Why the Isles Can Afford A Lost Season

The NHL hasn’t played a game this season, but depending on how things pan out, that might be a blessing in disguise for the Isles. (Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr)

As November drags on, so do the CBA talks. Most recently, the news coming out of the negotiations in New York City has been anything but encouraging. After a promising start, attempts to compromise have crashed and been slowly burning ever since.

In the meantime, there are Islanders players scattered across continents, some training, others playing.

Center/winger Josh Bailey is the latest to jump across the pond, as Katie Strang of ESPN tweeted that he will be playing in Germany for the remainder of this lockout.   That may just be an odd choice of timing, but either way, it’ll at least be a few weeks in the second league for him. (Bailey scored his first goal for the Bietigheim Steelers against SC Riessersee today, in fact. And no, Rick DiPietro was not playing.)

There are some serious costs to losing part or all of this season for all 30 teams in the league. There are also some costs for the Isles, seeing as there are a couple of newly-signed players (and some whose contracts are set to expire) who may well be gone by 2013-14. Evgeni Nabokov, Lubomir Visnovsky, Mark Streit, Eric Boulton, Marty Reasoner and Brad Boyes will all become UFAs next July. Josh Bailey will become an RFA.

Though the defense and goaltending will be especially hard-hit by the departures, it isn’t the end of the world. For instance, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Streit re-sign, even if only for a season or two. And if he and Visnovsky reconsider, the defensive prospects in the Isles’ system are ready and willing to take over, the biggest names being Matt Donovan and Aaron Ness. Unfortunately, Calvin de Haan’s nagging injuries might not make him a viable choice to fill in the defensive gaps, but with Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald already experienced, solid pieces of the Isles defensive core, the blueline should be in good shape to start 2013. There might even be a black horse in offensive defenseman Jon Landry.

Also a plus is the fact that Nino Niederreiter has quickly bounced back in the AHL. He and linemate Brock Nelson are tied for the lead in Bridgeport scoring with near-identical stats — seven goals, six assists, 13 points for Nelson, and one more assist for Niederreiter (14 pts). The only difference is in the plus-minus — Niederreiter is a -1, Nelson a +4. But they have each become the catalysts for this Sound Tigers offense, leading fans and writers to sing their praises.

This is exactly why I dismissed the claim that Niederreiter was “ruined” by spending a year in the NHL. As stated repeatedly before, he spent minimal minutes on the ice without supportive teammates on the Island in 2011-12, in an effort to “cure” him of some bad habits. Now, whether or not those habits are dead remains to be seen at the NHL level, but this much is for certain — he needed to get back to basics, and that’s apparently what he’s doing in Bridgeport.

As for Nelson, well, this is just a precursor of things to come. The 21-year-old center has bulked up from his college days, and his offensive upside has just kept rising — he’s managed to be in the right spots at the right time and has an excellent shot. His creativity combined with Nino’s skill and hard work make for a deadly duo. There will be more on him to come, but for now, keep an eye on his play if you’re following the Sound Tigers for your hockey fix.

The only thing that can be asked right now is for Kirill Kabanov to rebound from his wrist injury and get back into it, but for right now, the Isles can be satisfied with knowing that Nelson and Nino are coming along. Also keep an eye, of course, on Casey Cizikas, who filled the third-line center spot for a while last season and did well there (and has eight points on the year so far in Bridgeport). If Ryan Strome needs another year (doubtful), CC could fill the second or third-line center spot depending on where Frans Nielsen is placed — he spent most of the year on second line, so expect Cizikas to be #3 or, if Strome is ready, perhaps move to wing. (When did we get so many centers? Geez.)

In goal, well… we can’t panic just yet. Yes, Evgeni Nabokov is 37 years old and is probably looking to retire soon. No, Rick DiPietro hasn’t started a game for SC Riessersee in Germany after news surfaced that, surprise, he’s injured again. But somehow, Garth Snow manages to get his hands on goalies — Dwayne Roloson, Al Montoya, and yes, Nabokov — who, once they buy in, are at the very least serviceable in net, and in most cases bail the Isles out of some dire situations. And if somehow he can’t work his magic again, there are a couple of goalies by the name of Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson who are chomping at the bit in the AHL.

And let’s not forget some other names and faces in the junior leagues —  Strome, who’s blown the top off of the OHL, and IceDogs  linemate Mitchell Theoret, a goal scorer with grit. Griffin Reinhart, new captain of the Edmonton Oil Kings. Anders Lee, who’s taken over Notre Dame and earned respect from his coaches and teammates alike. There are others, but just looking at the recent success of these guys is enough to say, “Okay, let’s see what they’ve got.” Strome is projected to show up on the Island as early as next season; it could be another couple of years for Reinhart, while Lee and Theoret are making strong cases for the Isles to take a closer look.

Overall? The Islanders organization has banked on developing its core of young talent for the past few years. It’s been coming slowly, but surely, and in one year (maybe two) it will be John Tavares’s team entirely. This time he’s spent in the Swiss National League can only help his game, and he’ll come back more seasoned (and hopefully not more fatigued). Let the kids develop — and, now that we’ve got that shiny new arena in Brooklyn to bank on, maybe we can lure some better FAs, no…?

Ah, well. Worth a try.

Until next time.

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