Nikolai Kulemin

Strome, Nelson giving Isles that all-important cheap production


Prior to the start of the season, much was written about the New York Islanders and the many changes they’d made to their roster.

Looking back, hopes were understandably high that the additions of goalie Jaroslav Halak, forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Cory Conacher, plus Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy could turn a team that already had a superstar in John Tavares into a contender in the Eastern Conference.

But you know what way less was written about? The potential of youngsters Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome to make as big an impact as they’ve made.


As much as anything else, it’s the contributions from Nelson, 23, and Strome, 21, that have given the Isles the chance they’ve got tonight, which is to take over first place in the Metropolitan Division from Pittsburgh. (The two teams are currently tied with 28 points. The Isles host Philly; the Pens are in Boston.)

In a way, what Nelson and Strome have done this season is reminiscent of the boost that Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson gave the Kings in the 2014 playoffs. Remember that, prior to last season, the jury was still out on those two young L.A. forwards. Each had shown they could produce in the AHL; the question was, could they do it at the NHL level? They sure did in the postseason, centered by veteran Jeff Carter. At times, they were the Kings’ best line.

The combined cap hit of Toffoli and Pearson? A mere $1.795 million.

The combined cap hit of Nelson and Strome? Just a hair over $1.76 million. (Not including bonuses, but still.)

This is what the best teams in the NHL have in the cap age — at least one or two young players on cheap contracts who are making significant contributions. Think Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw in Chicago in 2013, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin in L.A. the year before that, and Boston’s Brad Marchand the year before that.

That’s not to say the Isles are going to win the Stanley Cup, but when a team’s two youngest players on the active roster are in the top four in club scoring, good times are quite often ahead.

Isles players agree — it’s ‘on’ them now


“We feel good about the group we have,” Kyle Okposo said. “It’s on us now.”

And it starts tonight in Carolina, where the New York Islanders — after a busy offseason of roster retooling by GM Garth Snow — will open their regular season against the injury-ravaged Hurricanes.

It’s the only game on the NHL schedule, so the spotlight will be all theirs.

Key additions to an Isles team that finished well back of a playoff position in 2013-14 include starting goalie Jaroslav Halak, forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Cory Conacher, plus Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy.

“There’s good things happening here,” Boychuk told Newsday, despite the hurt he felt after being traded by the Bruins.

Granted, it hasn’t been all good things happening — yesterday it was reported that speedy winger Michael Grabner would be out indefinitely after undergoing sports hernia surgery. But that couldn’t put a dent in the optimism among Isles fans. At last glance, the cheapest ticket for Saturday’s home opener, also versus Carolina, was $91 at StubHub. This for a team that finished with the fifth-lowest average attendance (14,740) in the league last season.

As for Snow, well, he’s got a lot riding on his roster’s performance in 2014-15. Don’t forget that the Isles don’t have a first-round pick in the 2015 draft; that belongs to the Sabres now, as a result of last season’s Thomas Vanek trade (the first one). So there’s a nightmare scenario at play here, and it involves New York missing the playoffs and Buffalo drafting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel with the selection the Isles sent them (for a player the Isles weren’t even able to convince to stay).

Is that nightmare scenario likely? Nope. But it will remain a possibility until a playoff spot is clinched.

“Garth was pretty aggressive this summer and the message is that last season wasn’t good enough for anyone,” captain John Tavares said.

“We’ve been building for a long time and it’s on us now to take that next step.”

Conacher wins Tavares – Okposo sweepstakes (for now)


After enjoying the luxury of lining John Tavares and Kyle Okposo up with strong wingers in Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson, the 2014-15 New York Islanders enter the season with a tough call to make in finding their dynamic duo a new running mate.

Do you go with a skilled but inexperienced player like Ryan Strome, lean toward the size route with someone like Anders Lee or Brock Nelson or maybe see if a promotion may finally get more out of a guy like Josh Bailey?

Considering how frequently NHL head coaches rummage through different combinations, it’s not wise to make too big a deal out of this, but New York Newsday’s Arthur Staple reports that Cory Conacher is primed to start on the top line with Tavares and Okposo.

Conacher’s big chance

Not bad for a guy who wasn’t qualified by the lowly Buffalo Sabres this offseason after the team claimed him off of waivers from the struggling Ottawa Senators late in 2013-14. Not bad for an under-sized player who will likely be doubted for the entirety of his NHL career (and might ultimately be know as “the other part of the Ben Bishop trade.”)

There’s some solid logic to giving the 24-year-old a shot, though. Despite the classic logic of “A fire hydrant can score 50 goals with Mario Lemieux,” not every player ends up being the right fit for excellent linemates.

Conacher began his NHL career with a flurry of activity, scoring nine points in six January games and 18 in his first 24 while serving as a great fit with Steven Stamkos. That happened in 2012-13, so it’s not like he’s that far from successes, and he was a scoring demon in the AHL to boot (80 points in 75 games with Norfolk in 2011-12, for one thing).

Seriously, just watch him fire home this shot after a great Tavares pass:

While it’s probably fair to assume that he’s somewhat responsible for his struggles since being traded from Tampa Bay in 2012-13, it’s plausible that he wasn’t always given the benefit of the doubt in Ottawa or Buffalo. This is obviously an enormous opportunity for Conacher to prove that he belongs as not just an NHL player, but maybe a top-six forward.

Here are Staple’s projected lines:

Grabovski and Kulemin split

One other interesting takeaway is that Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin seem primed to start on different lines. Also, if Staple is being literal with the way he’s lining up those players, that would mean Grabovski would be on the wing. That’s not totally out of left field considering his spin as a winger with Tavares and Okposo, yet most associate the solid possession player as a pivot.

Whether it’s at center or on the wing, it’s a little surprising to see Grabovski and Kulemin apart, as they seemed like great compliments to each other as solid defensive forwards.

That said, Nielsen often inspires “secret Selke”-type praise, so moving Kulemin with him isn’t exactly outrageous.

Circling back, these combinations could change as early as New York’s first moment of struggles for all we know. Maybe the greatest takeaway is that the Islanders now have a host of choices, which is a “dilemma” they’ve likely been craving for some time.

Grabovski auditioning for LW spot on Tavares-Okposo line


Playing on John Tavares’ wing can be a boon for one’s career (just ask Matt Moulson), so it’s not surprising that one of the Islanders’ big offseason acquisitions, Mikhail Grabovski, is welcoming the opportunity — even if it means moving from his natural center position.

“It’s always good to play with good players,” Grabovski said, per Newsday. “It’s whatever the coaches think. I’m happy wherever they put me.”

Grabovski will man the left wing tonight on the Tavares-Kyle Okposo line when the Isles take on the ‘Canes at Nassau. It’s a significant role change for the 30-year-old; when he and another ex-Leaf, winger Nikolai Kulemin, inked with New York this summer, many assumed they’d be paired together on the club’s second line with Grabovski manning the middle.

That said, it’s not like Grabbo is completely inexperienced playing left wing — he skated there in Washington last year, on a makeshift line with Alex Ovechkin on the right and Jay Beagle at center. Grabovski, a three-time 20-goal scorer, said he enjoyed the experience.

“I play before long time ago on the wing, just simple play,” he explained, per the Washington Post. “It’s good for me to find my game play wing right now, just feel more comfortable, have a puck and go.”

It’ll be interesting to see who fills out the Isles’ top line this season. Moulson was the guy for years until he was traded to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek, who was instantly plugged in Moulson’s spot and performed well. During one stretch last season, the Vanek-Tavares-Okoposo line combined for 72 points in 22 games.

Grabovski isn’t the only Isles forward auditioning for the gig, however. Josh Bailey got his shot in the club’s first preseason game and it’s possible another center — Brock Nelson — will get a look as well.

Under Pressure: Garth Snow


Nearly 12 months ago we here at ProHockeyTalk asked, What’s Garth Snow thinking?

Almost a calendar year later, the same question can be asked.

With new ownership in the process of taking over and the Islanders set to move into a new home for 2015-16, one has to wonder what Mr. Snow is thinking.

The man, who appointed Snow general manager eight years ago, Charles Wang, is on his way out and the team has qualified for the playoffs just once in the past seven years.

With big changes at the top ahead, Snow is under pressure to turn his team into a playoff contender sooner rather than later.

New York finished the 2013-14 season 14 points back of eighth place Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Islanders were last in the Metropolitan Division with a 34-37-11 record.

The Red Wings finished with 93 points to clinch that final playoff spot last season, the only time the Islanders have finished with more than 80 points in an 82-game season was Snow’s first year at the helm in 2006-07 where the Islanders lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Buffalo Sabres in five games.

Under Snow’s watch, the Islanders have had three coaches and one can argue, given Snow’s pressure to win now, Jack Capuano could also be written about in this space.

The good news for Snow is he’ll have his captain, and top center, John Tavares back and healthy after suffering a knee injury at the 2014 Olympics limited him to just 59 games in 2013-14.

Snow went out and got Tavares some help adding depth to the forward group by signing Mikhail Grabovski to a four-year $20 million deal and Nikolai Kulemin to a four-year $16.8 million deal. The hope is Grabovski and Kulemin can rekindle their chemistry formed while playing together for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In goal, Snow went out and picked up the rights to Jaroslav Halak from Washington and inked him to a new four-year $18 million deal. Halak, who has a career 144-85-29 record with a .918 save percentage, should slot in nicely for the departed Evgeni Nabakov.

Halak should slot in nicely that is if he gets help from his defense.

The Islanders were 28th last season in goals-against ahead of only Florida and Edmonton. Snow didn’t do much to help his goaltender. He did go out and acquire the rights to Dan Boyle from San Jose, but was unable to come to terms with the pending unrestricted free agent, who signed with the New York Rangers.

The Islanders are also without Andrew MacDonald, who Snow sent to Philadelphia in March for minor leaguer Matt Mangene and a pair of draft picks.

Left are Lubomir Visnovsky, Travis Hamonic, Matt Carkner, Thomas Hickey and Brian Strait in addition to Calvin de Haan and Matt Donovan.

The Islanders did add a former Maple Leafs property on the back end as well in T.J. Brennan, the reigning AHL defenseman of the year. But given that Brennan was a minus-10 while scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace with the Toronto Marlies last season, I’m not sure how much help Brennan can be.

Then there’s budding prospect Griffin Reinhart, who at 20-years-old, could crack the Islanders opening day lineup. But to rest your defensive hopes on a rookie is recipe for disaster.

Snow’s inability to shore up defensive concerns could be what sinks him in New York’s final season on Long Island.

Related: In praise of John Tavares