Buffalo - September 17, 2014 - With all the talk about the future of the Sabres – the draft picks they hold and what lies ahead – there seems to be one semi-forgotten fact: the team actually holds two tickets in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.
Well, for now, of course. The New York Islanders could potentially make the playoffs, making that pick come closer to the 20s than anything close to a winning lottery ticket. Then again, this is the Islanders we’re talking about. Anything is possible. Did they think last year that the pick they’d dealt for Thomas Vanek would wind up being the fifth overall? You’d like to think no one would be dumb enough to say “yes” and make that trade, but again, this is the Islanders.
Realistically, though, how are the Islanders looking heading into 2014-15 and what can we expect from them in terms of a finish? Luckily for you, I’m here to be your guide and hopefully provide a semi-accurate prediction.
The first thing to note is that the Islanders were without captain and superstar John Tavares for 23 games last year. Tavares was selected to Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics and wound up being lost for the season to a knee injury while there. The Islanders were already in a bad place in the standings, but losing their best player certainly helped them finish where they did. Tavares likely would have finished in the top five in scoring given his pace (66 points) and a team can obviously benefit in the standings from having that type of player on their team. Throw in the fact that he’s likely to come back this year motivated to not only have a great year, but to lift the team to a higher place, and you’ve got a significant improvement over last season already.
General Manager Garth Snow also took action to bolster the offensive depth by making a couple of quality additions to the lineup in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The former Leafs were brought in via free agency to provide depth and take the pressure off of the team’s top performers. Both struggled in Toronto in recent years, but have shown they can chip in 40 or so points while providing quality two-way play. Away from the Toronto media, they could provide better numbers and focus on playing their game instead of dealing with the pressure.
The last thing pertaining to the offense is an important one and that’s the youth movement. Even if you discount 26-year-old Kyle Okposo, who led the team in scoring last year with 69 points, the team is stocked with young talent. Josh Bailey (38 points), Brock Nelson (26 points), Ryan Strome and possible Anders Lee should all see significant time this year with the Islanders and big leaps forward are expected from Bailey and Nelson. The latter will see more power play time and has shown the potential to be a very good goal-scoring power forward. The team has put itself in a position where their success doesn’t necessarily hinge on the youngsters, but could greatly benefit if they do live up to the hype and produce well.
The back of things is where it gets dicey. The Islanders allowed the third-most goals per game last year and that will be the thing to watch this season. The defense remains largely unchanged, but another year for Calvin de Haan and the debut of Griffin Reinhart should help bolster the awful unit. They are stacked with puck-moving defensemen, but they need to show that they can actually, you know, defend this year. Budding star Travis Hamonic will need to elevate his game and take the group with him if this is a group that plans on rising up the rankings in 2014-15.
Possibly the biggest addition, though, comes in net. Last year, NHL also-ran Evgeni Nabokov was the team’s starter for the bulk of the season, sharing duties with Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson. All three were terrible, with Nabokov posting the best save percentage (.905) and goals against (2.74) of the group.
In steps Jaroslav Halak, the former St. Louis Blues, Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals goalie that was pretty much cast aside last year as the reason the Blues couldn’t win a Stanley Cup. We all know how the Ryan Miller experiment turned out.
Caveats aside about having played for a better team, but Halak was quite good for the Blues. He’s never going to be an elite netminder, but he’s shown the ability to be a solid number one goalie and, honestly, that might be the difference between the Islanders landing in the lottery or making a run for the playoffs. If Halak, who no doubt has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder after how last year played out, can merely make this team average in terms of goals against per game, they should be a threat to make the playoffs.
One of the biggest factors to consider is also the state of the Eastern Conference. Right now, it’s not on the same level as the West. There are a few contender-level teams in Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers, but after that it’s a dogfight for the remaining spots. I’m not suggesting that the Islanders will begin challenging for the division title, but the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings were your wildcard teams at 93 points last year, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Islanders could make a run for one of those spots.
Realistically, the Islanders should top the 90-point mark and challenge for one of the final playoff spots. Worst case, they miss and become one of the worst lottery teams, still giving the Sabres a shot at the top but not a very good one. The more likely case is that the Islanders sneak into the playoffs, giving the Sabres a pick in the late teens or early 20s; still a valuable pick, just not as high as we’d all hoped for.
Either way, the Islanders just became a whole lot more interesting heading into 2014-15.
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