Friday, October 3, 2008

New York Islanders 2008-2009 preview

I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to the Islanders in 2008-2009. But I can tell you why.

Two words: No expectations.

Believe me, after being disappointed by the Mets for three straight years, it will be refreshing to go into a sports season without any hopes of winning a championship or making the playoffs.

Could the Islanders make the playoffs? Well, anything is possible. Many of the players are unknown quantities getting their first real shot at playing full-time in the NHL. We don't know how the players will respond to new coach Scott Gordon and his in-your-face, high-energy style of play.

So the 2008-09 season will have a significant learning curve, not just for the coach and players, but for the fans as well. And while the unknown may be a bit scary, it should be interesting.

Will Rick DiPietro finally be able to play a full season without injuring something? Will Gordon give him more rest at the risk of annoying him? Many pundits like to say that DiPietro is at the core of whether the Islanders will succeed or fail, but you know what you're getting from D.P. when he's healthy -- a very good goalie who can win games for you.

The difference between another lost season and hope for the future will be found elsewhere.

Defensively, I like what I see. Injuries torpedoed the unit last season, and already -- thanks to the intensity of Gordon's workouts -- Andy Sutton and Chris Campoli are hurting. Once they're back on the ice, a unit of Brendan Witt, Radek Martinek, Campoli, Bruno Gervais, Freddy Meyer and new acquisition Mark Streit looks solid and fairly balanced. Also, don't forget about Jack Hillen. I like this kid a lot, and he has made an impression on the coaching staff.

Streit will be challenged to help the offense and the power play, but it's unlikely he'll put up similar numbers as the Isles are just not as potent as the Canadiens were.

The Islanders couldn't score goals last season and have already been shut out twice in their first four preseason games. So while the team may play at 100 miles an hour, goal scoring is still a huge question mark.

Plenty of players will be given a chance to change that. Is Jeff Tambellini ready for the NHL or not? We'll find out in short order. Can Kyle Okposo make the kind of impact he's projected to make at this early stage of his career? Can Frans Nielsen play at this level? Can Sean Bergenheim take his game to the next level? Can Blake Comeau continue to develop and improve?

You get the idea. Lots of questions.

We know what we've got with Mike Comrie, Trent Hunter, Bill Guerin, Richard Park, Mike Sillinger and, to an extent, newcomer Doug Weight. How the veterans mesh with the youngsters in Gordon's system is the biggest question of all.

Rookie Josh Bailey could make the team to start the season -- he inked a new deal this week, the day before his 19th birthday -- but the player who could make the biggest impact is Jon Sim. You remember him, right? He missed all last season after blowing out his knee in the home opener, but he's back and has looked good, and has even shown some scoring instincts.

Gordon's Providence teams were tough to play, and if the Islanders can successfully implement that style and make the opposition work for everything they get, then games at the Coliseum could be significantly more entertaining. The Islanders certainly have plenty of young legs belonging to players looking to make a statement in this league, and a coach who knows what he wants from his team.

Like I said, I'm really looking forward to the season. Not because I expect a Stanley Cup run when it's over, but because the Islanders look like a team that will play an agressive style, with a number of players who have a ton of promise, and that combination could make the Coliseum fun again.

Plus, I've always liked a good mystery.

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