Backhand Shelf’s previews for the 2013-14 NHL season are going to work like a choose your own adventure novel, because fans only hear what they want to hear anyway, so we might as well embrace it.
You’ll get the flippant barstool prediction, the push-the-glasses-up-your-nose numbers take, the team is going to be good take, the team is going to be bad take, and then we’ll try to bring it back full circle at the bottom. Let’s get to it.
Subtracted: Mark Streit, Nino Niederreiter, Brad Boyes, Keith Aucoin
The Islanders are going to be good
The Islanders suffered for a long time to get where they are, but they’ve finally got the pieces to the puzzle. Their new captain, John Tavares, is coming off back-to-back point-per-game seasons, which is only made more impressive by the fact that he just turned 23 this week. When you look at the career arc of goal-scorers, it’s pretty clear he’s about to enter his most productive few years, meaning you can expect him to push past PPG status and end up in the NHL’s top-10 point-getters no problem. He’s flanked by one of the game’s most underrated offensive superstars in Matt Moulson, who in the last three full seasons has put up the following goal totals: 30, 31, and 36. He was on pace again last year, with 15 in a half-year. One-time waiver claim Michael Grabner has put up a 30-goal season of his own, and was on pace for another during the last shortened season. His speed is impossible for d-men to deal with, so he gets a ton of breakaways, which results in a bushel of goals.
The rest of the garden they’ve planted is starting to bear fruit. Josh Bailey showed signs of being a quality offensive producer towards the end of the season, getting himself on 20-goal-season pace in the shortened year. Kyle Okposo is a nightmare to handle – he’s a big strong-bodied forward who’s put up 20 in the NHL in the past, and is still in his own most productive years at age 25. Frans Nielsen is one of the League’s best two-way players, earning himself Selke votes last season, while owning the NHL’s all-time highest completion percentage in the shootout. They’re adding great young power forward Brock Nelson to the mix this year to go with their other two absolute bangers in Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Those guys are #1 and #2 in hits over the past few seasons. Not fun to play.
On the back-end they’re look pretty darn good too. Lubomir Visnovsky came to the Island reluctantly before moving all-in and signing for more years. Travis Hamonic has a new seven-year deal and is on the verge of introducing himself to fans everywhere as one of the toughest defenseman to play around. And the perenially underrated d-man Andrew MacDonald is coming off a year in which he lead the Islanders in ice time (23:31) thanks to his poise, vision, and savvy defensive positioning. That’s more minutes than guys like PK Subban, Francois Beauchemin and Victor Hedman. If they can even get league-average goaltending, the growth of their young players and smart additions should be enough to push this team to new heights.
The Islanders are going to be bad
Did you see that effort? I had to be like Neo in The Matrix avoiding bullets trying not to say the name “Evgeni Nabokov,” who at this point in his career is probably among the NHL’s worst starting goalies. His last regular season, while passable, towered over the .842 save percentage he pitched in playoffs. But don’t worry, he’s a year older and slower in a season the league has opted to make the gear smaller. Which is great news, because he’s all of about 5′ 11″ (6′ in the program!), so he doesn’t need big gear or anything. But no, it probably won’t be a problem for the Isles, because he’ll be playing in front of names like Strait (not Streit), Carkner (he’s a d-man?), and Hickey (the guy Crosby casually roasted for one of last year’s highlight goals). They got this on lock.
This was a fringe playoff team that lost their captain and best defenseman in Mark Streit for nothing, lost a first line forward in Brad Boyes and replaced him with a tiny band-aid (Bouchard), and lost a quality offensive prospect in Niederreiter and replaced him with a run-of-the-mill body checking enthusiast. They’re going to be so, so easy to play. They’re quite literally the lightest team in the league (one of two coming in at an average under 200 pounds), and they’re one of the shortest. They just don’t have the top-tier talent to contend, and find themselves in a division with three teams definitely better than them, and six that could be. It’s going to be a long, disappointing road for the Islanders.
Flippant barstool prediction:
They’ve moved well-past laughingstock status into relevancy, but they’re going to need a lot to go right to repeat as a playoff team.
An interesting tidbit about the Islanders 2013 season: only three teams in the whole league were worse on the road (Florida, Carolina and the Oilers. By the way the San Jose Sharks only lost at home twice). Obviously that means they were the only playoff team to finish below .500 at home, posting a 10-11-3 record. What that also means, is that they were amazing on the road, posting a 14-6-4 record away from Nassau Coliseum, a road record only best by Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, and Anaheim. The rest of their numbers are largely good: they scored 2.81 goals-per-game (7th in the league) on the heels of getting 30.9 shots a night (tied for 6th overall), they scored on nearly 20% of their powerplays (11th), and they only allowed 28.2 shots-against-per game, good for 10th overall in that category. They had a couple areas to clean up though – they gave up 2.83 goals-per-game (21st overall), and they only killed roughly 80% of their penalties, which was also 21st overall.
Okay, but seriously:
Seriously, this is a very interesting team. They’re young and fast, and have the horses to score goals. You worry about their d-corps if they suffer so much as a single injury. Healthy, they probably get along just fine. If Okposo and Bailey take the strides many think they’re capable of (and it’s sort of now-or-never if it’s going to happen), this could be a real quality hockey team. The only problem is, goaltenders are also part of a hockey club, and there’s a chance Nabokov could shoot holes in their wings every time they try to take off, which can get a bit frustrating. If they get league average goaltending, they’ll be in the playoff race. An injury or two and suspect play from Nabokov, and there’s reason to be nervous. All told, I’d say the Isles have a pretty wide range this season, with the potential to finish anywhere between 5th and 13th in the East. Health will be key.