With healthy captain Tavares back on ice, Islanders set to start last season on Long Island



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UNIONDALE, New York — There is nothing new about the New York Islanders heading into a new season trying to improve on the one before.

Yet, this one has a different feel even though last season ended again without a trip to the playoffs.

The Islanders are facing major changes, both on and off the ice. The ones away from the rink are already much more dramatic especially because they are about to say goodbye to the only rink the once-proud franchise has ever known.

Nassau Coliseum has only one NHL season left in it, and Long Island is about to lose the biggest sports team it has called its own. The Islanders moved into the Coliseum when the team was born in 1972, won four straight Stanley Cup titles as the primary tenant, and then drifted into mediocrity and worse after the dynasty core faded away.

But with captain John Tavares back after an Olympic knee injury robbed him of a second half of a season that had showed much promise, a seemingly solid goaltending tandem in place, and more firepower up front, the Islanders might have enough to pump up the old building one more time before the team moves to Brooklyn next season.

"There are a lot of loyal fans here, and we want to make it special for them, though obviously it's not something we're going to think about every day," said coach Jack Capuano, who is starting his fifth season behind the Islanders bench.

New York has reached the playoffs only once in Capuano's and Tavares' tenures, a six-game loss to division rival Pittsburgh in 2013, and just twice overall since 2006 — a far cry from five consecutive trips to the finals in the glory days of the early 1980s.

The 24-year-old Tavares was near the top of the NHL scoring leaderboard last February when he severely hurt his knee while playing for Canada at the Sochi Olympics and missed the final quarter of the season. He still finished second on the team with 66 points — including 24 goals — despite playing in only 59 games.

Now he feels fully recovered and says had the Islanders qualified for the playoffs, he would have been out there with his teammates.

"It is great," he said heading into training camp. "I had a normal offseason, and the injury has been put behind me for a good three months now.

"I'm really anxious to dive right back into it. The nerves and energy getting ready for the season were there. If I ever lose that feeling, I shouldn't be playing. This is what I love to do. I couldn't be more excited."

If he is back to full strength, then perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding the Islanders will be eliminated before the first puck is dropped on opening night at Carolina on Oct. 10.

New York finished 34-37-5 last season, which landed the Islanders last in the eight-team Metropolitan Division and 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference.


Here are other things to watch in the Islanders' upcoming season:

NABBY NO MORE: After three seasons of Evgeni Nabokov as the No. 1 goalie, the Islanders have moved on to a new duo of Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson. They will have the responsibility of replacing Nabokov, who played at least 40 games in each of his seasons in New York and posted a goals-against average under 3.00 in every campaign. Halak won a total of 29 games last season while splitting time with St. Louis and Washington, and has 144 career wins in eight NHL seasons. Johnson has played in only 37 NHL games, but 27 were last season with Boston when he went 17-4-3 with a 2.10 GAA. He has a career mark of 20-6-6 but has never made a postseason appearance.

SECONDARY SCORING: Assuming Tavares is back to full strength and takes his place at the top of the team's scoring list, New York's offense will need solid production from the group behind the captain.

Kyle Okposo picked up the slack last season and finished with career bests of 27 goals and 42 assists for a club-leading 69 points. Frans Nielsen was second with 25 goals and third with 58 points.

There was then a steep drop-off as Josh Bailey was fourth in scoring with 38 points, but only eight goals. Michael Grabner slipped to only 12 goals in 64 games after posting 20, 16 and 12 goals in the previous three seasons.

LEAF COLLECTION: Islanders general manager Garth Snow made big investments in free-agent forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, reuniting the former Toronto Maple Leafs teammates with four-year deals.

Grabovski's contract is worth $20 million, while Kulemin will make $16.75 million.

The 30-year-old Grabovski, from Belarus, had 13 goals and 22 assists in 58 games last season for Washington. He has 107 goals and 145 assists in eight seasons with Montreal, Toronto and Washington.

The 27-year-old Kulemin, from Russia, had nine goals and 11 assists in 70 games last season for Toronto. He has 84 goals and 111 assists in 421 games in six seasons, all with the Maple Leafs.

Grabovski and Kulemin were Toronto teammates from 2008-13 and spent time as linemates, too. Grabovski gives the Islanders depth at center behind Tavares, and would seem to be a good fit on a line with left winger Kulemin.

New York will also have returning centers Frans Nielsen, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome providing strength up the middle.

OWNING UP: Not only will the Islanders be changing locations in the near future, the people calling the shots will be undergoing a makeover, too.

In August, the club announced that owner Charles Wang sold a minority stake of the team to a former Washington Capitals co-owner and a London-based investor who will become full owners in two years. Jon Ledecky and investor Scott Malkin agreed to buy a "substantial" minority interest and will take over full ownership from Wang.

On Tuesday, the NHL board of governors unanimously approved the minority stake purchase. The overall purchase remains subject to completion of documentation and further league review before the transaction is closed.

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