The New York Islanders made the playoffs for the first time since 2006-2007, playing an attacking, up-tempo game that allowed them to thrive offensively.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Isles can do going forward to maintain their place as a playoff team for years to come.
Building a team on a budget hasn't been easy for the Islanders, so credit is due to GM Garth Snow, who has made a habit out of salvaging players off the scrap heap and turning them into viable NHLers.
Just off this past season's roster:
LW Matt Moulson was a 25-year-old with 29 career NHL games when signed as a free agent;
RW Brad Boyes, 31, signed for $1-million after a career-low 23 points in Buffalo;
RW Colin McDonald was a 27-year-old with seven NHL games in his career when signed as a free agent;
C Keith Aucoin was a 34-year-old with 102 career NHL games when signed as a free agent;
RW Michael Grabner, D Thomas Hickey, D Brian Strait and G Evgeni Nabokov were waiver pickups.
That's eight players that played regular roles, some very significant, that were there for the taking for any franchise, yet Snow cobbled together a roster with those players and some strong draft picks.
The cornerstone of the franchise is C John Tavares, the first overall pick from 2009, who has 128 points in 130 games over the past two seasons, a total which ranks sixth in the league over that span. The talent that surrounds Tavares allowed the Islanders to generate 30.9 shots on goal per game (ranking sixth in the league) and their shot differential of +2.70 per game was tied for eighth; it's that aggressive offensive approach that helped the Isles not only make the playoffs, but push the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins to overtime of Game Six before falling.
There are going to be issues for Snow to face this summer, however. There are always free agents to replace and veteran defenceman Mark Streit has been traded to Philadephia before hitting free agency, so that leaves a hole, but the Islanders have accumulated the kind of organizational depth that actually puts them in an enviable position going forward, the kind of position that allows Snow to be optimistic for once.
"I don't think there will be too many changes," Snow told Newsday. "We want to continue down the road we started. We're just as excited about the prospects we have as the team that played this season. We've had some really good drafts and we have a prospect pool we like, not just some of the players at Bridgeport. It bodes well for the future."
Any general manager can put positive spin on his team's future but, in this case, Snow's right: the future is definitely looking brighter for the Islanders.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Garth Snow/Jack Capuano
Islanders Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
While John Tavares did have a breakthrough year as a goal-scorer (his 28 goals in 48 games was easily the best rate, 0.58 gpg, of his career) his points-per-game production was ever-so-slightly down from 2011-2012. There's no complaining about point-per-game production, but it does seem narrative-driven to suggest his numbers were MVP-worthy and he is a Hart Trophy finalist. All that aside, his 0.86 points per game through his first four seasons ranks 15th since 2000 for players in their first four years, leaving Tavares in very good company as a first-rate point producer and his prime production years are coming.
Riding shotgun with Tavares has been an ideal fit for Matt Moulson, who is tied for 11th in goals scored (112) over the last four seasons. It's fair to wonder how much Moulson might score if he played with someone else, but there doesn't appear to be any reason why he won't continue in the same spot he's been, with Tavares.
With better finishing, Michael Grabner could be among the league's top snipers because his tremendous acceleration gives him numerous breakaways, maybe more than anyone else in the league, and 16 goals in 45 games is nothing to dismiss so easily, but it feels like he could score even more.
Long-regarded as underrated, Frans Nielsen is a fine two-way centre, though his possession numbers weren't as strong as usual. He played a career-high 18:01 per game and faced difficult matchups, so he does provide value.
After scoring a ridiculous four goals in 48 regular season games, Kyle Okposo scored three times in six playoff games, a tiny bit of regression to the mean after scoring on just 4.0% of his shots during the regular season. He's a talented and powerful player who should be a key contributor, yet Okposo leaves the impression that he could produce more.
28-year-old Colin McDonald finally stuck as an NHL regular last season, playing 45 games in 2013 after a total of seven NHL games to that point in his career and he played a solid game, earning more ice time in the second half of the season.
A gritty young centre, Casey Cizikas has room to grow, but was decent as a rookie. Even with subpar possession numbers, he showed enough to expect that he has a chance to evolve into a third-line checking centre as he matures.
The league's leading hitter, with 234 in 48 games, Matt Martin is the muscle up front for the Isles. He's not a huge scorer, but has logged more than a dozen minutes per game over the last two seasons, so he's been able to handle a regular shift.
Enforcer Eric Boulton is a part-time player who played 5:40 per game in 15 games last season. He can tangle with the heavyweights but, even though he hasn't played a lot, Boulton hasn't managed a point in 66 games over the last two seasons.
It hasn't been the smoothest developmental path for Josh Bailey, but the 23-year-old started to come on in the second half of the season, scoring nine goals and five assists in his last 20 games. If that's a sign of things to come, then Bailey could be a nice source of secondary scoring for the Isles.
A winger with size, some skill and checking ability, David Ullstrom has 13 points in 49 career games over two seasons with the Islanders, playing a modest 10:22 per game. There may not be much more upside to Ullstrom's game, but he can play a checking role.
There is room for the Islanders to move ahead and still get younger. If they don't keep any of their unrestricted free agents, that could very well open up spots for prospects like Ryan Strome and Nino Niederreiter, but if Brad Boyes departs, the Islanders may want to pluck a veteran winger to go somewhere in their top six, maybe top nine. Patrik Elias would be a bold stroke. Michael Ryder, Clarke MacArthur, Nathan Horton, Ryane Clowe and Dustin Penner are all wingers that could replace any departing offensive production.
Islanders Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
It took some convincing to get Lubomir Visnovsky to join the team, but he was terrific, with spectacular possession stats while playing nearly 23 minutes per game. Facing the departure of Mark Streit, Visnovsky becomes even more important for the Islanders going forward.
After playing a part-time role (17:09 ATOI, 19 GP) during the regular season, Brian Strait logged more tha 20 minutes per game in the Islanders' first round loss to Pittsburgh. The 25-year-old played well enough to warrant a longer look, but he's still a relatively unproven commodity.
One of the best bargains in hockey, Andrew MacDonald is making just $550,000, but has played more than 23 minutes per game over the last three seasons. He's smart, mobile and can move the puck so an easy fit in the top four.
Matt Carkner is a big, mean defenceman, though he is in such a limited role with the Islanders, playing less than half of the games and logging just 12:35 per game when he did play. Managing Carkner's usage paid off, though, as his possession numbers weren't bad.
A towering blueliner who has little reason to be in the NHL, Joe Finley played a career-high 16 NHL games for the Islanders in 2013, but he struggled when he did get on the ice.
22-year-old physical defenceman Travis Hamonic still takes on the tough checking assignments, though he didn't have as much success as he did in his first two pro campaigns.
A washout as a Kings prospect, even though he was drafted fourth overall in 2007, Thomas Hickey finally reached the NHL with the Islanders and delivered sensational possession stats; good enough to warrant a regular turn on next year's blueline.
Facing the prospect of losing Mark Streit, the Islanders may want to consider a veteran addition to their defence. Free agents like Jordan Leopold, Rob Scuderi, Ian White, Toni Lydman and others would all ease the pressure on some of the young Islanders defencemen and would allow the likes of prospects Griffin Reinhart, Calvin de Haan and Matt Donovan to easily transition to the big-league roster when they are deemed ready.
Free Agent Goaltenders
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
A strong finish to the season (including a .928 save percentage in April) by Evgeni Nabokov helped the Islanders reach the postseason, but he had a rough time in the playoffs against Pittsburgh and, since he remains unsigned, the Islanders are in the market for a number one goaltender.
That could mean exploring a trade for the likes of Ryan Miller (an option which I find most interesting) or Roberto Luongo, or taking on a free agent like Niklas Backstrom, Mike Smith, Ray Emery or Jose Theodore.
Kevin Poulin didn't see a lot of action for the Islanders, spending most of the year in the AHL (15-14-3, 3.22 GAA, .904 SV%), but the 23-year-old has shown promise, including a .912 save percentage in 21 career NHL games.
Rick DiPietro remains on the books but, after he was demoted to the AHL last season, it doesn't appear there is any reason to consider him anything but a financial issue for the organization.
||34-60-94, +43, 53 GP
||8-21-29, +30, 59 GP
||28-22-50, -5, 74 GP
||25-27-52, even, 66 GP
|Calvin de Haan
||0-2-2, +1, 3 GP
||14-34-48, +14, 75 GP
||6-6-12, +2, 47 GP
||4-13-17, +8, 39 GP
||11-21-32, +7, 59 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||20-18-38, +18, 41 GP
It was a little surprising when Ryan Strome, the fifth pick in the 2011 draft, was returned to junior last season, but he was a dominant performer upon his return to Niagara. A skilled playmaker, Strome should be ready to prove himself in the NHL next season.
The fourth overall pick last summer, Griffin Reinhart has good size, can skate and can play a physical, shutdown-style game. It just may take some time to smooth out the edges before he's ready to do that in the NHL.
If he has his way, Nino Niederreiter, the fifth pick in 2010, might be toiling for another organization next season, such is his frustration after spending a year in the AHL after being kept in the NHL for the 2011-2012 season. Be that as it may, Niederreiter did score 28 goals in the AHL and getting used to scoring again was important for him to get on track to being a productive pro winger.
Brock Nelson had a strong first pro season after two years at the University of North Dakota. As his 6-foot-3 frame has filled out, he's better able to handle the rigors of pro hockey and allow his skill to shine through. He's not far from challenging for a spot.
A heady defenceman who makes a good first pass, Calvin De Haan missed nearly all of the 2012-2013 season with a dislocated shoulder. The 12th overall pick in the 2009 draft might need some time to get back in form after missing that much game action, but he's going to be pushing for a spot with the Islanders soon enough.
Perhaps the most NHL-ready of the Islanders defence prospects, Matt Donovan has 98 points in 153 games over two-plus AHL seasons. He has the offensive game to play in the NHL; it's just a matter of earning enough trust with his defensive play.
Drafted in the second round last summer, Ville Pokka is smart and can move the puck. He'll need to get stronger and improve his skating, but he's only 19, so has time to develop.
A big and nasty defenceman, Scott Mayfield has jumped to pro hockey after two years at Denver University. He can use some time in the AHL, to get accustomed to the speed of pros, but Mayfield has potential to be a significant part of the Islanders defence.
A second-round pick in 2011, Johan Sundstrom adjusted well to the North American game and is a balanced prospect who does a lot well, but may not be a standout in any one area.
A big forward who scored 116 points in 125 games at Notre Dame, Anders Lee had a couple of points in two games with the Islanders last season. His size and skill give him a chance to be a scorer at the next level, though improved skating would help his production.
The Islanders have a very deep group of prospects, with goaltender Anders Nilsson, defencemen Andrey Pedan, Adam Pelech, Aaron Ness and Robbie Russo all having some chance to develop in to NHLers. Wildcard winger Kirill Kabanov and winger John Persson are also notables in the system.
15th - Alexander Wennberg, Ryan Pulock, Josh Morrissey
According to www.capgeek.com, the Islanders have approximately $34.2M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 14 players.
Check out my possible Islanders lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Islanders needed last year: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen, backup goaltender.
They added: Brad Boyes, Colin McDonald, Casey Cizikas, Keith Aucoin, Eric Boulton, Lubomir Visnovsky, Thomas Hickey, Matt Carkner.
Josh Bailey, Nino Niederreiter, other prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.