Saturday, September 28, 2013

Gearing Up For Hockey!

With the season closing for both New York area baseball teams, we sports fans once again turn our attention to the world of hockey. Many of us struggled to get through a summer which began with a scrappy and determined New York Islanders team suffering a playoff exit to the hated Pittsburgh Penguins.

If we're at all lucky, and I think we Isles fans will be, the 2013 playoff ride was just a taste of things to come. This team's window of opportunity is just opening, I feel, and hopefully the Islanders can close a few other team's windows this coming spring.

Back to the here and now, however, and admittedly I have been out of the loop for the second half of the summer. Having been in Minnesota (a.k.a. Okposo-land) for part of it, I missed a lot of the off-season news. I also missed the exhibition game that was played in Brooklyn, though I heard it mostly went well.

Let's not forget that the Islanders still have two full seasons left to play at the old barn in Nassau, and with the new area a mere 15 miles away (consider the alternatives that were once being discussed other than Uniondale), I think as time goes on there will be some "forgive and forget" among the fanbase.

I understand your collective frustrations, but I know many Quebec, Atlanta, and Hartford fans that would have accepted keeping their beloved teams within yelling distance. So we'll just have to move forward.

Furthermore, it's on the Islanders to fill these coming two seasons with lasting memories. To achieve that goal, however, Islanders management still has some pretty important roster decisions to determine before the opening game on October 4th.

As you know, the notable pieces added this off-season were forwards Cal Clutterbuck (traded for Nino Niederreiter) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. More notably, some big names have departed, such as Rick DiPietro (contract bought out), former captain Mark Streit (signed with Philadelphia), and 35-point scorer Brad Boyes (free agent).

The "kids" are going to be tested by fire, it seems, even though they're not really kids anymore. In fact, players like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson (who will be playing for a contract this season), and others need to earnestly show us what we've all been waiting for. Not next year, but now.

We the fans are asking for consistent efforts every night, and winning hockey. Anything less will be a failure in my book. And yes, a playoff berth should be the bare minimum for this team to achieve.

As for those roster decisions, it is looking more and more like Brock Nelson will make this team. But what about highly touted prospect Ryan Strome? He's the one guy I saw during this summer's prospect scrimmage who looked heads and shoulders above the other players, if you will.

Another question mark will be how big of a role Kevin Poulin will play in goal. Head Coach Jack Capuano can't possibly ride Evgeni Nabokov for 85% of the team's games like he did last season. Or can he?

Major strides were made last season on defense, and I think that squad will be fine, despite the only real veteran presence being 37-year old Lubomir Visnovsky. With 800+ NHL games under his belt, he's not done just yet. Those around him may be young and short on experience, but they have looked very good when called upon.

I never put too much stock into preseason records. How many times have we seen a team go 5-1 or so in the preseason only to fall on their faces when the games count? And it's true in every sport. So throw the Isles' 2-4 record right in the dustbin where it belongs.

More telling, at least to me, are the bookmakers who are giving this team a real shot at contention for the first time in years.

They're rarely wrong, and if their analysis is to be believed the Islanders are right around a 12/1 shot to win the Eastern Conference. That's right, a decent, though by no means strong chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals!

Well, there's a lot of work to be done before that dream can be realized, though the same bookies believe our Islanders should be in the mix for second place in their newly realigned division. Yes, my friends, behind Pittsburgh for sure but right alongside Washington and the New York Rangers talent-wise.

Wouldn't it be sweet to finish ahead of those guys for the first time in a while?

I'll leave you with that thought.

Enjoy the final 2 preseason games, and I'll see you on October 4th.

As always, thanks for reading.

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