2007-08 Team Preview: New York Islanders
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideThere's just something about the New York Islanders that begs you to be dismissive of them. Maybe it's the rundown rink or the wacky owner or the GM who got his job when he was still the team's backup goaltender. But despite the snickering and jokes, the Islanders turned in one of the most surprising performances last season and their activity this summer indicates they aren't done with their surprises. There was the buying out of overpaid, underachieving captain Alexei Yashin (talk about addition by subtraction). Then came a clutch of free-agent signings that should go a long way in plugging significant holes that appeared when half the Islanders bolted for greener pastures. Add it up and you have the makings of something interesting, even if it doesn't add up to a playoff berth. Kudos to sophomore GM Garth Snow for managing to attract free agents Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Andy Sutton, Jon Sim and Josef Vasicek to a place that's not at the top of many players' lists for a variety of reasons. And kudos to coach Ted Nolan, who last season turned a bunch of underachievers into a playoff team on the afternoon of the team's final regular-season game. He'll have more challenges ahead, but that's pretty much standard for both Nolan and the Islanders. OFFENSE
It's easy to forget the Islanders had six 20-goal scorers in their lineup when the season ended. The fact that three of those players (Jason Blake, Ryan Smyth, and Viktor Kozlov) are gone and defenseman Tom Poti (44 points) also took a powder is cause for concern. But the additions of Comrie (20 goals, 45 points), Guerin (36 goals, 56 points), Sim (17 goals), Fedotenko (who has 25-goal potential) and Sutton (who has 40-plus points potential) help the Islanders avoid a big hole offensively. The question is who can be expected to step forward and deliver the big goal or the big play. It might be Guerin, who stepped right into the Isles' captaincy; although his woeful playoff performance in San Jose suggests the tank might be nearing empty. And Comrie, who has terrific tools, has yet to prove himself in a leadership role. Trent Hunter is a homegrown Islander who will get more opportunity to prove his worth. Sean Bergenheim, who played in Finland last year after a contract dispute, is an underappreciated two-way player. Both Jeff Tambellini and Frans Nielsen also will get a chance to make an impact. DEFENSE
The Islanders were pretty much a middle-of-the-road team last season, with the 12th-ranked goals-against, eighth-ranked home record and 10th-ranked road record. Those kinds of numbers might not speak of greatness, but they do speak of consistency and stability, something that has been missing in the recent past. Nolan implemented a hard-nosed, physical style of play and relied on hard-nosed players such as Sean Hill and Brendan Witt to implement it. Hill, of course, became the first NHLer to be suspended on the league's drug policy, and he subsequently signed in Minnesota. More impressive, however, was the renaissance enjoyed by oft-maligned Poti and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who came over from Edmonton for prospect Denis Grebeshkov. Although Poti has moved on, look for 6-foot-6 Sutton to be Nolan's next reclamation project. GOALTENDING
Rick DiPietro -- brash, outspoken and cocky -- made headlines before last season when he signed a 15-year-deal with the Islanders that might turn out to be one of the worst contracts (next to Yashin's, of course) ever proffered a pro athlete. But none of that really matters right now. All that matters to the Islanders and their fans is that DiPietro stays healthy and turns in another campaign like the one he had a year ago. DiPietro appeared in 62 games before going down with a concussion late in the regular season. He was 32-19-9 with a 2.58 GAA and .919 save percentage. If he repeats that performance, the Isles once again will be knocking at the playoff door. Although the Islanders brought in Joey MacDonald, a former Red Wings prospect, we're pulling for Wade Dubielewicz to earn the backup role after his stellar work in the final week of the regular season propelled the Islanders into the playoffs. COACHING
Whether he was blackballed or just the victim of bad timing, Nolan's return to the NHL's coaching ranks after a decade in purgatory was a success on almost every level. He faces similar challenges this season. He will have to reteach his systems, but Nolan seems to have all the patience in the world for this job. One thing is for sure, Nolan won't have to worry about having to re-establish his credibility. One interesting element of Nolan's job this fall will be in reintegrating longtime protégé Chris Simon, whom he brought in last season and who disgraced himself with his stick attack on the Rangers' Ryan Hollweg. When Simon returns to the lineup, he must play with snarl to be useful. It'll be up to Nolan to coax that snarl out of Simon. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
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• Search: Islanders LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 40-30-12
• Division: Fourth in Atlantic
• Conference: Eighth in East
• Playoffs: Ousted in the first round by Buffalo.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
DiPietro silenced many critics last season with his consistent play, although he'll have to repeat the performance before he is really considered among the best young goalies in the game. Defenseman: Marc-Andre Bergeron
Bergeron recorded points in 14 of 23 games after coming over at the trade deadline and became the team's power-play quarterback after being an afterthought in Edmonton. In the playoffs, Bergeron played between 25:56 and 29:06 a night. Forward: Ruslan Fedotenko
People forget that Fedotenko was a key member of the Lightning's Stanley Cup run in 2004 with 12 postseason goals (three game-winners). He will get a chance to get his career back on track with the Isles.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
No offense to Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin et al, but will the Islanders ever be able to attract top-notch free agents until they resolve the perpetual problems of playing out of the dumpy Coliseum? The short answer is no. Where Islanders Will Finish
The Islanders will finish fifth in the Atlantic Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the New York Islanders will finish this time around? Who will lead the Isles in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!