With the start of the NEFHL season just days away, the New York Islanders are ready to take the next step in a long but rewarding march towards respectability and contention.
Although there aren’t many new faces this season, there are some notable improvements.
By far, the biggest change is between the pipes. The Isles will have Evgeni Nabakov minding the net, backstopping a cadre of young forwards and defensemen. Nabby signed a one year $8,000,000 deal in the off season and you can bet the Isles will be expecting him to not only stand on his head to stop pucks but to be a community-minded player who fills seats in the final year at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. His back-up will be Anders Nilsson, the 6’ 6” 24 year old who fills the crease with confidence.
Next season, the Isles will be moving to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, and that will also add to the drama of the team reconstruction. John Tortorella has returned as coach for a sixth season and GM Steve Reisman expressed confidence in his ‘hard work is rewarded’ style.
“We don’t expect to break any records this season,” GM Steve said, “But we believe we’ve taken some steps forward and those will be reflected in our results. We might not yet be the offensive threat that we’re striving towards, but we won’t be laying down for anyone.
Although the Isles will open the season at home against Dallas without Patrik Berglund (suspended for one game as a carryover from last season), he’ll be in the lineup for game 2 when the arch-rival Rangers take the bus from Manhattan to Uniondale.
Ticket prices are unchanged this season, although Coliseum management plan quite a few ‘final season’ events to celebrate over 30 years of hosting professional hockey. Rumors swirled last month that an order had been placed in Chiying Chiyung (China) for 15,000 Steve Reisman Naked Bobbleheads. When asked about this, the GM simply smiled, cracked open a beer with his left hand while undoing the top button on his Islanders parka.
Alex Galchenyuk will begin the season on the top line but will almost certainly move to the 2nd line once Berglund is back from suspension. Filling out the forwards on the top line are Dwight King and Nino Niederreiter. King, when asked about playing top line minutes, said “Hey, look... I know I’m more of a grinder than a playmaker but in this league, you go where you’re asked to go and do what you’re asked to do. This should be good experience, playing alongside Alex and then Bergie. I expect it will add to my production down the road too.” Niederreiter stood silently off to the side in practice, happy with the knowledge that the Isles are finally willing to let him grow on the main stage.
The second line will be anchored by center Andrei Loktionov who will skate between youngsters Jonathan Huberdeau and Kyle Palmieri. Loktionov is expected to step up into a solid all around role this season, playing both on the power play and killing penalties. Both Huberdeau and Palmieri have just scratched the surface of their potential and will most certainly be core players in the Islanders resurgence over the next several seasons.
Joined by Gabriel Bourque and Cory Conacher, former 1st round pick James Sheppard will center the third line. Sheppard has become something of a defensive specialist with excellent hands. GM Steve had this to say, “The interesting thing about James is that he hasn’t stopped believing in himself despite all the negative press surrounding his production versus expectations. We believe in him and he will bring a steady veteran’s mentality to our working man third line.”
At the blueline, the Isles boast some of the top defenders in the league. Alex Pietrangelo and Andrei Markov bring a world of talent, both youth and experience, gritty defense, skilled offense, booming shots, and all around leadership to this young team. Paired with Jake Muzzin, Pietrangelo has been productive in the pre-season and looks to carry that over. Some expressed surprise that both Pietrangelo and Markov weren’t skating together on the man advantage but coach Tortorella said, “We’ll keep those options open but first let’s see if the league can shut down our kids.”