Monday, August 17, 2009

Da Lines?

We find ourselves in those dog days of summer where there’s little player movement to speak of, but lots of anticipation for a season starting up in roughly 7 weeks. At this time of the year, folks start talking about how things are looking, whether it be the possible line combinations of their own favorite team or how teams around the league compare on paper, especially in light of the players they’ve signed and those they have lost. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention a few things about our team's line combinations in the upcoming season.


I’m not all that interested about who exactly is going to be playing with whom this upcoming season. We all know that injuries and Gordon’s previous affinity for trying different players on different lines will make any conversation at this point redundant. Sure, the Comeau-Bailey-Okposo line had its moments while Nielsen and Hunter had seemed to form some nice chemistry before injuries removed them from one another. Thompson and Jackman do make for a rough & tumble fourth line pair and Jackman truly became a player you just have to admire, even if it hurt seeing that guy’s nose being broken time and time again. With John Tavares now becoming our great hope in the goal-scoring department, it would only seem logical that he spend some time playing with Doug Weight, who still remains the best pure passer on this team. With Roloson and Biron being extremely capable of providing decent goaltending, the ever injury-prone defense remains intact, with Mark Streit a shining star among a bunch of guys best considered numbers 5 and 6 DMen, at least on any team hoping to fight for a playoff spot.

A bigger question to me is who is really gonna make the team and in what capacity? When thinking about any and all youngins in the system, Tavares included, I have to think about something Darryl Sutter recently said about the situation in Calgary, and I quote, "I really don't care how many one-way contracts we have … I think there's six kids in (July's top prospects camp) who are going to knock the (stuffing) out of some guys for jobs," Sutter said. "And I love it. That's the way it works."

Yep, that’s the way it works – for most NHL teams. For our beloved Islanders, many of those one-way contracts ARE the kids going into our camp. They may not be the youngest, but these contracts have gone to players like Nielsen and Tambellini last summer, and now Comeau and Hillen this summer. Sure, there are some such contracts that this team appears to just have to eat, most notably that of one Mr. Jon Sim. Few of us are planning with him, but he’s there and may hang around a while. He may also get sent to Bridgeport, but chances are that he’ll be one of the 14 forwards remaining on the Island and ready to fill in when necessary. In light of the players we can all expect to be on the Island come the home opener against the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, here are the players that seem the most interesting to me going into camp, in no particular order.


We are all assuming he’ll be on the Island this season. There are many various statistical predictions being made by fans about what he’ll do this year, but fact of the matter is, we should be ecstatic if his season can somewhat mirror that of what Steven Stamkos accomplished in an unsettled TB environment last season. Fortunately, although we do not boast a line-up with names like Lecavalier, St. Louis, Malone and Prospal up front, we do have a wee bit more stability in management than what Stamkos experienced since becoming a member of the Lightning. What I can say about Tavares is that chances are very slim that he’ll be in this line-up as a center this season. Not only do the likes of Weight, Bailey, Nielsen and Thompson seem to have the middle wrapped up (with Park always a ready option as well), but Tavares will have enough responsibility under the incredible spotlight he'll no doubt find himself subjected to. A few years back, Pittsburgh initially brought in Crosby on the wing and we can expect that the Isles will likely do the same. From what I gather, many see him being more of left wing in this line-up, but if anyone has seen his plethora of highlights dotting the Internet, this kid’s moves and shot are MADE for being conducted coming in from the right side. As such, the right wing is where I expect to see him this season.


After an exciting period of growth in his first pro season, Smith became Bridgeport’s absolute goalgetter last season. He’s gone from 20-17-37 to 30-32-62 within 12 months after having turned pro upon completion of his sophomore year of NCAA hockey. Simply put, the kid has some skills and a nose for the net. Unfortunately for us fans, he’s not the biggest player, nor is he the fastest. As I see it, he may be a handy depth player to have in the system, but if he ever becomes a regular NHLer, it’ll be a true testament to his will to achieve, because many things are working against him. Another cup of coffee on the Island should however take place this year. Expect a good long look at camp this fall.


Skills ready for the NHL, or rather the ECHL? There’s not much to say here – until proven otherwise, expect Joel to be with the Islanders and hanging around for the games where Gordon feels his fists are required. He has little competition in his role and – to his credit – did hold up pretty well in a few bouts to end last season, especially in the fight against Kostopolous. At this point, only Jackman brings this same element to the team, although many believe a few tough guys will find a camp invitation in their mailboxes in the coming weeks.


Something that’s really got me thinking is the number of folks on various online fan sites and outlets who have practically GIVEN prospect Jesse Joensuu a spot in the '09-10 line-up in their mind’s eye. Anyone who believes that a 21 year old kid who just went 20-19-39 in 71 AHL games in his first year in North America – along with a decent 3 point performance in 7 meaningless games (at least in light of the non-existing playoff race) at the NHL level – has a “job to lose” on the Island, simply doesn’t understand how players are bread and how you build a winner. Sure, there are times when a guy dominates the AHL pointwise for several years in a row and a team decides that that player, usually aged somewhere between 23-26, simply must be given a spot in the line-up to sink or swim. Case in point: Jeff Tambellini. This however is not the case for young Jesse. Fortunately, I rest assured that the Islanders themselves aren’t gonna be giving him anything that he won’t be earning. I can almost guarantee you this though: unless he’s about the best player in camp, he’s starting on the farm. It surely wouldn’t be the worst thing for his still progressing development, especially considering the responsibilities he’d receive done there in all situations. Only Jesse can push the Isles to keep him here, but his game simply isn't there yet and there's no sense in him getting 5-7 minutes a night here when he can get more than double that on the farm.


A solid 20-25 game finish at the end of last season is about the only logical reason why Jeff is still in the picture. He saved himself not so much by realizing his AHL scoring potential at the NHL level, but rather by becoming a pesty player who improved his corner work in leaps and bounds. Now, can he take the next step? Can his development progress in the same mold as that of Jason Blake, a player of similar size and speed, who also took his pretty little time turning into the NHLer he’s become? Jeff seems here to stay for now, but this year will surely be decisive in his establishment as a permanent NHLer – or not.


The guy can move a puck every now and again and does have a decent first step. Still, if anyone thinks he’s currently as good or better than say, Freddy Meyer IV, doesn’t have much to base that claim on, for Freddy has proven much more physical and offensive acumen at this level in his short tenure here than Hillen has. Every team needs depth in this department, but this team is lacking in overall blueline and crease toughness and certainly isn’t getting better in that department with Hillen in the line-up. He lacks the weight, strength and experience. He’s got a one-way contract, but he also has competition from MacDonald, Kohn and newcomer Mark Flood. Don’t pencil him in yet - he's currently at best, DMan number 7.


Never heard of him, ehh? Well, the former Cornell star is a 2003 9th rounder who now weighs in at 6’1” and 210 lbs. He’s put up some mighty fine numbers in 3 AHL seasons and in ’07-08, he played 22 games for Los Angeles and put up 5-4-9 numbers after 56 points in 57 AHL games. He was considered a player on the rise and a possible top 6 forward at the NHL level. Things didn’t quite go his way last season although his AHL numbers weren’t far off. Word is though that he’s put in a hell of a lot of work this summer and in light of being 26 years old, truly sees this as his last big shot at the NHL. Surely most fans that saw this signing initially thought that he'll simply add some necessary scoring depth for a Bridgeport squad that has lost three of its top four scorers. That may end up being the case, but don’t tell that to Matt. I for one am very much looking forward to seeing if he can head up to Saskatoon as a man on a mission.

More to come soon....