The New York Islanders’ storybook season came to an end on May 3, as they were swept out in the second round of the NHL playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes. The Islanders became the first team since the 1993 Buffalo Sabres to sweep an opponent in the first round and then be swept in the round after.
With all due justice to the Islanders, no one expected them to be in this position. If you polled 100 people in the hockey world in September, at least 99 of them would have predicted Barry Trotz’s squad to finish in the bottom-five of the NHL. However, the end of the year still seems strangely sour despite this.
After dominating the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders came out and looked flat against the Hurricanes. Against a fast-paced, yet unskilled, team that should have played into Trotz’s system perfectly, the Islanders looked completely disjointed in each of the four games. It was an entirely different team than the one that showed up for the first 86 games of the season.
There can be fingers pointed in a number of directions. Robin Lehner made a poor play with the puck in the third game that led to Justin Williams’ dagger goal. Leo Komarov took a few untimely and unnecessary penalties that led to Carolina momentum. Still, though, these are two guys that helped build the fabric of the team this season under Trotz and Lou Lamoriello.
Lehner is a current Masterson Trophy shoe-in and is also in the running for the Vezina Trophy. After battling addiction and mental illness, he came back under the guide of Trotz, Mitch Korn, and Piero Greco to become one of the best goaltenders in the world.It remains to be seen if he carries this through the summer, or even if he will be back with the Islanders, but the appreciation for Lehner cannot be lost over just four games.
Komarov and fellow veteran Valtteri Filppula were key to the team throughout the entire season, although they seemed slow and outmatched against Carolina. Komarov is here as a presence in the locker room for another three years, so there is no escaping him. Filppula signed a one-year deal in July and it is unsure if he will return. He seemed to be playing hurt through the end of the season, to be fair.
As for the rest of the team, it is still in fair game mode for evaluation. A number of key players, including Lehner, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Brock Nelson, are unrestrictd free agents. All signs point to Lee and Lehner returning, but Nelson and Eberle’s futures are up in the air.
In the grand scheme of things, however, the Islanders need to upgrade the offense, not lose pieces from it. Unless Lamoriello is bringing in both Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin on guaranteed deals, then you cannot afford to lose a crucial cog from your team’s already depleted offense. The pay will not be cheap and Nelson is due for an increase, but it has to be done.
According to CapFriendly, the Islanders have $37.1 million in cap space heading into the offseason. On top of the aforementioned players, Tom Kuhnhakl is an unrestricted free agent, and Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle are restricted free agents.
On a lenient scale, the combination of Beauvillier, Eberle, Lee, Lehner, and Nelson should cost the Islanders around $21 to $25 million. That leaves about $12 million to round out the team, which can be done in a variety of ways.
There is certainly a case in this sense to let Eberle walk and give Dal Colle, or even Josh Ho-Sang, more playing time. Or, you look to shed money elsewhere, such as on defense with Thomas Hickey, to give yourself more wiggle room.
Regardless, as the season ends, it is impossible to say who will be wearing the blue and orange come next puck drop. What needs to be addressed, though, is the notion that this was never supposed to happen. The Islanders’ offseason plan is reliant on this.
Much like the Vegas Golden Knights last year, the Islanders exceeded expectations. Trotz and Lamoriello have done wonders for the team, but it cannot be inferred that the success will keep coming and coming. It is certainly possible, but it is nevertheless not a guarantee.
Thus, the Islanders need to stay course. Rash decisions cannot come across the team via trades for players using picks and young pieces. If you have the chance to sign Duchene, Panarin, or someone else of that nature — you absolutely go for it. But, there is no reason to jump the gun on something to propel into champion status quite yet.
This is a sobering lesson for both the Islanders organization and its fans. After years of turmoil capped off by its superstar captain and former first overall pick John Tavares leaving, it is easy to yearn for immediate success. The change as a whole is not going to take place overnight, though, and Lamoriello promised a five-year plan for the team. A second-round birth can help lose sight of that, but hat is right for the organization has to and will be done by Lamoriello.
With Noah Dobson, Otto Koivula, Oliver Wahlstrom, and much more young talent coming up the pipeline, the Islanders simply need to stay course unless an amazing opportunity arises. As seen this year, a coach like Trotz can do seemingly magical things, and a slowly improving roster will only help that.
Rome was not built in a day. Neither will the Belmont arena, and neither will the Islanders new-look team.