The last few seasons have been tough to take for fans of the New York Islanders. With rumors swirling about the team leaving Long Island and no playoff appearances in the last four years, hope is about all an Islanders fan has to hang his or her helmet on. But this year could be different. If these five players have solid years, the up-and-coming Islanders will be back where they belong — in the playoffs.
5. Al Montoya (G) – Will the Islanders ever live down the 15-year contract extension they handed Rick DiPietro in 2006? Their “No. 1″ goalie has missed a ton of games due to knee and hip injuries over the last few seasons. Well, the unheralded Montoya is capable of holding down the starters role. He posted a solid .921 save percentage in 21 games last season and appears to be a legit option.
4. Nino Niederreiter (RW/LW) – Niederreiter, the Islanders first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, played in nine games last season for New York, but the 18-year-old was overwhelmed by the fast and physical nature of the NHL. Niederreiter has been honing his top-shelf skills in the minors and is not far from being NHL-ready. He may not be top-line material yet, but he’ll be fun to watch.
3. Michael Grabner (LW/RW) – The Isles claimed the speedy Grabner off waivers last year and watched him score 34 goals, the most of any rookie skater. Moreover, the NHL’s fastest skater notched six short-handed goals and tied for the team lead with a plus-13 rating. Long considered a top prospect, Grabner has the maturity and skills to repeat and improve upon his rookie campaign.
2. Kyle Okposo (RW) – The Islanders have high expectations for Okposo, their first-round selection (seventh overall) in the 2006 NHL Draft. Shoulder surgery before last season slowed his progress, but Okposo has the ability to light the lamp 30 times or more in 2011-12. Okposo, who is fresh off signing a five-year contract extension, could break out as soon as this season.
1. John Tavares (C) – Tavares is the face of the once-proud franchise and its potential savior. He scored 29 goals with 38 assists for a team-leading 67 points last year despite a slow start. If Tavares, can get out of the gates quickly this season, he could flirt with 40 goals. The Islandes wisely signed Captain Canada to a six-year, $33 million extension during the off-season. The return on investment will be immediate.