The coroner is in. Let us send off Nassau Coliseum and the Islanders.
The skinny: Even now, it’s still ironic to see the Islanders succeed in the set of circumstances they were thrown into. Losing their best player in John Tavares, being thrown into years of mismanagement, and having no real sustainable stretch of success since their dynasty in the late 1980s was a problem. The Islanders should have hit a rough patch that could have very well seen the team relocate out of Long Island (this video provides a great overview of the team’s struggles.)
Instead, something happened. With dedicated leadership and an emerging young core, the Islanders were able to claw their way back to relevance. Unfortunately, this season’s rendition of the Islanders were met with a similar fate: a potential Cinderella run cast aside by the Lightning juggernaut. So how did it happen this time? Let’s take a closer look…
Offense: In hindsight, it felt like a matter of time before the Islanders offense went on a cold spell. While they had performed admirably in the playoffs up to this point, the regular season indicated a regression was coming. In the regular season, the offense finished with 2.71 goals per game, good for only 21st in the league. Unfortunately, that type of inconsistent offense came to play against the Lightning. After scoring 43 goals in the two series prior, the Islanders only managed 11 goals in the seven games against Tampa Bay. Last season’s postseason hero in Jean-Gabriel Pageau and trade deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri were both held without a point this series, despite combining for ten goals against Pittsburgh and Boston. An admirable showing, but a series like this proves there’s still work that needs to be done here.
Power play: For all the talk about the Golden Knights’ poor power play in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, the Islanders’ struggles in that area tended to get lost in the shuffle. In seventeen power play attempts, the Islanders only managed to score once, including going scoreless in their last twelve. The most damning instance of the power play’s ineffectiveness? Game 7, where the Lightning won on a shorthanded goal from Yanni Gourde. If the only team generating positive momentum from a power play is the opposing team, that’s going to cause trouble quickly.
Young players: For as great of a coach as Barry Trotz is, I have to question his lineup choices to some degree here, particularly in terms of keeping young players in the press box. Sure, Noah Dobson got plenty of reps and did pretty well for himself, but what about Oliver Wahlstrom? Yes, Wahlstrom was injured in the first-round series against Pittsburgh, but he was taking pregame warmups as early as Game 1 against the Lightning. He was one of only seven Islanders to score double-digit goals during the regular season, but he was still kept off the lineup in favor of “stable veterans” like Leo Komarov and Travis Zajac (the two combined for two goals in 46 total games for the Islanders this season). Even someone like Kieffer Bellows, a talented prospect who did alright despite facing a learning curve this season, didn’t see any playoff action. Looking at what the likes of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki did for the Canadiens this postseason, it’s hard not to look back on this decision and wonder if relying on the youth could have made a difference.
The crystal ball: The Islanders have cemented a reputation as a team that’s a tough out in the postseason, but they owe it to themselves and their fans to evolve into a legitimate Cup contender. Fortunately, they have the pieces to manage that. Mathew Barzal has proven more than capable as a top-line center, the lineup is loaded with solid veteran players, and Anders Lee should be healthy after tearing his ACL mid-season. The defense is headlined by shutdown pairing Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, with Scott Mayfield, Nick Leddy, and Dobson in supporting roles. Goaltending is manned by the Russian duo of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, the latter of which was stellar in the first round against Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, the cap could be an issue. The Islanders have only $5.79 million in cap space to work with, and they’ll need more for extensions of Anthony Beauvillier, Pelech, and Sorokin. Pulock and Dobson will also be on expiring contracts next season, and money will need to be cleared for Barzal’s extension in two years. Moving Andrew Ladd back onto LTIR should free up some money, but it’s unclear if that would be enough. They might have to explore buyouts of the likes of Komarov or Cal Clutterbuck, or trades on Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey in the future. They’ve gotten this far already; now it’s time to see what direction they take.
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