Islanders' investment in youth paying off early

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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You probably could have gotten nice odds betting the New York Islanders would head into the final week of October with as many points as the Washington Capitals.

Not to mention more goals.

It's a snapshot of the season no doubt, but if nothing else, one that tells you a perpetual bottom feeder has actually gotten off to a pretty good start. And maybe more important, that the Islanders have reason to believe they are on the right track.

"It all goes together," forward Matt Moulson said. "When you win games you feel good about things and the confidence helps you win games."

'We all believe in ourselves,' 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson says. 'Everybody ... feels the same way.' (Getty Images)  
'We all believe in ourselves,' 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson says. 'Everybody ... feels the same way.' (Getty Images)  
Not so coincidentally, that's something the Islanders have been doing more often than usual this young season in what has been their best opening in a decade, and the second-best since the dynasty days of four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. It qualifies as a surprise too, mostly because New York is one of the league's youngest teams and hasn't seemed to make much visible progress in the last couple of years.

Making matters worse, the Islanders lost a couple of key players for most of the season in training camp too, and on the surface, the shoulder injuries suffered by veteran power-play quarterback Mark Streit and forward Kyle Okposo figured to be a major setback for an Islanders team that hasn't been to the playoffs in four seasons. Especially since New York took the low-profile route when it came to roster changes over the summer.

Of course the organization has become notorious for keeping its payroll as low as possible as it engages in a battle over a new arena that has lasted for years with local politicians. It's a formula that has produced predictable results over that time, with the Islanders essentially getting what they've paid for ... which hasn't been much.

But after Garth Snow became general manager in 2006, the Isles committed to following the lead of teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks, who built their championship cores through high draft picks they acquired from several lean seasons and then filled in the pieces. New York had 10 draftees on its opening-night roster, and the early dividends of the overall effort seem to be showing.

In New York's case the rebuild revolves around last year's first overall choice John Tavares, and other recent high first-rounders like Josh Bailey, Okposo and 18-year-old Nino Niederreiter, who is making this week's decision on whether to return him to the juniors very difficult on the Islanders brass. And if Rick DiPietro manages to somehow stay healthy, he would be considered part of that group because he is still only 29.

Tavares, 19, got stronger over the summer and muscled his way to his first career hat trick over the weekend, and Bailey has been an offensive star in the early going. But much of the success so far has been the result of several under-the-radar moves that brought in defensemen James Wisniewski, Mike Mottau and Milan Jurcina, and forwards P.A. Parenteau, Zenon Konopka and Michael Grabner through trades or open-market signings.

All have factored in already, not only on the score sheet but in terms of adding important depth to a team that plays six of its first nine and then three of the next four on the road.

The upshot has helped create a positive attitude that is critical, according to 40-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson, who along with 39-year-old captain Doug Weight is a voice of experience for the fresh faces surrounding them.

"Personally, I try not to read the media or listen to what other people say about us," Roloson said. "We brought in some great hockey players and because of that, we all believe in ourselves.

"Everybody in this room feels the same way. It doesn't matter what anybody says, it's all about going out there, playing our game and doing what we have to do to win."

For New York, that involves getting the kind of quality goaltending that Roloson and, to a lesser degree, the returning DiPietro have provided. But the Islanders are getting offensive contributions from various places in the lineup and they are doing a much better job on special teams, two categories in which they finished in the bottom five last season.

Mind you, coach Scott Gordon knows that everyone still has to keep their feet on the ground at this point in time. Gordon liked the way his special teams looked in New York's last outing, a 4-3 loss in Florida, and the overall play in the second and third periods. But the opening 20 minutes left much to be desired, he said.

"Being on the road so much, we haven't had a lot of quality practice time and it's made it tougher to stay sharp because there are some drills you can't do in a morning skate," Gordon said. "We need to get out of some bad habits."

In the meantime though, the Islanders are 4-2-2 and closer to the top of the standings than the bottom. And for a team that was generally expected to have things the other way around at this point, that's something to hold on to.

"It's one thing to say you're a good team, but another to actually believe it," DiPietro said. "We're not happy being mediocre. Down inside, we really believe we're capable of great things."

And what are the odds of that?

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