The Tampa Bay Lightning have a 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final and are only one win away from their second consecutive championship with a potential sweep, the first since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. In the Final itself, the Lightning have been dominant, controlling all three zones and making the Montreal Canadiens look hapless in the process.
For the New York Islanders, the lopsided Final must be a reminder of how close this team is to winning the Stanley Cup and more importantly, how close the team will be in the upcoming seasons. The Islanders are on the doorstep – they’re only a few pieces away from being a Stanley Cup-caliber team and the upcoming offseason must be approached with that thought in mind.
Islanders Match Up Well With Any Team in the NHL
This playoff run proved that Islanders can match up with any team in the NHL as they exploited clear weaknesses in the Penguins and Bruins to advance to their second consecutive semifinal series. The matchup against the Lightning, however, proved that the Islanders can match up even with the class of the NHL and are only a few pieces away if not one or two pieces away from being the class of the NHL. Granted they are not the best team in the game when it comes to the regular season, but under Trotz, this team can beat anyone in a seven-game series, something that has been proven true in each of the last two seasons.
In the semifinal, the defense held its ground and eliminated a Lightning offense that has proven unstoppable otherwise. The unit singlehandedly kept the team in the series, with defensemen like Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock making the case as two of the top defensemen in the league, with the ability to create turnovers and block shots on the net.
Likewise, the Islanders’ forwards tested the world-class goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and found the back of the net after discovering some weak spots in the goaltender’s style of play, similar to how they found weaknesses in both Tristan Jarry and Tuukka Rask to pile on the goals in the first two rounds. There is a strong argument that if Anders Lee was healthy for the entire regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the upset would have occurred, with the top line being a formidable shift that could find open shots off a Lightning defense that was devastating in the series.
The Islanders Have Depth & Young Core to Build Around
The Islanders proved throughout the season that they possess a complete roster, with depth on all fronts, that is ready to win now. Granted, the offense struggled, scoring only 2.71 goals per game in the regular season, and the unit struggled immensely following Lee’s season-ending injury. Additionally, there is room to improve on the roster with the team searching for depth on both the forward and defensive units, and the overall roster is older than the league average, with an average age of 29.2, a concern nonetheless.
However, the team has been transformed into a contender and is only continuing to improve behind a great coaching staff and a young core of players like Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, and Ilya Sorokin, all of which are 25 years old or younger, that the Islanders are going to build around as the team loses some of the veterans.
The Islanders also possess one of the best defenses in the NHL – a unit that only allowed 2.23 goals per game will make the team competitive even if the offense struggles, as it did this past season. The front office and coaching staff know how close they are to winning the Stanley Cup and will make the moves necessary in hopes of winning the Cup next season. The past few seasons saw the foundation put in place and now the big leap can and should be made.
Expansion Draft Provides Surprising Opportunity
The Islanders enter the Expansion Draft, like many teams, with the hope of keeping their star players around and avoid losing a key piece in the roster. The team has a great core that will ultimately leave the front office’s hands tied and force them to leave an established veteran unprotected, potentially Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, or Nick Leddy. The Islanders also have many of their skaters who are pending free agents, and, with little salary-cap space at the moment, it seems hard to see the team retaining many of their depth players.
The expansion draft can be a surprising advantage for the front office considering the transactions that can be made prior to the draft. The Islanders have the opportunity to trade one of their veteran skaters to a team searching for leadership or a player that can provide an immediate impact as they did by trading Devon Toews in the previous offseason, opening up cap space in the process. The expansion draft itself will also likely require the Seattle Kraken to select a skater with an expensive contract, continuing to open up cap space. The Islanders will try to keep many of their pending free agents on the roster, and the extra cap space suddenly allows the front office to re-sign many of those veterans that provided depth to the team.
The Additions to Help the Islanders Win the Cup
The Islanders might consider adding a skater on the backend of the forward unit or another defenseman at a lower salary to help re-fuel an already strong roster. In the context of building to contend, it’s possible the Islanders will inquire in making a big signing or trade to add a great player and send the message that they are planning to win the Stanley Cup next season.
A scorer like Gabriel Landeskog, Taylor Hall, or Zach Hyman would likely be out of reach for the team, but the front office might make a push for Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau in a trade, a New Jersey native entering his final year on his contract who is one of the best scorers in the NHL. Acquiring a scorer like Gaudreau would be more likely at the trade deadline next season, but making the move would immediately turn the Islanders into a Stanley Cup team.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November but has been a journalist for multiple blogs since the end of the 2019-2020 NHL season. While not following any specific team, Mike covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers, a team that has turned themselves into legitimate cup contenders with Barry Trotz as the head coach.