2002-09-14 / Sports

Lace Em’ Up!

A Metro Hockey UpdateHockey Columnist
Part 1: A Preview of the New York Islanders
By Andrei Petrovitch

Lace Em' Up!
A Metro Hockey Update
Hockey Columnist

Part 1: A Preview of the New York Islanders

Summer is finally over! It's time now to sharpen the skates, tape the sticks, and rinse out those moldy mouth guards, because the National Hockey League will be back in business very soon.

Like you, faithful Metro Hockey Update readers, The New York Islanders are certainly looking forward to the 2002-2003 season. After finishing 42-28-8-4 (second place in the Atlantic division), the Islanders are looking to elevate into true Stanley Cup contention. It's a goal that seems attainable, considering the parity within the NHL's Eastern conference. But do the Islanders have enough to take on the League's elite and reignite the long dormant dynasty? Let's take look at the team by position.

Forwards:

Last season, the Isles forward corps was built around the 1-2 center ice punch of Alexei Yashin (32-43-75) and Mike Peca (25-35-60). This strategy worked last season, and could work this season...depending on the miracles of arthroscopic surgery. Peca suffered a major knee injury during the team's first round playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his absence during the first three months of the season could be catastrophic if the team can't adjust. His smart defensive play and locker room leadership were invaluable to the Isles, and his presence helped to divert the attention of opposing defenses away from Yashin.

More scoring depth is essential, but don't cry over Mariuz Czerkawski's trade to Montreal; he was hardly a game breaker. Mark Parrish should be able to score thirty goals again, but Oleg Kvasha (13-25-38) and Brad Isbister (17-21-38) aren't exactly making enemy goalies around the league wet their pants in fear. The latter presents an interesting conundrum for General Manager Mike Milbury - does he trade Isbister at the first opportunity for a proven goal scorer, or pray that he finally lives up to his promise? Milbury already traded another underachieving winger in Todd Bertuzzi a few years ago and watched him become one of the league's premier power forwards.

But don't give up hope yet, Fishstick fanatics. Checking center Jason Wiemer can help out in the face-off circle, and prospect Trent Hunter may evolve into the ideal finisher for Yashin's slick passes. But while their contributions can help, the success of the Islanders depends on each member's ability to take his game to the next level and perform well in the clutch.

Yup, this means you, Kvasha.

Defense:

No, they weren't exactly the second coming of Denis Potvin-Stefan Persson-Ken Morrow. But the power trio of Adrian Aucoin, Kenny Jonsson, and Roman Hamrlik has certainly given the Islanders a credible nucleus to build a contending team around. All three defensemen scored at least 10 goals and 30 points, and all three played with poise on their end of the red line (with Aucoin leading the entire team with a +23 rating). However, injuries can hamper the overall effectiveness of Jonsson. If he isn't careful, he just might have the dubious distinction of winning the Brett Lindros award for most career concussions.

The rest of the Islander's D-men were just as unfortunate. Radek Martinek showed promise, but a knee injury wrecked his season. Kevin Haller, Mark Messier's arch-nemesis, was only able to play in one game before getting hurt. The good news is that big enforcer Eric Cairns has improved his skating and positional play. If his hockey sense catches up with his pugilistic abilities - and yours truly is sure it will - then Cairns can be an effective member of the Islanders' starting six.

Goaltending:

First things first: Chris Osgood is the starter. Despite his occasional, um, brain lapses, he won the big games when he had to, practically guaranteed the playoffs with his fantastic October run, and...okay, I'm sorry. I still haven't stopped laughing at Osgood ever since Al Macinnis beat him on a slap shot from the blueline a few years ago in Detroit.

But that doesn't mean he's not good! His 32-25-6 record, .910 save percentage and 2.50 Goals Against Average (GAA) is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Let's also not forget that he does, after all, have two Stanley Cup rings to his credit...sort of. He won his first as a back-up to Mike Vernon...oh, never mind.

Speaking of back-ups, Garth Snow, who hasn't won anything in his life, will probably get 25 starts next season. In all fairness, he did play well, posting a solid .900 save percentage, a GAA of 2.71, and a 10-7-2 record. Nevertheless, prospect Rick DiPietro deserves a long look in training camp if only because he can help the team in the long term.

Overall Outlook:

The Islanders will be good, but just how good remains to be seen. The team certainly has character, as represented by gritty players like Claude Lapointe, Steve Webb, and Jason Blake. But for the Isles to become contenders on par with Western Conference counterparts such as the Colorado Avalanche (a likely Finals opponent, should they get that far), the team needs to either develop more offense from within or acquire some via trade. Milbury was not as aggressive as he should have been during the NHL's free-agent signing period, and his inactivity may come back to haunt his team.

Then again, it may not. Isbister certainly has the physical tools to have a breakthrough season, and Kvasha did wake up late in the season, scoring 7 goals in the final 12 games. With some more offense, the Islanders can do some real damage in the conference this season - if, of course, some freak injury or scoring slump doesn't manage to sabotage everything. Nevertheless, the playoffs, at least, are a lock for the second straight year in a row.


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