Top Shelf: Isles grab the spotlight

Philadelphia, PA ( – These are times of change for the New
York Islanders, and when you’ve suffered as much as the Isles have in recent
decades that can’t be a bad thing.

It’s no secret the Islanders are in the midst of some major developments off
the ice, but the club’s 4-0 start to 2014-15 is the real reason to be excited.

Heading into the franchise’s final season on Long Island, the Isles were
determined to show improvement before moving to Brooklyn in 2015-16. General
manager Garth Snow was more active in trying to add talent to his roster than
he had been in past years and so far Snow’s additions are mixing well with New
York’s already impressive batch of homegrown players.

With victories in each of their first four games, the Islanders have matched
the best start to a season in franchise history, equaling season-opening win
streaks by the 1976-77 and 2001-02 clubs. So, if New York manages to earn
another victory in Pittsburgh on Saturday, it could achieve something not even
the Islanders dynasty teams of the late 1970s and early ’80s could do — begin
a season 5-0.

Of course, this resurgence we’re seeing on the Island all started with John
Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick who made everybody forget about the Rick
DiPietro debacle. Tavares began playing with the Islanders months after being
selected by Snow in 2009 and his steady ascension into the NHL elite has been
thrilling to watch.

Tavares is now 24 years old, and it seems the rest of the Islanders continue
to grow up around him. Kyle Okposo, the seventh overall pick of the 2006
draft, experienced a breakout season in 2013-14. This season, Brock Nelson and
Ryan Strome seem to be following suit.

Nelson, a late first-round pick by Snow in 2010, is an NHL star in the making
and has exploded out of the gate in 2014-15, recording four goals and three
assists in four games. The 6-foot-3 forward has joined Strome and offseason
signee Mikhail Grabovski to form a formidable second line, one that is capable
of taking some of the scoring pressure off Tavares and Okposo’s top line.
Strome, the fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft, is centering the line and
has four assists so far in 2014-15, while the veteran Grabovski, who was
injured in his last outing, has registered two goals and a helper.

For Snow, making the playoffs is the baseline goal for his club this season.
New York ended a five-year playoff drought by making the postseason in 2013,
but was bounced out in the first round by Pittsburgh before missing the dance
last spring.

Snow knew his young core needed veteran help to get back to the playoffs, and
that’s where guys like Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Jaroslav Halak came into
the plan. Halak was signed for four years to take over primary goaltending
duties from the departed Evgeni Nabokov, while Kulemin was inked to add
further forward depth.

However, there were also several free agents who got away last summer, as
defenseman Dan Boyle and forwards Jarome Iginla and Brad Richards all
reportedly turned down offers from the Islanders and signed elsewhere. Not to
be deterred, Snow managed to add serious talent to his blue line just before
the start of the regular season, acquiring Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in
separate trades with Boston and Chicago, respectively. Both defensemen were
jettisoned from their previous clubs due to salary-cap constraints, and their
loss has clearly been New York’s gain.

All the 30-year-old Boychuk has done is post two goals, four assists and a
plus-five rating in four games with the Isles while his former Bruins club has
stumbled to a 2-4-0 start to the season. Meanwhile, Leddy, 23, had a difficult
time garnering minutes on the stacked Chicago blue line, but has become a big
part of New York’s defensive rotation and has notched three points (2 goals, 1
assist) and a plus-four rating in four outings.

With Boychuk and Leddy leading the way, the revamped blue line has provided
five goals in the first four games this season after accounting for a total of
23 in all of 2013-14.

The trick for the Isles is to not let the fast start, which included
Thursday’s 4-3 shootout win over previously unbeaten San Jose, go to their
heads. It’s a long and arduous road to the NHL postseason, and while making it
to the playoffs is a good goal to have for 2014-15, the franchise is playing a
much longer game.The sky is the limit for the franchise’s Brooklyn era, but
for now the main focus is all about getting better with each passing day.

“We’re growing as a team and we want to continue to grow,” said Okposo.

One person who may have bittersweet feelings about the Isles’ fast start is
Charles Wang, who recently sold the club to a new ownership group led by
businessmen Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin. Wang’s dream was to turn this
franchise around and to usher in a new era of success on Long Island, and it
seems part of that vision is coming true, even if the club’s long-awaited rise
is coinciding with the team’s upcoming move to Brooklyn.

The Isles were a mess for many years while trying to rebuild the team from the
ground up, but at long last a foundation for success is in place.