When Garth Snow became general manager of the New York Islanders in July 2006, he inherited a veteran club with little help on the horizon.
The Islanders made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Snow's first season. He acquired Ryan Smyth, Richard Zednik and Marc-Andre Bergeron to help them get there, but New York was eliminated in the first round by the Buffalo Sabres.
After free agents Smyth and Jason Blake decided to leave town that summer, Snow changed course. With an outdated building and a budget smaller than the big-market clubs', Snow set out to rebuild the Islanders from the ground up.
It's been a slow, methodical, sometimes painful process. The Islanders possessed a lottery pick at the NHL Draft every year from 2008-12 and used the No. 1 selection in 2009 on John Tavares, who is now the face of the franchise. They waited patiently to see if goaltender Rick DiPietro could stay healthy and regain the form he showed shortly after signing that historic 15-year, $67.5 million contract. All the while, owner Charles Wang was trying to secure a new arena to replace Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which opened in 1972.
Things finally started to turn around for the Islanders at the start of last season. Wang never got the building he wanted in Nassau County, but the franchise announced it would move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the fall of 2015. A few months after the announcement, the Islanders found themselves in the playoffs for the first time in six years. They lost in the opening round in a competitive six-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a defeat the Islanders have been thinking about all summer.
"What makes it sting more is how well we played," Tavares told NHL.com. "The opportunity we had, I think we felt we really had them on the ropes. We outshot them a bunch of games and had a lot of pressure. You could say some of that inexperience came in. We didn't capitalize on some opportunities, they capitalized on theirs. Special teams weren't solid.
"But in saying that, it's a great motivating factor. I know how amazing that experience was. It's really hard to describe what playoff hockey is like in the NHL. There's really nothing like that. You see Chicago with the Cup and us getting a little taste of that experience, I think it drives you that much more to want to be successful and get to that ultimate goal."
Should New York achieve that goal, it will do so without DiPietro. The No. 1 selection in the 2000 NHL Draft, who had a 4.09 goals-against average and .855 save percentage in three games last season before being waived and demoted to the American Hockey League, was bought out by the Islanders on July 3. He will be paid $1.5 million annually for the next 16 years.
"It was an extremely tough decision to use the compliance buyout on Rick's contract," Snow said. "His drive to win games and compete at the highest level for the New York Islanders was never questioned. With Rick back at 100 percent health, we wish him nothing but the best as he continues to pursue his career."
Evgeni Nabokov returns as the No. 1 goaltender after signing a one-year contract July 5. Nabokov, 38, struggled during the playoffs (4.44 GAA, .842 save percentage), but his solid play during the regular season (23-11-7, 2.50 GAA, .910 save percentage) helped New York end its postseason drought. He will be backed up by 23-year-old Kevin Poulin, who may see more playing time in an attempt to keep Nabokov fresh should the team return to the playoffs.
The Islanders will have a similar cast this season, with the biggest exception the departure of defenseman Mark Streit. Captain the past two seasons, Streit was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in June after failing to reach a new deal with New York. A new captain hasn't been named, but Tavares is the logical and most popular pick. He likely will be appointed during training camp.
Forward Cal Clutterbuck arrives from the Minnesota Wild after being acquired by the Islanders in a trade for Nino Niederreiter at this year's draft. Clutterbuck struggled offensively last season (10 points in 42 games) but finished in the top 10 in the League with 155 hits. Joining him in New York is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, a candidate to play right wing on the top line alongside Tavares and Matt Moulson. Bouchard, who signed a one-year contract July 5, had 20 points (eight goals) in 43 games for the Wild last season. New York also signed 27-year-old center Peter Regin from the Ottawa Senators for depth.
Two key pieces of the Islanders' rebuild were re-signed to long-term contracts this summer. Left wing Josh Bailey, who had 11 goals in 38 games last season, signed a five-year contract worth $16.5 million. Travis Hamonic, who has emerged as one of the better young defensemen in the League, signed for seven years, $27 million. Bailey (No. 9) and Hamonic (No. 53) were drafted by the Islanders in 2008.
"Garth didn't make a lot of moves … he believes in the guys that we have," Islanders coach Jack Capuano told NHL.com. "I think he proved that at the trade deadline, when we didn't do anything at all. We've got the core nucleus coming back. We have to make sure that we're focused from Day One and play the way that we need to play."
Streit's departure leaves a hole on the blue line, which the Islanders will attempt to fill internally. They are encouraged by the play of waiver-wire acquisitions Brian Strait and Thomas Hickey and could turn to Matt Donovan, a fourth-round pick (No. 96) in 2008 who had 93 points during the past two seasons for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL. New York used its first-round selection at this year's draft on defenseman Ryan Pulock, whose slap shot has been clocked at more than 100 mph. Pulock likely will return to the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League for more seasoning.
Griffin Reinhart, the club's first-round pick (No. 4) in 2012, will compete for a roster spot, but he is 19 years old. Calvin de Haan, another first-round pick (No. 12 in 2009), is in the mix, but he could need some time in Bridgeport after a shoulder injury limited him to three AHL games last season.
"It's a great opportunity for those guys," Capuano said. "When you look at what Garth did July 5, we didn't do a whole lot on the back end. We've got guys back there now that we're going to give an opportunity to. You come in, you work hard and the best man wins. Those guys are going to get every opportunity in preseason to see how they fit. They're all working hard this summer, and I know they want that opportunity. We've always been an organization that gives an opportunity."
Training camp also will determine the fate of 2011 first-round pick (No. 5) Ryan Strome. The gifted forward could be ready to make the jump to the NHL after he had 94 points (34 goals) in 53 games in his final season of junior hockey with the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League. Projected as a top-six forward, Strome would join a mix that includes Tavares, Moulson (a three-time 30-goal scorer), Bailey, two-way center Frans Nielsen and power forward Kyle Okposo, who made a name for himself in the playoffs after struggling through the regular season.
That puts speedy wing Michael Grabner on the third line. Grabner had 16 goals in 45 games last season and is a breakaway threat every time he's on the ice. He could be joined by Clutterbuck and rookie Brock Nelson, who is competing for a roster spot after scoring 25 goals for Bridgeport last season. The fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald provides the Islanders with balance throughout the lineup and the ability to get under the opposition's skin.
A lot of the pieces are in place. It's time to take the next step.
"I think things are coming nicely for us," Tavares said. "I think there's still a lot of work to be done. We have a lot of areas to improve in."
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ISLANDERS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
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