Wacky Offseason May Haunt Islanders Playoff Hopes
The salary cap was designed to help a team like the Islanders, but even the newly implemented financial constraints could not give them a competitive advantage in 2005-2006.
Despite adding former 40-goal scorer Miroslav Satan, veteran winger Mike York and offensive-minded defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, owner Charles Wang saw his team go a disappointing 36-40-6. They also failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
It turns out that 12th-place performance would turn out to be just the first source of frustration for Islanders' fans. In less than three months, the franchise that was one the model of the NHL added a new coach, two general managers and a new front office operation that relies on equal say for all members. If that whole business model wasn't unorthodox enough, goalie Rick DiPietro was given a record 15-year contract extension, while Alexei Yashin's 10-year deal was not bought out.
Did we forget to mention Garth Snow, last year's backup goalie, is now the youngest GM in the league? The netminder retired from the roster to replace Neil Smith, who took the job in June before resigning shortly afterwards, citing heavy interference from Wang.
While Snow gets familiar with seeing the game from the owner's luxury box, new coach Ted Nolan will reacquaint himself with the league after a eight-year hiatus. It will be a tough task to get this talented but enigmatic team back into the playoffs, but there are some pieces in place that could make a post-season birth a reachable goal.
Forwards: There were no high-profile trade acquisitions or big-ticket free agent signings, so the burden to carry the offense once again falls on Yashin and Satan. As the team captain, Yashin will need to do more than simply match last season's 66 point performance in order to justify his $87.5 million contract. The 6-3 center has not been close to the 40-goal perennial All-Star he was with the Senators, but said he still hopes to win the fans over with victories instead of just personal stats. "My motivation is to make the playoffs and make the fans cheer again," Yashin said. "We need them. We're not going to get anywhere without their support."
To help Yashin get back that support, Snow brought in former Devils forward Viktor Kozlov to provide a fellow veteran on his line. Nolan said in training camp he was impressed with the wingers' poise on special teams and with his physical ability. Kozlov, entering his tenth season, is 6-5, 230 pounds.
Even if the first line should have close to career-best seasons, unlikely consider they are both over 30, they will need additional support from holdovers Satan, Jason Blake and Shawn Bates. In a sign of his growing stature within the organization, Nolan designated Bates an assistant captain for two straight preseason games. It remains to be seen if he will start the season opener with that distinction Thursday against Phoenix.
Rounding out the third and fourth lines will be a mixture of long-time Islanders and new faces. Mike Sillinger is joining his 12th NHL team in 14 seasons, bringing his experience of 908 games with him. York, acquired in the Michael Peca trade last off-season, will look to have a better sophomore season after a disappointing 13-goal output.
Nolan will also see if he can get more out of Aaron Asham, who has shown brief flashes of brilliance but has demonstrated poor hockey acumen on the ice at times. This year is also the perfect opportunity for Trent Hunter to show he can be relied on for more than just shootouts.
Defenseman: Before Smith vacated his position, he targeted grit and tenacity to improve a defensive unit that allowed 3.35 goals a game, good for fifth-worst in the entire league.
Free-agent pickups Brendan Witt and Sean Hill are both physical stay-at-home defenseman that should help improve man coverage and tighten up the slot coverage. At 6-2, 220 pounds, Witt will be relied on to protect DiPietro from physical hits near the crease.
In his second year, Chris Campoli will attempt to build on a successful rookie campaign. He played in 80 games, netting 35 assists while Zhitnik was limited in the second half by injury.
Snow completed what Smith started, signing former Ranger Tom Poti and added Hill in one of his last moves before training camp. Joel Bouchard and Radek Martinek played sparingly for the Islanders last season, but they were back in camp to provide depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
Management: Nolan once won the coach of the year award with the Sabres, but remained out of the league for close to a decade for reasons that still have never been confirmed. After a successful run as a junior league coach, he gets his second chance at the big time. With the ugliness of Smith's departure, Snow came in and has said all the right things. There is some talent on the roster, so it's only fair to give the Islanders a chance to at least break even on the opening four-game road trip and get through November before making any early assessments.
Make no mistake, the success of the team is predicated on the performances of DiPietro, Yashin and Satan. Those three are getting the most money from Wang, and there will be no chance to make it back to the post-season without all of them staying healthy, productive and consistent.
Prediction: 38-34-10 -86 points - Fourth in the Atlantic - Tenth in the East.