THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
For a team that seemed ready to take a couple of steps forward after three straight playoff appearances, the Islanders appear to have lost ground to most of their Eastern Conference competitors, starting the 2005-06 season with more questions than answers.
Offense: With Michael Peca's departure Alexei Yashin will wear the captain's "C," sparking yet another round of debate over Yashin's focus, dedication and unrealized potential. The gifted forward is one of dozens of skilled players who should benefit from a more open style of play. Still, it's difficult to imagine Yashin being the kind of dressing room leader who can motivate his teammates for those crucial late-season division games.
The Islanders said goodbye to Dave Scatchard and captain Peca, both character guys. In their place is Miroslav Satan who, if you listen to his former teammates and the coaching staff in Buffalo, doesn't quite qualify in the character category. Former Ranger Mike York arrives via the Peca deal with Edmonton, and he'll need to realize the offensive potential that has seen him twice top the 20-goal mark.
The Islanders do have some promising players coming through the system, including 2004 rookie of the year finalist Trent Hunter, who will have to continue his surprising development if the Isles are going to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Defense: With the loss of underappreciated Adrian Aucoin to Chicago, the retirement of Kenny Jonsson to Sweden and the defection of Roman Hamrlik to Calgary, a team that once boasted one of the deepest, most-talented defensive groups is now just ordinary. Alexei Zhitnik comes in from Buffalo, but he and Janne Niinimaa do not a blue-line corps make.
The Islanders need considerable help from Brent Sopel -- who arrives from Vancouver, where he was considered expendable -- and Brad Lukowich, who won Stanley Cups with Dallas and Tampa Bay but likewise wasn't part of the Bolts' long-term plans. Both Sopel and still-developing Radek Martinek will have to step forward to keep the Isles on sound defensive footing.
Goaltending: Rick DiPietro will also be asked to take a giant stride forward. The brash former No. 1 pick showed he is on the right track with a star turn at the World Championships, and no one will be surprised if he is the starting goaltender for the U.S. at the 2006 Olympics.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES If DiPietro can deliver quality starts while shouldering an enormous workload, he should keep the Islanders close and give the new defensive alignment time to jell.
If DiPietro breaks down mentally or physically, the Islanders are doomed. If Yashin is no different from the Yashin that has meandered through his time on Long Island, this is no better than a mediocre club.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Trent Hunter. The native of Red Deer, Alberta, led the team with 25 goals and 51 points as a rookie. If the developing power forward can avoid a sophomore letdown, his production and on-ice style might push the Islanders into the playoffs.
Steve Stirling completed his first season behind the Islanders' bench with a record of 38-29-11-4, good enough to clinch a playoff berth. The organization also was impressed with how Stirling advanced the skills of DiPietro and other youngsters. That will be a challenge again this season.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> COULD IT BE
Miroslav Satan. Yeah, he's not the most popular guy in Buffalo. But that's not where he's playing. And if ever there were a time for the talented, underachieving Satan to show his stuff, it's now. Playing alongside Yashin should help. So should the new rules.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> LATE START
With all due respect to veteran Garth Snow, the Isles could have used a little more insurance than the 36-year-old netminder whose outsized equipment was Exhibit A in the push to downsize gear. DiPietro might be ready to take on the world, but an upgrade over Snow would have taken some pressure off the young goaltender.
Trent Hunter, RW
Hunter led the team with 25 goals and 26 assists in 2003-04.
Rick DiPietro, G
DiPietro carried a bulk of the load in 2003-04, posting a 23-18-5 record and .911 save percentage.
“I've made my feelings known that Long Island is where I want to spend my career.”
— DiPietro on his future