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article imageOp-Ed: Islanders good bet to be most-improved NHL team

By Mark J. Allan     Sep 18, 2014 in Sports
Many NHL teams are upwardly mobile, but only one will be the most-improved squad during the coming season, likely helping its coach to the Jack Adams Trophy.
Predicting the most-improved NHL team might be the same thing as choosing the next Jack Adams Trophy winner.
After all, the coach-of-the year award usually goes to someone who guides his squad to a dramatic, surprising rise in the standings.
While some already-strong teams should be even better, the greatest opportunity for improvement lies with teams that strengthened themselves after sub-par seasons.
Considering the ongoing strength of powerhouses in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose and possibly Colorado, it is unlikely the most-improved team will come from the Western Conference. Upwardly mobile teams in the west will face daunting opponents too often to vie for most-improved honors this season.
Minnesota and Dallas should be much stronger this season, although the Wild’s goaltending is in a state of flux and the Stars lack a blueline stud. The Flames might have faint playoff aspirations, if Calgary was in the east. Vancouver should avoid last season’s trauma, but also the post-season, while the Oilers and Jets will be better someday, just not now.
Realistically then, let’s look to the east for our most-improved 2014-15 team.
Buffalo Sabres
Upside: Newcomers Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta will attempt to galvanize a popgun attack that misfired its way to a league-low 157 goals. Josh Gorges and Andrei Meszaros will strengthen a porous defense that contributed to 248 goals against.
The Sabres have promising young talent on the roster. There’s more on the way, and Buffalo has stockpiled as-yet-unused draft picks.
Downside: Coach Ted Nolan has too much work to do on offense, while goalies Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth will face too much rubber in the short term. If the sadsack Sabres are the most-improved NHL team this season, they would still miss the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Upside: Their history riddled with failure, the Blue Jackets manhandled their way into the playoffs last season. They did it with a brawny, punishing lineup short on elite skill but long on size and physicality.
Philadelphia netminding castoff Sergei Bobrovsky fell off from his Vezina win of two seasons ago, but always gives Columbus a chance to win.
Downside: An acrimonious contract dispute by top center Ryan Johansen casts a pall over the team. Brandon Dubinsky is an invaluable cog, but the husky Johansen is the only thing Columbus has who is close to a real No. 1 center.
Detroit Red Wings
Upside: Young European hotshots Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco join Riley Sheahan in helping to rebuild Detroit’s offense on the fly. Defensemen Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith are all part of an effective new-look blueline corps in front of goalie Jimmy Howard.
Downside: Respected veteran leaders Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are injured too much of the time.
Florida Panthers
Upside: Although past his prime, Roberto Luongo instantly stabilizes the team’s goaltending. Veteran acquisitions Dave Bolland, Willie Mitchell, Scott Thornton and even Jussi Jokinen come from winning traditions that could rub off onto the many talented young Panthers.
Downside: Florida continues to lack a true No. 1 center to help improve upon an anemic 196 goals from last season.
New York Islanders
Upside: After limping along with over-the-hill veteran Evgeni Nabokov and some mediocre backups, the Isles dramatically upgraded their goaltending. Free-agent signings Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson should mean at least 10 more points in the standings by themselves.
Recovered from a devastating knee injury suffered at the Olympics, franchise center John Tavares will re-energize an offense that is deeper with the additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
Downside: In spite of a strong offer to free agent Dan Boyle, the skilled blueline vet signed with the rival Rangers. Although the Islanders have no shortage of up-and-coming defensemen, their youth will lead to mistakes.
NY Islanders: 1983 Champs | FindTheBest
Washington Capitals
Upside: Coach Barry Trotz brings his defense-first team concept from Nashville. While Trotz wrung the most from the mediocre Predators, previous Washington squads underachieved.
Led by Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, the Capitals retain some high-end offensive skill. Their blueline was bolstered with former Penguins Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, who signed as free agents.
Downside: Will the players buy into a more-defensive approach? Scoring goals is fun; playing good defense takes hard work. After leading the league with 51 goals while posting a hideous -35, Ovie will be the litmus test.
The Capitals’ goaltending is largely unproven.
Otherwise
With feared sniper Steven Stamkos healthy from the start of the season and five carefully chosen free agent additions, the Lightning will be better. There’s not much room to improve on 101 points, though.
Prediction
The Blue Jackets will continue their rise in the standings even if Johansen is AWOL for an extended period.
However, inscrutable owner Charles Wang is demonstrating a new willingness to open his wallet to improve the Islanders. That could still lead to a deal before the trade deadline for a key veteran, likely a defenseman.
In their final season at crumbling Nassau Coliseum before moving to Brooklyn, the Isles will improve under coach Jack Capuano more than any other NHL team and vault into the playoffs.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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