One goal — and one save — away from reaching the second round, the New York Islanders believe that the best is yet to come.
As in the 2015-16 season for starters.
While Garth Snow wants his club to climb a notch or three, the general manager is secure in the knowledge that he faces the future with an upbeat roster.
Checking up and down the line, from goaltending to the offense, here are the “Positives.”
GOALTENDING: Jaroslav Halak was hired to win and he — as much as anyone — pushed the Isles into the playoffs. Plus, the Slovak almost singlehandedly saved the club in Game 7 while the gunners disappeared. Many were the games he “stole” and as a team player he remains nonpareil. With an Islanders season under his belt, Halak should be even better and more focused on getting the club even deeper in the playoffs.
DEFENSE: Coach Jack Capuano‘s crew is miles ahead of where they were at this time last year when it comes to the blue line corps. Cappy can thank Snow for that. Deals that brought Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy to Nassau were franchise-changers-for-the-better. Each of the Gold Dust Twins played his role to a T and gave the defense a type of depth that had been so egregiously missing in the past.
Travis Hamonic‘s playoff absence hurt big-time, but Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, Brian Strait and Lubomir Visnovsky adequately filled in if not sensationally. Too often, Matt Donovan was overlooked but never looked out of place when inserted in the lineup.
A trio of awfully attractive young Dmen could very well make The Show: Scott Mayfield, in particular, played two calm, hard-hitting and smart games against Washington. Hard-shooting Ryan Pulock, a year out of Major Junior (Brandon, WHL) looked good enough last fall to make the big club and rates an even better chance now. Griffin Reinhart also may be ready for the jump.
Any one of those Young Turks who wins a roster spot gives the club a major upgrade in size and toughness; an element sorely lacking in previous seasons.
OFFENSE: John Tavares isn’t a Hart Trophy finalist for nothing. Cappy’s attack revolves around the captain. The issue here is — and was — filling the two wing positions flanking J.T. One almost automatically has Kyle Okposo on the right side and ever-improving Josh Bailey handling left wing.
The Kid Line enjoyed a solid first season together. Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome should remain united. That said, they all went through their ups and downs but each must elevate his game to a new level. All three have the offensive mindset to become big-time scorers as well as polished two-way forwards. These kids will be key because they have the experience and should be motivated to make an impact.
Meanwhile, an effective third unit would feature Frans Nielsen, Nikolai Kulemin and Nik’s buddy, Mikhail Grabovski. One sure thing will be the Crash or Fourth (But Don’t Tell Them I Said So) Line comprised of Cal Clutterbuck–Matt Martin–Casey Cizikas. They hit and hit some more and even squeeze a goal or two in between. As a unit, this trio sets a tone, scores unannounced and is physical at all costs.
Finally, the status of Michael (The Gazelle) Grabner remains uncertain based on his limited use during the playoffs. Put it this way, The Maven would hate to see Kid Lightning go.
FUTURE STARS: Left wing Michael Del Colle, out of the strong Oshawa, Ontario OHL club and right wing Josh Ho-Sang are talented and extremely promising. Their performance at training camp in September will determine whether they get on the varsity.
As we have all learned the status quo winds up being neither status nor quo.
Trades, as Snow often has demonstrated, are not only possibilities but likely. Then there are free agent signings which could produce a veteran forward and defenseman. Some possibilities follow:
- BACKUP GOALIE: Michal Neuvirth had little time to prove his worth but may not get another opportunity. A few possibilities include Anders Lindback, Jhonas Enroth and a very far-out Thomas (The Skids) Greiss.
- MORE DEFENSE: Among free agent possibilities — depending on front office decision on Lubomir Visnovsky — are Cody Franson, Andrej Sekera and Zybnek (no to be confused with shoulder) Michalek.
- MORE OFFENSE: There may be a spot for the taking. UFAs available include Justin Williams, Joel Ward and Chris Stewart. Longer shots would be Matt Beleskey and Shawn Matthias.
Last fall the mission statement for Garth Snow was clear: make the playoffs to set up the franchise for its move to Brooklyn.
The mission was accomplished and, The Maven predicts, the best is yet to come — and in my own home borough, no less.