decisions when it comes to the defense corps.

"It makes it difficult [for them], but at the same time there's a lot that can happen from now until then," coach Jack Capuano said of how Zidlicky's signing impacts Pulock and Mayfield. "We've all been in that situation before. You come to the rink every day, do the best you can and let the cards fall where they fall.

"For me, healthy competition is a good thing."

Goalies

The Islanders are more stable in goal than they've been in years. Jaroslav Halak is entering his second season as the No. 1 goaltender after going 38-17-4 with a 2.43 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage in 59 games last season. He sustained an upper-body injury during training camp but is expected to be ready for the regular-season opener Oct. 9 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Halak will be backed up by Thomas Greiss, who signed a two-year contract July 1. Greiss played 20 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, going 9-6-3 with a 2.59 GAA and a .908 save percentage.

"It's a good team. A contender," Greiss told the Islanders website. "They will be able to make the playoffs. It's a good, young group and a good group of guys."

Special Teams

The Islanders' power play finished 16th in the League last season at 18.7 percent. Thirteen of Tavares' 38 goals came with the man advantage; Brock Nelson scored 10 power-play goals.

But the power play failed the Islanders when they needed it the most, something that can't happen if they hope to win a playoff series next spring for the first time since 1993.

The penalty-killing unit was better during the second half of last season but finished 26th in the NHL at 78.0 percent. A healthy Nielsen should help in this area.

Nikolay Kulemin led the Islanders with three shorthanded goals last season; Cizikas and Clutterbuck each had two.

Coaches

Capuano is entering his fifth full season behind the Islanders' bench; he had his most successful season in 2014-15, helping the Islanders to 47 wins, 101 points and third place in the Metropolitan Division. He'll be working with essentially the same group this season.

"I think we've been successful because it's about details, it's about structure and it's about repetition," Capuano said. "For me, sometimes it's good to have a lot of guys back; sometimes it's challenging for a coach.

"I think guys know the expectations of our hockey club. We have a lot of guys that are battling for ice time and that's always a good thing when you've got healthy competition."

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