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Weekes: Islanders have been impressive beyond stars

by Kevin Weekes

The New York Islanders won again Thursday, and the crowd at Nassau Coliseum was electric. As long as the Islanders continue to build off their hot start, they'll give the fans a lot to cheer about as they bid a fond farewell to the old Coliseum.

The Islanders have piqued my interest, so this week I'm dedicating my Friday blog to them.

Here are four reasons why I've been impressed with the Islanders:

1. The top dogs

Let's start with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. You have to start there with the Islanders. There's no other place, no two more important players.

Tavares obviously worked hard in the summer to rehab his knee and get himself healthy for the season, but he and Okposo also put in a lot of individual work on their games with trainer Darryl Belfry. They worked with him most of the time and you're seeing it paying dividends early.

Tavares is an Art Ross Trophy candidate; he already has nine points to lead the NHL. Take it one further: He's a Hart Trophy candidate.

Okposo is a world-class player who should have played for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. There's no doubt about it. He should have been there. He has seven points this season.

But as great as these players are together and as dynamic as they are together, they can produce without each other as well. Look at last season. Tavares went down and Okposo still produced. He had 10 points in 12 games after the Olympic break.

Now you put them together and healthy, working on their individual games and their moves, different ways to attack, it makes them far more dangerous.

They have different rush attacks, different isolation plays on defenders down low, and different net attacks like driving the net along the goal line. Go back to the preseason game when the Islanders played against the Boston Bruins and look at that power move out of the corner that Okposo made on the goal he scored. That's one thing he can do.

When you have these two guys leading up front, not only in terms of production but through the work they put in when nobody is watching, in the offseason in local rinks, it's no surprise that they're playing at the level they're playing.

Tavares and Okposo drive the work ethic for the Islanders.

2. The other guy

Brock Nelson is certainly unheralded. When you look at the Islanders you figure the usual, aforementioned suspects would be getting all the headlines and that Nelson wouldn't even be in the mix. Not true, and that's a credit to Nelson.

As a former player I can speak to this. I always wanted Zach Parise or Jaromir Jagr or Brendan Shanahan shooting on me in practice because it's about stacking up against those guys. For Nelson, he has those thoroughbreds in front of him in Tavares and Okposo.

He's practicing against them every day. He's saying, “Hey, I want to be as good as these guys. I want to do what they're doing. I want to be a star player like those guys.”

If you're really serious you're using those guys as benchmarks and aspiring to do what they do and to produce, at least to an extent, the way they produce. That says a lot about how a guy is wired, and the smart guys approach it that way.

Nelson certainly looks like he's approaching it that way.

3. The transformational additions

In talking to Okposo before the season, he couldn't stop talking about how pumped he was to start the season. This was three days before the season, the day after the Islanders acquired defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in separate trades. He was super-pumped to start the season.

Boychuk and Leddy are transformative pieces for the Islanders.

Boychuk is the Brent Seabrook of the Eastern Conference, and that's saying something because Seabrook is part of the world's best defense pair when he and Duncan Keith are on their game for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Boychuk is an all-situations player. You don't have to worry about a matchup with him. He has a rocket of a shot. And he's more skilled than people think. He's very similar to Seabrook, maybe even a touch more mobile.

Leddy is an even better skater; he can fly. He can make plays. He can move the puck.

If you combine the minutes played, one of them will be on the ice for almost half the game. Boychuk can manage 24 or 25 minutes; Leddy can play 20 or 21. Put that together and that's a lot of minutes you'll have one of those guys out there.

That will help the Islanders defend and stay committed there, and so far you're seeing that. It will help the Islanders in their breakouts, and you're seeing that both 5-on-5 and on the power play. It helps them in the neutral zone with counters and regroups, and you're seeing that too.

You're already seeing production from Boychuk, who has two goals and four assists through four games, and Leddy skates like he's a forward.

Islanders general manager Garth Snow is wearing the genius hat for acquiring these two players. Okposo and the rest of the players there were beyond pumped up to get them, and you can see why.

4. The forecheck

In one word, the Islanders forecheck is suffocating. They are suffocating with pressure, pursuit and speed. It's not just reckless pressure and speed; it's angles.

You hear a lot about angles in goaltending, but angles aren't limited to goaltending. When you watched Nicklas Lidstrom, you'd see a veteran taking angles. The way he defended was almost like a goalie defending the net. He was positionally sound. His stick was in the right place. His chest was in the right place. He would shut down potential lanes of attack for the opposition.

When you talk about a forecheck, it's not just skating like Mach 10. It's the angle and path you are taking toward that opposing player to create that pressure and initiate that pressure and pursuit.

What angle are you taking to take away his pass option? What angle do you take to take away his skating option? Is it just a straight angle and you just initiate him with contact? Once you have the body contact, is it going to generate puck recovery so you can make a play?

You can't just skate at a guy with reckless speed; you need to have a plan.

You hear people all the time saying, “Oh, that's a forecheck, they're skating, they're fast, they're hitting and they're hard.” Well, typically you're going against a defenseman or a low forward who can make a play. If it's Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Anze Kopitar on the ice, what do you think, you're just going to skate in there, run them through the boards and get the puck back? It doesn't work like that.

There's got to be a strategy to it. You need positioning and a plan.

It's also about reads.

You hear coaches talk about F1. Well, yeah, forechecker No. 1 is key because he is going to set the tone for what F2 and F3 do. It's not just freelancing and doing something reckless. There has to be some strategy to how he positions his body and the path he takes toward the opposing player.

The Islanders are doing it all well. They're playing a suffocating brand of hockey.

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