As usual, it seems, a degree of turmoil prevails in the offseason on Long Island. The Islanders dropped in the standings following their improbable 2006-07 playoff berth, and head coach Ted Nolan was dismissed. Many said that he had refused to play his young guys enough. Since the Islanders had neither the veteran talent nor the youthful chemistry to succeed against other NHL teams regularly, Nolan would have been advised to heed the men who wrote his paychecks. Be that as it may, a new era dawns again.
New head coach Scott Gordon, most recently behind the bench of the Providence Bruins, will be asked to develop the club’s prospects to their full potential. Gone are several veterans: Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Chris Simon, and Wade Dubielewicz. Brought in were Doug Weight and Mark Streit. Weight may be insurance in case Mike Sillinger can’t overcome his aches; Streit is a much-needed offensive option who upgrades on the role once expected of Marc-Andre Bergeron. However, the circumstances of the Islanders this year promise that several prospects will get their cup of coffee. It should be an exciting time of transition and heightened interest in the prospects moving through the system.
For the second year in a row, the Islanders are holding training camp in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Lacking a true No. 1 center, the Islanders open up camp with two veterans inked in already: Comrie and Weight. Competing for the other slots are Frans Nielsen, Trevor Smith, and Tomas Marcinko. This year’s first-round selection, Joshua Bailey, has already been named captain of the Windsor Spitfires, and will undoubtedly finish his final eligible year with his club. Nielsen did sign a deal this year with the Islanders, and may have the edge over Smith based on that. Marcinko is another interesting prospect who had injury problems last season, but was very effective for Barrie.
At right wing, Kyle Okposo is a lock to make this team. He stepped right in last year and was reasonably effective in nine games. Okposo’s strength on the puck gives him an important tool for the pro game, but managing expectations will be a tough challenge for a projected Calder candidate. Competing with him for that wing slot will be Blake Comeau, who saw plenty of NHL action last season and chipped in 15 points in 51 games. Questions linger about his consistency, but he is a good bet to be a regular.
Jeremy Colliton had trouble showing he belonged in the NHL during 16 games last season, failing to do much of anything. Another player with an opportunity to impress at camp is ex-Sting Justin DiBenedetto. Playing with Steve Stamkos, he put up gaudy numbers, but also played well at rookie camp, and with the lack of depth at right wing, might find himself in a good position if his success translates. Currently, only captain Bill Guerin and Trent Hunter have guaranteed slots at right wing.
Left wing, meanwhile, is thin, with Sean Bergenheim and Jeff Tambellini the veterans, and Jon Sim occupying the checking line slot. Big and mean Jesse Joensuu is a potential to make the squad, although his overall skill level isn’t eye-popping. Sean Bentivoglio‘s extra years of maturity helped him to a successful rookie camp, so he should come to Moncton with some confidence at least. Matt Martin is a kid with grit, who was very productive in a third-line role at Sarnia, scoring 25 goals. There is room for a player to step up and take a spot, and it seems possible that Joensuu could be that guy, but the other candidate is Max Gratchev. He’s been an excellent player in the Q, despite some unlucky injuries (a broken foot this year).
The Islanders come into camp with six pretty well-established defensemen, starting with the solid Brendan Witt and new free-agent acquisition Mark Streit. Streit is almost a forward at times, and comes off a season where he put up great numbers as part of Montreal’s power-play unit. Chris Campoli played in just 46 games last year, but the job is basically his to lose. Andrew MacDonald and Dustin Kohn come to camp hoping to impress enough to get a shot. Further down the pipeline, Aaron Ness starts his collegiate career with high expectations at the University of Minnesota. Newly-signed Jack Hillen has beaten the odds before. WIth a college career behind him, he brings experience and hockey intelligence to camp, despite a lack of draft pedigree. Jyri Niemi, Blake Kessel, and Travis Hamonic won’t make the team this year, but possess a lot of upside.
As the face of the franchise, Rick DiPietro’s position is basically unassailable. The oft-injured DiPietro comes into camp healthy, so the only question right now is who will be the backup. The very dependable Wade Dubielewicz is playing in Russia, and competing for his former place are Yann Danis, Joey MacDonald, and Peter Mannino. MacDonald has the inside track for the backup job for now. He got into two games for the Islanders last year, 17 total. Yann Danis also has some NHL experience (six games), but has been a decidedly average AHL starter the last four seasons. Mannino, who won a national championship at Denver as a freshman in 2005, would be a longshot for the job.
Overall, the landscape is pretty clear for this club. They have a rookie coach who is expected to teach, but also cultivate a competitive spirit. There is a long-term plan in formation, as evidenced by the draft strategy this year of restocking. A few prospects will challenge in camp and be noticed. Players like Bill Guerin, Mike Sillinger, Doug Weight, and Brendan Witt provide an excellent leadership core. It is a time of rebuilding, but things certainly look better this year than last, and this training camp will be an interesting one to observe. In hockey, so much depends upon leadership and chemistry. Though lacking in skill, this team might just come together in camp and exceed some low expectations.