Alright Isles fans...take a collective sigh of relief. We've made it through 82 games...82 long, injury riddled games. Some were exciting, some were let downs, and some just plain ol' sucked. But there seems to be a very bright light at the end of the tunnel with the draft lottery tomorrow night on Versus.
I know, we're all salivating over the possibility of drafting John Tavares, or for some, Victor Hedman. But before we go there I would just like to go over the players that were the main focus of this tough season.
Three players that really seemed to find their strides over the second half of the season were Sean Bergenheim, Kyle Okposo, and Bruno Gervais.
Sean started off the year unsure with where he fit with this team. He would be used a fourth liner, first liner, penalty killer, or even a healthy scratch. Once some roster spots opened up he finally found his niche as a speedy forward who potted some highlight goals, including his first career hat trick against Martin Brodeur. He finished the season with 15 goals and 9 assists for 24 points in 59 games played. Bergie's two major problems seem to be injuries (but who didn't have that problem this season?) and consistency. Much like last year, he started off very slow and then found his scoring touch late in the year, only this year he did it with more flare and punch. Next season Sean needs to come out of the gates like a bat out of hell and hold on to that playing style. Since he seems to finally feel comfortable on this roster and is aware of the type of player that the Isles expect him to be, there shouldn't be any reason why he should be incapable of accomplishing that.
Okposo started off slow as well, and I was one blogger who started to worry that we were rushing Kyle into the big leagues since he was struggling on NHL ice. Once he was injured around the mid-point of the year, I thought for sure that it was going to be a huge set back in his development. Luckily I was wrong. He returned sooner than expected and started to show why he was drafted 7th overall. He finished the year second on the team in points with 39, tallying 18 goals and 21 assists. Not bad for your first full NHL season. He quickly became a player that was a constant threat on the ice as his confidence carried him whenever he was out there, and you could see that it fed into his line mates Bailey and Comeau when together. Like Sean, Kyle needs to come out strong at the start of the season and do his best to avoid the typical "sophomore slumps" and take the next step in becoming the power forward this team has lacked over the years.
Although Bruno's numbers aren't as impressive, he became a new player once Chris Campoli was dealt to the Ottawa Senators. In 69 games he scored 3 goals and 16 assists for 19 points. If you looked at his stats over the past three years, you would see that is a huge improvement. However, not all the focus should be on his offensive play - even though that's what he was known for in the minors years ago. Since being paired with All Star defenseman Mark Streit, Gervais no longer looks lost in his zone and has become a reliable and physical defensive presence in front of the net. For most of the year I felt that Bruno was a liability on the ice with his blind passes and lack of awareness, but that has changed greatly. Hopefully he'll be able to carry this type of play into next year.
Although I feel that these three players stood out the most, it is important to acknowledge Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, Jeff Tambellini, and Jack Hillen.
Comeau continued to show that he plays with lots of poise and patience with the puck. He needs to learn to shoot more often despite serving as the grinder that works hard in the corners. He capped off the year with 25 points in 53 games and seems to have found a place in Gordon's system after missing the start of the year due to that difficulty. It will be nice to see what he can do in a full 82 games starting next fall.
The same can be said for Nielsen as he missed a lot of time after that hit from Mike Mottau of the New Jersey Devils. Surprisingly, Frans still finished fourth on the team in points with 33 despite missing 23 games. He seems like he will be a good play-making 3rd line center that has decent hands as evident in the shootout. However he probably needs to add some size in order to remain consistent at the NHL level.
I have to admit, I did not expect to see much out of Josh Bailey since he started the year late due to injury and was only 18 straight out of the NHL draft. But he was a pleasant surprise and showed that he has the capabilities of being our future second line center. Much like Frans, he needs to add some size and continue to get adjusted to the NHL game in order for him to be the play-maker he was back in the OHL, but the thought of him playing on a line with Comeau and Okposo again seems like something we can look forward too.
The two major question marks for the start of next year will surround Jeff Tambellini and Jack Hillen. Both found regular spots in the second half of the season but still have lots to prove. Tamby seemed to bring out a bit of his scoring touch in the final 20 games of the season or so, finishing with 7 goals, 8 assists, and 15 points...but that is still a far cry away from his AHL leading stats when he played with Bridgeport. At this point it seems he may be that type of player who won't fully emerge until later in his career, say around his late twenties/early thirties. Who knows though? Maybe I'm wrong and he'll carry this late start into next year. Either way, if he finally turns up his game to the elite level he used to seem capable of this team would be that much better.
Jack Hillen will probably get an opportunity to start the year in the spot where Chris Campoli was playing unless the coaching staff feels he needs more time to develop in the minors. He had great numbers as an offensive dman with the Sound Tigers and showed on a few occasions that he may be able to bring that type of play to the NHL. Being that the Isles still have Andy Sutton and Freddy Meyer under contract for next year after missing the majority of this season due to injuries, Hillen will probably have to fight for Campoli's former spot in training camp rather than having it handed to him.
Scott Gordon pretty much put it best when he was discussing an overview of how his team was performing around the mid-way point of the second half of the year. He felt that the first 41 games he was watching one team that was struggling, and then saw a second team in the next 41 games that was performing. It's true, the players mentioned above took hold of this team and have made it theirs, but in order to retain it they have to take the next step in their development. Whether that is to become the team's leading goal scorer, play-maker, defensive specialist, or on-ice leader...there is still a lot for all of the younger players to gain and that is why there is a reason to be optimistic for next year.
This is one blogger who feels this grueling season was a success. Gordon found a way to teach his system, while making a few adjustments, and brought out the talent that Snow wanted to see in his youth movement.
...and hopefully tomorrow night we'll hold on to that first overall pick that we've gained along the way and potentially have John Tavares joining this young Isles squad next year.