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Isles bank on Tavares, DiPietro to continue growth

by Mike G. Morreale
New York Islanders center John Tavares isn't oblivious to the fact Steven Stamkos had a coming-out party in his second NHL season.

When caught up with Tavares late last season, he reiterated that point, realizing it took a lot of hard offseason work and dedication by Stamkos to go from 23 goals as a rookie to 51 in 2009-10. Tavares possesses that same gumption as Stamkos. He might not look at things the same way, but that doesn't mean expectations won't be even higher his second season on Long Island.

Though Tavares doesn't have the kind of help around him like Stamkos does -- Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, among others -- Tavares is beginning to find himself surrounded by some better talent, including Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Blake Comeau and the fifth pick of the 2010 Draft, Nino Niederreiter, the highest Swiss-born player ever drafted by an NHL team.

"(Stamkos and I) are two different kinds of players, but I think we're both high-profile players coming into the NHL and we both want to keep doing well and improving," Tavares told "If I can keep improving and keep contributing at a high level, then I think for sure that it'd be great to keep making those strides and get better every single year."

Tavares, who was second on the Islanders last season with 24 goals and first with 11 power-play goals and 54 points, seems primed to take that next step.

The Isles finished fifth in the Atlantic Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference with 34 wins and 79 points in 2009-10 -- a jump of 18 points from 2008-09, but nine points short of a playoff berth. The team last broke the 40-win mark in 2006-07, which also was the last time it qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With Gordon entering the final season of his contract, there will be pressure for more improvement, if not a playoff berth, this season.

Adding Tavares helped the Islanders make some strides on offense -- they finished 21st (2.61 goals per game) last season after placing 29th (2.42) in 2008-09. The Islanders failed to produce a 20-goal scorer for the first time in team history in 2008-09, but linemates Matt Moulson (30) and Tavares (24) both broke that barrier last season.

Look for Gordon to keep Moulson and Tavares together on most nights. Former first-round picks Okposo (19 goals, 33 assists) and Bailey (16 goals, 19 assists and a team-best plus-5 rating) showed improvement last season, and Comeau (17 goals) was among the NHL's hottest players down the stretch. A healthy season from captain Doug Weight, who had 17 points but played in just 36 games due to shoulder problems that required season-ending surgery, would boost the power play.

The Isles hope veteran Trent Hunter (28 points, 126 hits) and youngsters Frans Nielsen (12 goals, 38 points) and Rob Schremp (25 points) can continue to make strides. Expect minor-league sniper P.A. Parenteau to receive a chance after producing 20 goals and 25 assists in 35 games for the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack last season. Parenteau, 27, has been a big scorer at the AHL level; he played in 22 games with the New York Rangers last season and notched 3 goals and 5 assists. The Isles hope he'll emulate Moulson, who blossomed when finally given a chance to play at the NHL level.

Niederreiter, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract Sept. 21, skated on a line with Bailey and Nielsen on the opening day of training camp and figures to get a chance to make the team, at least for the first nine games before the Isles would have to commit to keeping him for a full season. The 18-year-old Swiss sensation had 36 goals and 60 points in 65 games in his first junior season with the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks in 2009-10. He's bigger and stronger than Bailey and Tavares, who both played in their first season after being drafted.

The one area General Manager Garth Snow was determined to upgrade after finishing 28th in goals allowed for a second straight season was defense. The Isles surrendered 264 goals, second-most in the Eastern Conference, and physically were overmatched in their own zone on most nights.

He feels he addressed those needs by signing Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina during the opening week of free agency and acquiring James Wisniewski from Anaheim for a conditional third-round draft pick. Wisniewski finished with a career-high 30 points in 69 games last season.

More will be required of them, as well as the rest of the defense corps, in the wake of a left shoulder injury suffered by top defenseman Mark Streit. Streit fell hard into boards during a scrimmage Saturday and the Islanders have said he will be out indefinitely.

If Streit misses a major amount of time, it would be a huge blow to the team. Streit had 11 goals and 49 points last season, played 25:41 per game, and skated in all situations.

Among those who will be looked at to step up are Jack Hillen, who returns for a third season, and Andrew MacDonald, who finished second on the team with a plus-4 rating as a rookie last season. Bruno Gervais, 25, who had 103 blocked shots and 63 hits, could be squeezed out. The team also offered a training camp invitation to 35-year-old Anders Eriksson, who had 5 points in 20 NHL games with the Coyotes and Rangers. He also played in the AHL last season.

The organization also has a few defensive prospects waiting in the wings, including 6-foot, 180-pound Calvin de Haan, who sustained a torn labrum and underwent shoulder surgery in January. In two seasons with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, de Haan -- selected 12th in the 2009 Draft -- has 13 goals and 74 assists in 102 games. De Haan's biggest task is to get bigger, which could mean another season in Oshawa.

Travis Hamonic, a second-round pick in 2008, is more physical than de Haan, a teammate with Team Canada at the 2010 World Junior Championships. Expect Hamonic to start the season with the Isles' AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but don't be surprised if he reaches Long Island at some point.

In the last two seasons Rick DiPietro, who signed a 15-year, $67.5 million contract in September 2006, has played in 13 games for the Islanders. During that time, he's gone 3-8-0 with a 3.06 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.

He's also had two hip surgeries, two knee surgeries, been listed day-to-day with the flu and has sustained multiple concussions -- certainly not the ideal scenario for your franchise goalie.

Still, the 29-year-old DiPietro, who says he hasn't felt discomfort in his knee for about a month now, is confident he'll be ready for the start of the season.

"The last couple of years have been tough, but I've learned a lot of pretty important lessons," DiPietro said. "You take the positive out of all of that and move forward. I'm pretty optimistic and excited about the start of the season."

Snow signed Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron last summer, but Roloson got the bulk of the playing time and Snow allowed Biron to leave as a free agent this summer (he signed with the Rangers). Roloson is capable of handling a heavy workload, having gone to the Stanley Cup Final with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. If DiPietro can't play, it's likely Nathan Lawson would become Roloson's understudy. Lawson was 16-16-3 with a 2.52 GAA and .922 save percentage in Bridgeport last season.

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