Isles-Jets: Au Revoir to Nassau for 2011-2012 -- Plus a Look Ahead
Thursday, April 5, 2012
By Stan Fischler
The Islanders bade au revoir to their fans at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday night with a stirring 5-4 victory over Winnipeg on Michael Grabner’s second goal of the night with only 46 seconds remaining in the third period.
Travis Hamonic made it all possible with a dynamic drive from the point that enabled Grabner -- who earlier had scored on a penalty shot -- to deflect the rubber past goalie Chris Mason.
“It was a fantastic victory for our club,” Grabner said, “something we wanted for our fans.”
No less important to followers of the Nassaumen is what will become of the current roster led by captain Mark Streit and scoring ace John Tavares between now and October.
Some questions – including the return of general manager Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano – have been confirmed in the affirmative. But many issues must be resolved in the next six months. These include:
• GOALTENDING: The signing of Evgeni Nabokov is a good netminding signal but only part of the equation. The affable Russian proved he still has the goods when healthy.
After Nabby, there’s a question mark. The most likely co-goalie at this moment appears to be Al Montoya who has the experience and motivation.
But Big Al will become a free agent this summer and management will have to decide whether or not to make him an offer.
If Montoya does return he will face stiff competition at camp from at least three young worthies: Kevin Poulin, Anders Nilsson and Mikko Koskinen.
The “Iffy” goaltending issue remains Rick DiPietro whose future on the Island likely will be determined by two elements: 1. Rick’s health in terms of his future ability as a player; 2. Management’s view of its netminding needs.
• DEFENSE: The dual foundation is in place with the veteran Streit and the emerging star Hamonic.
All signs suggest that Andrew MacDonald, who played 74 games, has earned a return invitation along with Dylan Reese, who impressed after 28 games. Reese was the only defenseman – apart from Hamonic’s plus-6 – to avoid the minus column.
Steve Staios, who celebrated his 1,000th NHL game against Winnipeg, has indicated that he’d like another season on the Island but the decision about the 38-year-old backliner remains iffy at this time.
Conceivably, Staios could be invited as a walk-on at camp as he was last September. “We have loyal fans and we’re proud to be a part of this organization,” explained Staios.
Future decisions on Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina at the moment are known only by the high command. Time will tell whether they’re back.
Meanwhile, several promising defensemen will get good, hard looks in the Fall. They include: Matt Donovan, Aaron Ness and Calvin de Haan.
Donovan, who played in his second NHL game on Thursday night, impressed with his overall calm and one play in particular midway through the second period.
He catapulted Matt Martin on a breakaway with a sterling pass from deep in his own zone to the Jets’ blue line. Goalie Chris Mason negated what could have been a goal with an alert save.
• FORWARDS: Snow will attempt in the offseason to build around his nucleus featuring Tavares, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo and the late-season sensation, Josh Bailey.
As far as the offense is concerned, the biggest question of all centers around P.A. Parenteau, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
The sad news is that P.A. was helped off the ice in the second period after being taken down on a breakaway, suffering a left ankle sprain.
Well aware that he found his game as a big-leaguer on the Island, Parenteau increased his post-season value by totaling 18 goals and 49 assists for 67 points over 80 games. He’s the club’s third leading scorer behind Tavares and Moulson.
Coach Capuano often stressed during the season the need for secondary scoring. He obtained good production in the home stretch from Okposo and Bailey but wanted more from Grabner.
“It’s been a difficult year,” said Okposo. “I want to put it behind me and I’ll look to build off my second half.”
Among the defensive forwards, Frans Nielsen worked both ends of the rink well, playing 81 games through the home finale and with impressive numbers. Heading for the finale on Saturday at Columbus, Nielsen has produced 17 goals and 28 assists for a 45-point total.
In terms of next season’s roster there’s an interesting old and new contrast. Defensive specialist Jay Pandolfo, 37, would like to return for one more season with the Isles.
On the other hand, 19-year-old Nino Niederreiter, who has only managed one goal in 54 games, is looking to stimulate his production in 2012-2013.
In defense of Nino, who had an excellent training camp before being injured, Niederreiter played most of the campaign as a fourth-liner with less than average ice time.
With a season of big league experience under his belt, Niederreiter could very well blossom on a second or third line.
• TOP PICKS: The Isles could also get an offensive boost from two first-round picks waiting in the wings.
Ryan Strome, taken fifth overall in 2011, and Brock Nelson, obtained 30th in 2010, could bring more depth and scoring to the lineup if they continue their maturing process.
The 18-year-old Strome featured his dynamic offensive ability with a 106-point season in the Ontario Hockey League last year. This season has been a productive one for the Niagara IceDog, who has registered another 30-goal campaign.
Another campaign at the Junior level could serve the young center well but Nelson appears poised for the big club.
The gifted forward recently opted to leave the University of North Dakota to sign a three-year deal with the Isles. The big fellow [6-4, 205 pounds] produced 28 goals in 42 games in his final collegiate season.
All of the above should be good news for Capuano.
“Moving forward we need to have more success at home to become a playoff team,” the coach concluded. “It can be frustrating for our fans but our young players are getting better every day – I can see it.”