Andy Sutton said it best after the Islanders gave up a two-goal lead in the third period to the Ottawa Senators on Valentine’s Day last week. If they plan on staying in the playoff hunt, which they still are in despite their recent stretch of losses, they have to be one of the best teams in the league for the last twenty games. The question is if this team can do it?
They have done it before with the team having gone 7-2-1 at one point of the season over 10 games, as well as going 9-2-1 in a stretch of 12 games. But this is crunch time; where the teams that are supposed to be playoff contenders prove their worth with the exceptional cinderella team making an appearance. But the better question may be if fans want them to make the playoffs.
My guess is yes, and my answer is maybe.
One thing for certain is that I do not want to see this Islander team tank to get a top-five pick with guys like Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler deservedly earning the top-3 spots in the draft (not in any specific order). Could they use one of these three players to enhance the rebuilding process? Without a doubt.
On defense the Islanders currently have Hillen, MacDonald and Kohn earning responsibilities on the blue-line, although I expect Kohn to be returned to the minors some time this season if not at the start of next. The team’s two best defensive prospects are Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan, one of the best pairings at the World Junior tournament for Team Canada. However both of them are out with injuries. Hamonic may be able to return before the end of the year. Either way, neither of them have seen a game of pro-level hockey and might be best serviced with some time spent in the AHL before joining the big club. This is why a guy like Fowler would be a great addition for this team.
At the same time, offense continues to be a problem. Okposo is having a career year but Tavares has been struggling. I am still fully confident that he will turn his game around and start scoring goals after the Olympic break and may even have a comparable year to that of Stamkos next season. Tavares has been the real deal his whole career. He’s 19 and adapting to life in the NHL with a supporting cast of younger players. Weight missed most of the season and Tavs has been playing with Moulson, Comeau and/or Okposo. Crosby had the help of Mario Lemieux for some time before Mark Recchi became his mentor on the ice in his rookie season. Stamkos has St.Louis and Lecavalier on the bench with him as well. The Isles have youngsters. That will inevitably make a difference in John’s play, and considering he is only three goals shy of twenty, I do not think there is an immediate cause for concern.
But Tavares aside, offense has still been an issue. Schremp and Nielsen have shown that they can both be 2nd or 3rd line centers. However, Nielsen has put up about the same numbers for the past two years with 27 points so far this season in 56 games played, following his 33 last season in 59 games played. Although he is on pace for a better outing, those numbers are more of a third line calibre center-man. There is nothing wrong with that, but that’s pretty much the story for the rest of this team.
Comeau has 19 points in 45 games played; Bailey has 27 points in 55 games played; Moulson has 36 points in 62 games played; Bergenheim has a dismal 13 points in 46 games played. The idea of Seguin or Hall repairing this deficiency is enough to make your mouth water.
Bailey has shown that he can be a top-six forward. He was on a very impressive nine-game stretch before going a game without a point and he still managed to find his way onto the score sheet before he got injured. Guys like Josh, Tavares, Moulson and Okposo are developing well and appear that they will turn out the way they are expected too. But they are still developing, and this is why I am not sure that the playoffs are a logical expectation for this team.
I originally predicted that the Islanders were going to be more competitive this year than they were last year, and I was correct. I also predicted them to be in the playoff hunt around the mid-point of the season, and I was correct; there were times they were in either 6th, 7th or 8th place. But then I also predicted that when it came to the point of the season where you MUST win games against playoff rivals, the Islanders would fall. Their seven-game losing streak proved that I was correct again.
Rebuilding a team from within is a very slow process. The Islanders only went through one year of it and have a few more years to go. The Penguins did not become contenders with the immediate drafting of Sidney Crosby. Malkin didn’t even do it right away either. The same can be said for the Blackhawks; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were two huge steps in their turn-around, but it didn’t happen over night.
Although the playoffs will be very exciting and fun you have to worry about what it could mean for the franchise. Let’s say they do make the 8th place spot. They would have to pull an upset over the Washington Capitals or the New Jersey Devils. I will be the first to admit that anything is possible. The Edmonton Oilers’ run to the Cup as well as the Philadelphia Flyers’ run two years ago are evident of that statement. But those teams had much better depth than the Islanders do now.
A lot of this argument will depend on what Garth Snow does at the trade deadline. Andy Sutton and Dwayne Roloson might not be here after the Olympic break. A key sign will be if Sutton and/or Roloson are not playing the night the Islanders host the Blackhawks on March 2nd to prevent any risk of injury before 3 PM on March 3rd. They may still play regardless of whether or not they are being traded, but the team will be taking a great hit if these two are gone after the deadline, thus making the playoffs a harder achievement with a thin blue-line and Rick DiPietro recovering on a game-by-game basis.
So this is where I ask you, do you want to see the Islanders squeeze into the playoffs with this young and exciting line-up? Or would you rather them fight their way until the end but come up short with a top-5 draft pick and hope that next year will be even more successful?