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Playoffs are a realistic goal for Islanders

by Brian Compton
From Year 1 to Year 2 of Garth Snow's rebuilding program, the New York Islanders saw an 18-point improvement in the standings. Twelve months after selecting John Tavares with the first selection in the 2009 Entry Draft, the Isles added another potential star up front when they grabbed Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter with the No. 5 pick.

A sluggish finish allowed the Islanders another lottery pick, as they finished 34-37-11 for a total of 79 points. Their ability to protect leads was the biggest reason for their last-place finish in the Atlantic Division, as the Islanders lost eight games where they held at least a two-goal edge.

Snow hopes he's addressed his team's defensive deficiencies this offseason by signing blueliners Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina during the first week of free agency. Eaton, 33, won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and averaged close to 20 minutes of ice time per game last season. Jurcina, 27, stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 237 pounds. He also played for Isles coach Scott Gordon when the two were together at AHL Providence.

But the biggest upgrade on defense came on July 30, when Snow acquired James Wisniewski from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick. Wisniewski, 26, is solid at both ends of the ice and had a career-high 30 points last season. He and Mark Streit are certainly capable of being a tremendous first pairing.

The major question entering this season is, who will these defensemen play in front of? Will Dwayne Roloson -- who will be 41 on Oct. 12 -- get the bulk of the starts, or is Rick DiPietro finally healthy? DiPietro, who will turn 29 during training camp, appeared in only eight games last season before experiencing swelling in his surgically-repaired knee. In total, the Isles franchise netminder has played only 13 games since the start of the 2008-09 season.

The Islanders will have somewhat of a different look up front, as Snow allowed forwards Sean Bergenheim, Jeff Tambellini, Tim Jackman and Richard Park to leave the organization via free agency.

Bergenheim, a former first-round draft pick (2002), never fully realized his potential on Long Island, although he certainly showed glimpses. But his failure to put it all together -- he had 10 goals in 63 games last season -- was reason enough for Snow to let Bergenheim sign with Tampa Bay.

Tambellini, another first-round pick (Los Angeles, 2003), signed with the Vancouver Canucks last month. The son of former Islander and current Oilers GM Steve Tambellini never meshed with Gordon and spent most of the season watching games from the press box. He had 7 goals and 7 assists in 36 contests.

Brendan Witt's tenure on Long Island also came to an end, but it really ended in January when Witt was demoted to AHL Bridgeport. His contract was officially bought out last month. Others headed elsewhere are defenseman Freddy Meyer (Atlanta) and goaltender Martin Biron, who signed with the Rangers.

While Snow made some much-needed changes on the blue line, he merely tweaked things up front. Just like Matt Moulson, the Isles' GM hopes he found another diamond in the rough in P.A. Parenteau, a dynamite AHL scorer who has never been given the opportunity to be a top-six forward at the NHL level. Parenteau, 27, had 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 22 games for the Rangers last season. He also went 3-for-3 in shootout opportunities, two of which were game-deciders.

After being short on grit last season, the Isles also signed center Zenon Konopka to a one-year deal. Konopka, who will center the fourth line, led the NHL last season with 265 penalty minutes with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But fighting isn't the only thing Konopka can do; the 29-year-old also won 62.3 percent of his faceoffs.

As far as the on-ice product is concerned, the Isles' worst days are behind them. Over the past three years, Snow has yet to stray away from his public plan to build a young core via the draft.

A couple of lousy seasons allowed the Isles to draft the likes of Tavares and Josh Bailey, who likely will be top-six forwards on Long Island for years to come. Tavares and Bailey have joined a young nucleus that also includes Kyle Okposo (likely the team's future captain), two-way center Frans Nielsen and gritty forward Blake Comeau

Given their competitive nature last season, it's safe to say the Isles are a team on the rise. When you combine the young talent with the additions Snow made this summer, there's no reason to believe the Islanders aren't capable of playing meaningful games in April.

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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