Why the Islanders will be the NHL’s Most Improved Team

“Greatness Is A Lot Of Small Things Done Well”- Ray Lewis

The quote might be from a champion of a different sport, but it captures the Islanders off-season to a tea. A combination of the Islanders young talent further maturing while growing in to their roles combined with an insurgence of mature NHL veterans has made the New York Islanders the most improved team coming into the 2014-2015 NHL season.

Coming out of a season that will be remembered for two costly blunders with Niederreiter and Vanek, the Islanders needed to make strong moves to push themselves out of the leagues basement and into the pack of teams fighting for a playoff spot. Garth Snow suffered through the 2013-2014 season, giving up too early on the highly drafted Niederreiter only to see him have immediate success in Minnesota and sloppily traded a 1st in a deep draft, along with a 2nd and Moulson to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek  only to have to move him later that season for Sebastian Colberg and a 2nd since. Garth Snow is hoping Islander fans can flush that memory with a strong season that helps the Isles snag a playoff wild card spot.

The Islanders revamped their offence, purchasing a new second line with the feisty Mikhail Grabovski and the defensive minded Nikolai Kulemin early in the UFA period. The European duo enjoyed success in Toronto combining for 59 goals at their peak together. The pair would struggle to continue their success when a new head coach joined the team and pushed the pair into a third line role with limited minutes resulting in Grabovski’s departure for Washington. Now reunited again with  a new city and opportunity for more minutes the two can rekindle the magic that saw them anchor one of the leagues most effective two-way lines. Grabovski and Kulemin will provide the Isles with much needed depth scoring and two-way play, with Kulemin will greatly improve the Isles PK.

With that said, it would be hard to mention Grabovski and Kulemin joining the Isles with out mentioning the hefty pay check the two received. An argument can be made for both sides on whether or not Grabovski’s contract was too much for the Isles to dish out, but the same can’t be said for Kulemin and his 4.1875 million dollar deal. While Kulemin will help the Isles in many ways, paying over 4 mill for a player who has spent his career floating between the second and third line is clearly an overpayment. From a GM’s perspective, Kulemin and Grabo were obviously a package deal, so stepping back and looking at paying 9 million to grab the two sought after UFA’s isn’t something the Isles fans should be losing sleep over, especially since they club still has room to spend going forward.

The Islanders may have also solved their years of goaltending woes, which stretch back to before they spent the 1st OA pick in 2000 on the constantly injured DiPietro who currently can’t find an AHL back up job. With the signing of Jaroslav Halak the Islanders add a veteran goaltender who can carry his weight in the regular season and has shown he’s able to elevate his game in the playoffs. Say the words Jaroslav or Halak in front of any Habs fan and you might as well have asked for a full recount of the Canadians 2009 Cinderella run to the Eastern finals where Halak did everything but stand on his head to keep the Canadiens alive. Halak gave the Blues two years of strong goaltending until a disaster of a season saw him replaced in St. Louis with Ryan Miller, who ended up doing no better. Behind an upgraded blue-line Halak should be able to help push the Islanders into a wild card spot in the East.

Even with the new second line and starting goalie the Islanders biggest area of improvement came in their biggest area of need, the blue line. The Islanders ended the off-season with two aggressive trades that saw them ship out 2nd round picks and a mid-tier prospect to grab two recent cup winning top-four defensemen. Boychuk brings sizes, toughness and a heavy shot while Leddy adds mobility and high hockey IQ to the Islanders back end. But more valuable than any of their tangible skills is the experience and leadership the two bring. In the last 5 years Boychuk has played in 79 playoff games while Leddy has played in 54 games over a 4 year span at the young age of 23. Each played on teams that ended up winning the Stanley Cup and refined their game under the mentorship of Norris winning defensemen.

Lost behind the flurry of roster changes is the impact that will come from the further growth of captain John Tavares  and the growth of other young roster like such as Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart and Calvin De Haan. Reinhart has spent the two years since his draft dominating junior Western hockey and is poised to make the transition to the big show. De Haan had his rookie campaign last year and showed he can log large minutes and play a reliable game, his upside is very promising. Strome has pateintly moved up the ranks of junior and american leagues and got his first taste of NHL hockey last year with a 37 game campaign that showed flashes of the high skill level that made the Islanders draft him 5th overall in 2011.

With the expected improvement that comes with young highly drafted players becoming better, the added scoring depth upfront, the added playoff calibre goaltending and the addition of two stanley cup winning top four defensemen the Islanders are ready to push from a basement team into the Eastern wild card race and will likely see themselves playing hockey this spring. In the end, the Islanders made as smart of moves, at least on paper, as any other team in the league. Whether the impressive changes on paper result in an actual change of the on ice product will depend just as much as the group of new faces gelling as it will getting back into the type of hard-nosed style of play that brought the Islanders into the playoffs two years ago. Either way it’s going to be a fun year to be an Islanders fan.

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