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Reality Check: Baby Steps for Young Isles

Work to be done as rebuilding looks toward next step


Despite an 18-point improvement in the standings, for the fourth time in five post-lockout seasons the Islanders failed to reach the postseason. While the word “progress” was being tossed around the Coliseum this week as the team sputtered to the finish line losing their last three, GM Garth Snow admitted he’s in for a busy summer.

“It’s unacceptable that we didn’t make the playoffs,” Snow said, after the team they are hoping to emulate, the Penguins, finished off a 6-5 OT win in the season finale at the Coliseum. “We’ll look to add a forward that can put the puck in the net and there are some holes on defense we’ll look fill. Either July 1 or via trade will bring in some help.”

Putting the puck in the net was indeed a problem as the Isles’ 222 goals scored ranked 21st. Rookie John Tavares’ 54 points led the team and was the lowest team-leading total in the league.


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New York Islanders' Tim Jackman (28) and Jeff Tambellini watch Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Brent Johnson block a shot during the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, April 11, 2010, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Penguins won 6-5 in overtime. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

The numbers were even more unimpressive on the blue line as the team finished 28th in goals allowed with 264. Again, the operative word here is help.

But alas, an 18-point jump in the standings is certainly cause for some celebration on Long Island as the core of young players they are building around is growing into a potentially formidable bunch.

The aforementioned Tavares finished strong, with 24 goals and 54 points, just one point behind rookie leader Matt Duchene of the Avalanche. More important than Tavares’ offensive numbers was the fact he looked like a much more complete player by season’s end and admits there is work still to be done on his overall game.

“I’m only going to get stronger over time and this first season was a great learning experience,” he said during the final week of the season. “When I was wasn’t scoring there for a while I was learning about what it takes to be a complete player in this league. I feel like I’m a much better player than I was a few months ago,”

At 19 and not exactly surrounded by offensive wizards, a 24-goal rookie campaign is something the kid should be proud of.

Scrapheap find Matt Moulson netted his 30th on Sunday and developed into the team’s only consistent scoring threat. Kyle Okposo (21), despite trailing off just a bit in the final couple of months, shows signs of being an elite player in the league. Josh Bailey (20) also appears close to becoming a big time player as well.

On defense, while there might be “a few holes” as Snow alluded to, the team found a few gems as the season went along in Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald. Add the reemergence of Freddy Myer and the Isles might head into next season with their defense actually being looked at as a strength.

Mark Streit simply had another terrific season and with veterans Bruno Gervais and Radek Martinek (who should return to full strength) probably back in the fold the competition at next season’s camp will be fun to watch. Dustin Kohn and 2009 first round pick Calvin de Haan add some depth and will certainly press the later two for spots come October.

With Andy Sutton and Brendan Witt now gone, adding some size and snarl will be high on Snow’s “to do” list with regard to the defense for 2010-2011.

Perhaps the GM’s biggest challenge the next few months though will be handling an interesting situation in goal. With Rick DiPietro’s status unclear and his No. 1 Dwayne Roloson turning 41 to start the season, the goal crease is a little cloudy. Handled incorrectly, this could set the rebuilding program back in a hurry.

Not making the playoffs certainly hasn’t shocked anyone who followed the club this year as the commitment to a youth movement produced a predictably inconsistent season. However, as the players now scatter to points north, south and west of Long Island for some summer fun, the focus and pressure now shifts squarely to the front office.

When asked about next season and what the goals will be, Snow was adamant that the playoffs will be the top priority.

“Absolutely. Everyone in that locker room who we bring back has to be better than they were this year,” Snow said.

And at least a few of those players that will be back seemed to know that it will take more than just the players that are here now to make the playoffs a reality.

“With a young group and some veterans to guide us, it should be a fun time for us this time next year,” Tavares added.

It’s up to Snow to make sure he adds the right guiding veterans as that was clearly a missing piece to this year’s puzzle.

ICE CHIPS

Though he probably won’t get serious consideration for the Calder, Tavares at least played himself back into the conversation with a strong finish (6-12-18 in last 14 games). However, it appears the playoff bound Matt Duchene (Avalanche), along with Buffalo’s towering backliner Tyler Myers and Detroit’s solid Jimmy Howard are your three finalists for the rookie hardware. The guess here is it belongs to Myers.

Isles enter Tuesday’s draft lottery (Versus) as the 5th seed but the ping pong balls can change that position. Without going into too much detail, they essentially have an 8.1 percent chance to landing the No. 1 overall pick and a 74.7 percent chance of staying right at No. 5. The only other spot they can land is No. 6. We’ll look at the 2010 draft in a future column.

Though the Isles finished the season strong at home ending with an impressive 23-14-4 mark, they had the second worst record in the league on the road at 11-23-7.

With the sellout Sunday against the Penguins, the Isles averaged 12,735 fans a game placing them 27th in the NHL. Oddly, this represents almost a 1,000 fans per game drop off from last season’s figures (13,773). Conclusion: Making the playoffs next season is a really good idea.

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