Islanders Preview: Hope Springs Eternal In the Dale of Union



Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Alexander Pope; “Essay On Man.”

Historically, we know that hockey teams do not ascend to a playoff berth on hope alone. On the other hand, hope helps.

It, in fact,  is a starting point for the Islanders who have substantial evidence to believe that they actually can reach the Exalted Eight when the chips are cashed in April.

For Jack Capuano‘s skaters to make the playoffs a number of pertinent pieces must fit into their puzzle and minus a full training camp, there will be precious little time to justify the jigsaw.

Two players among many can turn the Nassaumen in the right direction as they open their season on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils in Uniondale.

One is Kyle Okposo whose potential has yet to be realized and the other, Brad Boyes, once scored 43 goals — fifth in the league, in 2007-2008 with St. Louis — which is proof enough that he once had the goods — and still might.

Boyes could re-discover that sizzling shot again. “My goal,” says the 30-year-old, “is to get back to those days. Offense always has been part of my game.”

Okposo, who once was considered captain material, has all the necessary qualities of stardom; size, savvy and a solid shot. At age 24 and in his fifth season as an Islander, Kyle can hark back to the homestretch when he tallied nine goals in the Isles last nine games to reach the 24-goal level. It marked the first time he surpassed the 20-goal  barrier in his career.

Having survived shoulder surgery before 2011-2012, Okposo suffered a slow start last season — similar to teammate-defenseman-captain Mark Streit — as he tried to re-adjust his game. It was a difficult period that was understood by teammates such as John Tavares who occasionally played alongside KO.

“Kyle had to find his rhythm and balance,” Tavares explains. “It took a while for him to reach the dominance in his game.”

Naturally, it will take more than merely plus-years out of Okposo and Boyes for the Isles to prevail, yet the goods are there starting with Tavares. The onetime first overall pick in the 2009 Draft has exponentially improved since his rookie season. What’s more, JT now is at a point where he can carry his team. During the lockout, Johnny played superbly in Switzerland and is expected to repeat some of the outstanding scoring streaks that made big headlines last year.

As for the human vacuum cleaner who must consistently and efficiently gather pucks, there’s The Forgotten Met Area Goalie; none other than Evgeni Nabokov; yes, Nabokov.

Let’s not forget how the indefatigable Russian kept his cohorts in business despite facing a ton of rubber and hardships on defense, Nabby put up impressive numbers just as he had in San Jose where he was the workhorse and often the reason why the Sharks posted Ws instead of Ls. It remains to be seen whether the reliable Russian still has the stamina and whether he can benefit from a 48-game season; which The Maven believes will be the case.

Isles first choice — fifth overall — in the 2011 draft, Nino Niederreiter has been playing darn well in the AHL. At Bridgeport, Nino has developed confidence while using his size and digging ability to warrant promotion when G.M. Garth Snow believes it will best suit the big club. “I believe in Nino,” says Isles savant Michael Leboff. “He’s now in game shape so there was no need to bring him to camp.”

And speaking of emerging talents, The Maven must mention currently-injured Josh Bailey who may very well prove that his shift from center to left wing late last season is just the prescription that JB needs to live up to his earlier notices.

But there’s lots more to analyze so let’s get with the up-and-down examination of a team a-building in earnest:

GOALTENDING: Isles-watcher Daniel Friedman makes a valid point: “If the Isles play Nabokov early and often he’ll give them a chance to compete.” The Maven agrees since I’ve been a Nabby-gabby ever since Evgeni was a Shark. He’s been a career game-stealer and could repeat that encouraging offence (against the enemy) this semester. Sports hernia surgery limited Rick DiPietro to eight games last season. Ricky has enjoyed a spirited training camp, short as it has been, and impressed onlookers with his determination and positive attitude. Either Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson have been honing their netminding skills in Bridgeport and could be ready.

In the end it’s got to be all about Nabokov staying healthy. “When the Isles ended their loss run against the Flyers last year,” Leboff remembers, “it was because Nabby put in the best goaltending performance I’d seen in years.”

DEFENSE: Major shoulder surgery two seasons ago meant that captain Mark Streit required all of 2011-2012 to find his groove. At that, he collected 27 points and displayed a constantly improved game in the second half. Travis Hamonic and Andy MacDonald proved a competent combo last season and will be even better this time around. The Isles added Radek Martinek who’s a solid commodity when he’s healthy. “Radek can skate like the wind,” Snow enthuses. Adds Streit: “He’s really good defensively and adds some offense as well. He’s underrated.”

Me? I love Martinek and the wish here is that he stays healthy. “Hopefully,” says Snow, “this is the year.”

Meanwhile, there could be a potential surprise in ex-Senators hulk, Matt Carkner, who made a name for himself in the Ottawa-Rangers playoff last year. This is one tough cookie who’s 31 and with 162 NHL games under his belt. Now’s the time for Matt to show that he can make the Isles top six on D. Ditto for Ty Wishart. If Lubomir Visnovsky ever ends his frustrating refusal to leave Europe and find his rightful place on the Island, the D situation would look a lot more encouraging.

OFFENSE: John Tavares makes any linemate look good; check out PA Parenteau as Exhibit A. Then again, goal-master Matt Moulson helps Johnny T. Which means that Brad Boyes would benefit immensely as right wing on the first line. If Boyes doesn’t cut it, Kyle Okposo goes right up and will thrive as he has before.

Secondary scorers are the ones capable of pushing this team upward. Michael Grabner is a better player than he showed last year while Frans Nielsen is one of the NHL’s top Shoot-Out artists and penalty-killers. Josh Bailey is another who may finally ripen into an effective offensive force while his buddy, Matt Martin, should add some goals to his distinction as one of the finest body-checking forwards in captivity.

At some point, Ryan Strome and Niederreiter could be called up to varsity. A line comprised of Bailey, Martin and Niederreiter — all young and eager — is one that could be a really, positive, bust-out unit. Other pleasant surprises may be delivered by David Ullstrom and Casey Cizikas.

PHYSICALITY: Matt Martin, Matt Carkner and Eric Boulton are all clever tough guys who won’t hurt the club as much as they’ll help. This is a significantly tougher team that last year’s squad.

SPECIAL TEAMS: When it comes to the penalty-killing, the speedy and alert Grabner-Nielsen tandem rank high in the league. Hamonic, MacDonald, Streit and Martinek will be effective on PK defense. Cizikas also is good in short-handed situations. Casey actually looms as an Isles sleeper.

The power play will be anchored by Tavares and Moulson with Boyes and Nielsen each getting good shots. Streit will be a major factor as point man with a shot and a knack.

COACHING: Jack Capuano remains somewhat of an enigma and remains in Snow’s good graces. Cappy will be under pressure to catapult the team into contention early on or, at the very least, not let the pack pull away.

Jack needed at least a year to get a good feel of the league; and his players. He’s ready to step up. I hope he does.

MANAGING: Garth Snow has made some adroit moves such as the acquisitions of hot-shooter Moulson as well as Grabner, Nabokov and Streit. The g.m. has a nifty young nucleus being developed in Bridgeport.

THE MAVEN’S PREDICTION: I’m going ‘way, ‘way out on a limb and predict a playoff berth for the Isles. It’s based on Nabokov starring in goal, Tavares hitting a new, starry level and the special teams coming through!

Oh, yeah, and also The Law Of Averages!