UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Just when the New York Islanders get franchise goalie Rick DiPietro back and healthy, the team that finished last in the Atlantic Division each of the past three years is trying to plug major holes up front and on defence.
DiPietro will be the starter Saturday night over Dwayne Roloson, arguably the Islanders’ MVP last season. But when you are still in the early stages of a US$67.5 million, 15-year contract, if you’re well enough to play—you play.
Unlike in the past, goaltending is not nearly the biggest concern of the Islanders. At least not yet.
New York will be without top defenceman Mark Streit and young, core forward Kyle Okposo in the opener at home against the Dallas Stars and for the foreseeable future. The best-case scenario for Streit’s return from a shoulder injury is four months—but likely longer. The 22-year-old Okposo is staring at two or three months away from the ice with a shoulder issue that also required surgery.
“It’s obviously an obstacle for us, but the biggest thing is that we have to go forward and understand that we have some players who are capable of filling in those roles,” third-year coach Scott Gordon said. “It’s not like last year. This certainly would have pretty much seemed like it ended our season.”
The Islanders made an 18-point improvement last season over the 2008-09 campaign, when they had an NHL-low 61 points. The only consolation from that season was it gave them the chance to select John Tavares with the No. 1 overall pick.
Tavares, who joined other rising stars Okposo and Josh Bailey, started strong last season before a swoon in the middle months when the Islanders’ hopes of making the playoffs slipped away.
Still, the 20-year-old Tavares finished with a respectable 24 goals and a team-best 54 points—two more than Okposo.
New York ended up 13th in the Eastern Conference, nine points behind eighth-place Montreal. But much of the optimism that surrounded the club after last season’s finish was swept away when the severity of the injuries to Streit and Okposo became known.
“The fans have been real patient and have been great long before I have gotten here,” Tavares said. “This year, hopefully, can really be a breakout year and really turn some heads. Even though last year was definitely a better year, we’d like to do even better and really make a push for the playoffs.
“I know a lot of people aren’t counting us in, but we believe in each other in the locker room, and the organization really believes we’ve got a good team. We’ve added some good depth and I think that’s really going to help.”
The slack might have to be picked up in goal, bringing us back to DiPietro.
Entering the fifth year of his landmark deal, DiPietro will need to first get used to the NHL again before he can hope to reproduce the form and promise that prompted the Islanders to take him No. 1 overall in the 2000 draft. The 29-year-old netminder has played in only 13 NHL games in the past two seasons because of knee injuries.
It will be the first time since 2007 that DiPietro will make the start on opening night. So already there is more interest in this opener beyond New York Jets coach Rex Ryan dropping the first puck.
“When you have a part of your career taken from you, you appreciate what you have even more,” DiPietro said. “I was never someone who took things for granted, but now every practice, every game, every win means even more.”
Roloson, who went 23-18-7 with a 3.00 goals-against average in 50 games last season, is back for the second year of his two-year deal. He will turn 41 on Tuesday and will still want to play as much as Gordon will let him. With DiPietro’s injury history and Roloson’s age, a time share seems to be the most prudent plan.
The news isn’t all bad for the Islanders, who are continuing to add to their youth movement.
Nino Niederreiter is the latest addition to the stable of promising young forwards. The 18-year-old Switzerland native, chosen with the fifth pick in this year’s draft, made the team out of training camp and will be looking to produce numbers similar to the 36 goals and 60 points he put up last season with Portland of the Western Hockey League.
Though, he could be returned to juniors after nine NHL games.
One player who should be around all season is 39-year-old captain Doug Weight, who has proven to be a leader on and off the ice despite being limited to 36 games last season because of injury. He has embraced the role of mentor to the Islanders’ youngsters, and has been housing Tavares with his family.
“Even though I have that year of experience, I’m still only going to be 20 years old,” Tavares said. “I still have a lot to learn in this league and about myself.”
The same can be said for the Islanders, who already know how tough their task is playing in a division that features the Philadelphia Flyers—last season’s Eastern Conference champion; the Pittsburgh Penguins, the East champion each of the previous two years, including the Stanley Cup title in 2009; and the New Jersey Devils, who won the Atlantic last season.
“Obviously, playing in our division is tough,” Tavares said, “but the main thing for us is really learning how to compete with the teams in the division and winning some of those games to give us crucial points and help us move forward.”