Pucker up, Brooklyn. The Islanders are here, and their inaugural season at Barclays Center is upon us. Here’s what you can expect this season from Kings County’s newest professional sports team.
The Islanders have been stockpiling young talent for several years now, and their patience paid off last season. They qualified for the playoffs for the second time in three seasons before losing a hard-fought opening-round series with the Washington Capitals in seven games.
Now the young talent is maturing, and the strong free-agent and trade acquisitions made prior to last season have had an entire year of cohesion. The Islanders are poised to take the next step in their evolution in the 2015-16 season. Their success last year and their inaugural season at Barclays Center have the Islanders in the spotlight, but with hype comes pressure. A playoff run is no longer a bonus for this team — it’s an expectation.
Those expectations begin with the team’s top player, John Tavares. The Isles’ captain set career highs a year ago in goals with 38 and points with 86 — the second-best record in the league. He solidified himself as one of the NHL’s true superstars, and now in his sixth season, he is entering his prime.
The Islanders’ forwards leave little to be desired. The Isles finished fourth in scoring last year, and there should be no shortage of secondary scoring between Kyle Okposo and dual third-year forwards Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. Ryan Strome, the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft, is entering his second full season poised to breakout as a significant scoring threat after a 50-point campaign a year ago. Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski are positive contributors at both ends of the ice, and Franz Nielsen has developed into one of the better two-way forwards in the league.
Russian prospect Kirill Petrov impressed during the pre-season, but will start the season with the Isles’ minor league affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn.
Jaroslav Halak’s first season as the Islanders’ starting goaltender was fraught with inconsistency. Halak is not among the league’s elite netminders, but head coach Jack Capuano is hoping that Halak’s second season with the Islanders will be more consistent. Thomas Greiss, a veteran who has spent most of his career with the San Jose Sharks, has signed on to serve as Halak’s backup.
The Islanders’ weakness last season was on the blueline, as the team gave up the eighth-most goals in the NHL in 2013-14. But there is far less anxiety about the unit than a year ago, thanks to general manager Garth Snow. Trades for defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk just a week before last season did wonders for the team’s performance. Analytics experts consider Leddy one of the game’s most underrated, and possibly best, defensemen, while Boychuk impressed with his physicality and power play scoring. The playoffs could have turned out differently had Travis Hamonic not been injured for the duration of their series against Washington. A healthy return for Hamonic gives the Isles three impressive young blueliners.
But the defense lacks the depth the team enjoys up front. The team’s signing of 38-year-old Czech Republic native Marek Zidlicky last month signals a lack of confidence in the likes of Calvin de Haan, Brian Strait, and Thomas Hickey.