Q & A With...Lighthouse Hockey

Our talk with the other SBNation Metropolitan Division blogs continues as we go one on one with Dan Saraceni of Lighthouse Hockey!

In the lockout-shortened season, the New York Islanders clawed their way into the playoffs and tangled with the top-seeded Penguins in a tough first-round matchup which Pittsburgh eventually won in six games. They had hoped to build on that playoff appearance last season but awful goaltending, injuries (specifically, John Tavares), and the Thomas Vanek (failed?) experiment derailed any hopes of making the postseason.

The Islanders eventually finished last in the Metropolitan Division, posting a 34-37-11 record. That did not step Garth Snow from making some noise this offseason, though. They have two new faces in net, some young talent that may be ready for the big stage, and added some other pieces via free agency. John Tavares is back and ready to go and Kyle Okposo will look to build off his career year last season.

With all of that said, I think the Islanders are one of the more interesting teams to watch in the East in 2014-2015. I reached out to Dan Saraceni of Lighthouse Hockey to get his take on the upcoming season for the Isles.

1) There's a lot of buzz with the Islanders moving to Brooklyn next season and the change in ownership coming up. What's the mood with the players (and fans) about the upcoming changes?

The players have always maintained the "we can't worry about that stuff. We need to play hockey" party line. This goes back as far as I can remember through many eras of Islanders ownership. They've all said they're excited about Barclays Center but sad that things didn't work out in Nassau. I don't expect any bridges to be burned on the way out the door.

It's a different story with Islanders fans, among whom there is never a consensus. For every fan that can't wait to get to Barclays, there are five crying about Long Island's team leaving their home. Same goes for the ownership changes. Many are lining up to (literally, physically) throw Charles Wang out of his office while others are afraid new guys Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin are going to waste the intriguing assets the team has compiled over the last few years under Wang's stewardship. It's easy (very easy, in fact) to roast Wang for the many (many) times he's shot his team in the foot, but there are plenty of people who feel the Islanders would not still exist without him. The fact that the new owners will transition to majority owners in two years mitigates a lot of the excitement as well.

Personally, I've seen enough Islanders ownership changes in my life to know not to get too emotional about another one. I'm curious about the new owners and think history will be a lot kinder to Wang than the present has been, especially once the move to Brooklyn is done. As for Barclays, the Islanders can't get there soon enough. Nassau County has needed a new, modern arena for a very, very long time and it chose lazy politicians and xenophobia instead. If the Islanders need help packing trucks for the move, they can call me.

2) What's the expectation for 2014-2015? The Metro Division looks to be tough, but I would assume the organization and fans are expecting an appearance in the playoffs?

Externally and internally, the expectation is playoffs and then some.
Last season was bitterly disappointing and it's tough to tell who took it the hardest. We as fans can see the mistakes, pinpoint the guys who regressed and wonder what could have been changed. As the offseason rolled on and got nearer to training camp, you could see quotes from players that started to echo what the fans had been saying for a while: Goaltending was subpar, guys started to get a little too comfortable and an infusion of new blood was needed.
Of course, no one was throwing anyone under the bus. But saying "we needed to address this and we did" implies that there was a problem to begin with, which is not something any player said during the season.
The Metro is wide open this year and I'm pretty sure six of its seven teams have a chance to finish in any order (sorry, Hurricanes).

3) Garth Snow added a lot of pieces this off-season. How do you see these new guys, along with some of the young talent we saw last season, fitting in with Jack Capuano's system? Will Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson provide enough stability in net - it can't get a whole lot worse, right?

Capuano's "system" is, as we joke all the time on Lighthouse Hockey in a fake Rhode Island accent, "play hahd n' smaht." The new guys should fit in well. Grabovski is a smart, skilled player who can give the Islanders that extra center they've spent a few seasons looking for. T.J. Brennan and Cory Conacher are fringe guys who will need to play "hahd n' smaht" if they want to stick in the NHL. If they do, they'll get their opportunity.

The biggest wildcard is Kulemin. His usage in Toronto was curious and his numbers unimpressive, but he did maintain a tenacious playing pace. Here, he's being given an opportunity for a new start, with his good friend Grabovski in an offensive role. We've been trying to project his season all summer, but it's totally up in the air.

Having said all of that, the Islanders' most important acquisition was their first, before the offseason even began. It's impossible to overestimate just how bad the Islanders goaltending was last year. To make a long story short, the Islanders were essentially a middle of the pack team dragged into the depths by extremely unreliable goalies. In terms of both raw numbers (Evgeni Nabokov "led" his teammates with a .901 save percentage, good for 49th among all NHL goalies) and "the eye test," it was a very bad scene. They never seemed to get a big save when they needed one, which lead to half periods of porousness and backbreaking lost leads. Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson would be brilliant in one period and lost in the next. And without an offense to compensate for it, the team was sunk.

Halak, whose career stats place him in the top half of this era, is an exponential upgrade. To add Johnson, who was nothing but excellent for an already excellent Bruins team and now gets to show what he's got, was just icing on the cake.

4) Obviously losing Tavares last year was a big blow. How much will having a healthy #91 this season help the Islanders' playoff chances or do those chances rest more on the back end?
The defense is the Islanders' biggest question mark this season mainly because the players don't have long enough resumes to accurately project what they're going to do. I expect them to surprise a lot of people. But again, having Halak instead of Nabokov, Poulin, Nilsson or Carrot Top back there should make everyone look a lot better.
With John Tavares front and center the Islanders not only have their most dangerous offensive engine, but the face of their franchise. He's the first player other teams are going to try to shut down. By the time he was hurt at the Olympics, last season was essentially over and without him, a lot of the forwards played surprisingly well. If they're going to have success this season, the Islanders are going to have to keep pace with Tavares when he's on and compensate for the times he's being shadowed. If they're productive, it'll spread defenses around and open up even more space for Tavares, which is not something other teams generally want to do.

5) As I mentioned, we saw some of the talent in the pipeline for the organization last season. Give us the names of a couple of young guys who you think could really surprise some people this year and are poised for breakout seasons.
Lost in the wake of another disastrous season were good performances by a couple of strong NCAA products, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee. Nelson looks to be next in line for the "Matt Moulson" slot next to Tavares and Kyle Okposo this season. Lee might end up starting the season in Bridgeport only because he's still ineligible for waivers. If he does, he won't be there long. Both guys play that "hahd n' smaht" power game that Capuano likes.
Ryan Strome's box car numbers didn't wow too many last season, but his skill and vision are undeniable. As he gets stronger, he'll be a key offensive contributor as well. He could end up playing with Grabovski and Kulemin, which would give him some veterans to possibly make things a little more straightforward for him.
There's a good chance defenseman Griffin Reinhart starts the season with the big club this year, and strong argument can be made that he should have done so last year.
With so few spots available on the roster, players like Ryan Pulock, Ville Pokka, Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang will most likely not see Long Island this year after camp. But the Islanders are jampacked with really interesting and potentially productive prospects right now, more so than any other time I can remember.

Bonus - Incidentally, the Blue Jackets will be the last opponent at Nassau, for the regular season at least (although I understand there may be a deal in place to play a handful of games there in future seasons once renovations are complete). What's it going to be like to say goodbye to The Coliseum? For those of us not as familiar with the atmosphere in New York, is it a big deal moving to Brooklyn?
Whoo boy. There is no simple way to answer this, as we've spent a good portion of the last few years blogging about it at LHH and elsewhere. There are a lot of emotions and complications tied to this issue and like I said earlier, there is never a consensus among Islanders fans.
Moving to Brooklyn is absolutely a big deal. But why it's big depends on your perspective on it.
For a lot of people, losing the Islanders means losing their hometown team. It means a loss of a piece of Long Island's indentity and history and another battle in the neverending war between "us" and "the city." In the last 43 years, millions have grown up around and inside Nassau Coliseum watching more than just hockey. It's the center of the community and a common thread that runs through generations of people.
Moving means the end of the era of in which everyone in the neighborhood knew each other, worked together and relaxed together at the Coliseum, then had kids who did the same thing and so on. This is the kind of societal shift that comes on like a bucket of cold water and makes you reflect on all the good times you had yesterday and the ones you won't be able to have tomorrow.
But the other group of people (and the one I'm 100% a part of) is ready for a change that's been far too long in the making.
By playing in Barclays Center, the Islanders will be something they haven't been in over 30 years - contemporary. Not since they were the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions has this team been on the same level as the rest of the league. They won't be held back by crooked or inattentive ownership or succeeding for brief moments in spite of lingering issues under the hood. Even in the times when they seemed to be getting things together, there was always the old, cramped building they played in that cast a pall over everything.
Not only will the Islanders call a state-of-the-art arena home, but they will be getting PAID to play there. The players and coaches will finally have the training equipment and facilities that they see other teams have. Fans will finally have mass transit that will drop them from anywhere right to the front door of the arena. That means more butts in the seats, more luxury boxes sales, more corporate partnerships, more ticket sales, and more money than they could ever have achieved in Nassau County (provided the team is good, of course, which is an entirely separate discussion).
The sad thing isn't that the Islanders are moving. It's that all of the amenities and ancillary perks they'll be getting at Barclays could have been given to them in Nassau County. The only thing keeping a bigger, more accessible, more modern arena from coming to Long Island are elected officials and others dedicated to maintaining the status quo under all circumstances.
I have many wonderful memories of the Coliseum from the last 30-plus years that I'll cherish forever. No one can take them from me. I look forward to new memories being made in the only place that actually wants the Islanders.

Thanks again to Dan for taking the time to give us a preview through the eyes of Islanders fans. Check out LHH to read more on the Islanders and the upcoming season!

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