Islanders Need to Start Thinking Rebuild Now

It’s time for the New York Islanders to stop clinging to consecutive runs to the Stanley Cup Semifinals in 2020 and 2021 and start realizing the window for reaching the Final with this current team has closed. This just in: there is no actual award for reaching the semifinals. At the end of the season, you are merely one of 31 teams that didn’t win the Cup, period.

Explore everything hockey with THW’s Hockeypedia pages.

The Hockey Writers HockeyPedia 800x120

East is a Beast

The fact those two seasons are still being referred to anytime the current team’s playoff chances are discussed is absurd. While the Islanders currently sit in the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, making the playoffs will be a tall order. All of the teams that are in the hunt have multiple games in hand (the Buffalo Sabres have four) and are younger, hungrier clubs. And more to the point, the Islanders have bigger fish to fry than simply making the 2023 Playoffs.

Related: 5 Takeaways From Islanders’ 4-3 Overtime Win vs Penguins

Latest News & Highlights

The NHL’s Eastern Conference is stacked. In fact, you could argue that other than the defending champion Colorado Avalanche, the top seven or eight teams in the league reside in the East. For the Islanders right now the more important task than making the playoffs is to avoid slipping into the Eastern Conference abyss.

Realistically speaking, they have fallen significantly behind the top six teams in the conference (Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers) and with the rebuilds in Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo seemingly ahead of schedule, the playoff math isn’t exactly going their way.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The other fact that has become apparent is the prospect cupboard is bare. With Aatu Raty included in the Bo Horvat deal, the Islanders don’t appear to have any dynamic youngsters ready to step up and make an impact. The parade of recent American Hockey League call-ups hasn’t inspired much enthusiasm over the last several weeks. And while Oliver Wahlstrom has shown flashes of potential offensive prowess, consistency has been an issue prior to his season-ending injury.

None of the above is suggesting the playoffs are not still a very real possibility for this team, and with an elite keeper like Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders would surely be a dangerous first round draw. However, this roster simply isn’t Cup contender material and to continue to spin their wheels with this current roster, particularly up front, is merely a proverbial rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic. If Mat Barzal’s injury lasts through the month of March, realistically the playoffs are a long shot.

Core is Solid

There is a core of forwards in place they can build around that includes Barzal, Horvat, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Oliver Wahlstrom and Casey Cizikas but the focus for General Manager Lou Lammoriello has to be about bringing in more young talent to begin replacing some of the team’s over-30 gang as several of those contracts expire over the next few years. The best years in the careers of JG Pageau (30), Kyle Palmieri (32), Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin (33), Josh Bailey (33) and Zach Parise (38) have all already happened. It’s time to begin giving bottom-six minutes to the youngsters like William Dufour (21) and Simon Holmstrom (21) to see what they got, while Pierre Engvall (26) is an intriguing pickup worth giving a closer look at the season’s remaining weeks as his size and speed are a rare and valuable combination up front.

Lou Lamoriello New York Islanders
Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders attends the 2019 NHL Draft (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Not moving Scott Mayfield, Semyon Varlamov and/or Parise at the deadline for picks in either the 2023 or 2024 Draft may have been an error as these next two draft classes are considered extremely deep with talent and all three players are Unrestricted Free Agents at the end of the season. There is the very real threat that Mayfield and Varlamov will be attractive targets this summer and become too pricey for Lamoriello to retain, magnifying the mistake of not moving them at the deadline. 

Tough Love

This is always a difficult decision for GMs in any sport when a team hits that crossroads of whether it’s best to focus attention on a rebuild versus a retool. It’s a delicate topic for sure as it signifies a bit of white flag-waving regarding the current season.

Bottom line, the NHL game today is fast and getting faster and rosters are young and getting younger. That is simply not the case on Long Island. As the 2022-23 season began, the Islanders roster had the sixth-oldest average age in the league at 28.2. The shine has worn off those aforementioned semifinal appearances in the “glory days” of 2020-21 and in order to keep pace in the beastly East the time to begin a rebuild is now.

Sign up for our regular 'Islanders Newsletter' for all the latest.