NHL 2014-15 preview: New York Islanders

A healthy and motivated John Tavares bodes well for the New York Islanders. (AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

New York is our 21st-ranked team.

New York Islanders

Division: Metropolitan
2013-14 finish: 34-37-11, 79 points, 26th overall; missed the playoffs
Leading scorer: Kyle Okposo (69 points)
General manager: Garth Snow
Head coach: Jack Capuano
Captain: John Tavares
Opening night starter: Jaroslav Halak
Key acquisitions: Mikhail Grabovski, Jaroslav Halak, Nikolai Kulemin, Cory Conacher, Chad Johnson, Jack Skille, T.J. Brennan
Key departures: Evgeni Nabokov, Anders Nilsson

Off-season grade: B+. Snow addressed his glaring need between the pipes, inking Halak to a four-year deal. In 52 games last year, Halak recorded five shutouts—fourth in the NHL—and his 2.25 goals-against average ranked eighth league-wide. That’s a significant upgrade from Nabokov, who in 40 games had a 2.74 GAA, .905 save percentage, and missed time because of injury. Plus, Nabokov is 39 years old. The addition of Johnson also provides a reliable backup option. And in inking former Toronto Maple Leafs teammates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, the Islanders have helped address a need for secondary scoring. Grabovski had 35 points in 58 games with the Capitals last season. Kulemin put up 20 points in 70 games but had a 30-goal season in 2010-11, when he played with Grabovski.

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Greatest strengths: A healthy John Tavares up front is obviously the highlight of this team, but with their off-season moves between the pipes, the Islanders have turned one of their weaknesses into a strength. When Nabokov went down last season with a groin injury, the Isles went down with him, going winless in 10 straight. Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson stepped in, but neither could fill the void. Now they’ve not only upgraded in that position with Halak, but the Islanders have Johnson as a dependable backup. In 27 games with the Boston Bruins last season, Johnson earned 17 wins and posted a .925 save percentage and 2.10 GAA. The team now has depth in goal.

Greatest weaknesses: Depth up front has been an issue for this team. Now that they’ve lost Thomas Vanek, who had 44 points last season, they’ll be relying on Grabovski, Kulemin and Strome to step up with secondary scoring. Vanek’s refusal to sign a long-term deal in New York leaves a gap on the No. 1 line with Tavares and Okposo. Among the options to fill the void on left wing is Brock Nelson, who had 26 points in 72 games during his rookie campaign last season. The Islanders also must address a glaring problem on the PK. Their penalty kill ranked nearly dead last in the league last year, 29th, with a 78.1% success rate. The improved situation in net should help. The fresh eyes of newly hired assistant coach Greg Cronin—who comes over from the Leafs—could prove valuable, though Toronto ranked 28th in that category last year.

Biggest storyline to watch: This is a young team, especially now that Nabokov is gone, so the story to keep an eye on is the development of the guys who could be key pieces in the future. A big question surrounds whether the Islanders’ No. 4 overall pick in 2012, Griffin Reinhart, is NHL-ready. He’s proven he can be a big piece of a championship team, coming off a Memorial Cup win with the Edmonton Oil Kings last season, when he put up 21 points in 45 games. Reinhart is a big kid at 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds. Up front, the Isles will be looking for the continued development of Ryan Strome, their first-round pick in 2011 (No. 5 overall). The 21-year-old had 18 points in 37 games last year, including four power-play goals.

2014-15 prediction: Don’t be surprised if the Islanders take advantage of improved play between the pipes to improve on their dead-last finish in the division from last year, but also don’t expect to see them in the playoffs before they move to Brooklyn.

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