Despite the (NHL) .500 play from the New York Islanders as of late, there’s still an 80.1% chance they make the playoffs, according to Hockey Reference. They’re fifth in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the league in points, more than respectable.
But as the playoff race heats up and the Islanders’ historic winning streak from earlier this season gets further and further into the review mirror, their mediocre play over the last 10 games (3-5-2) has presented the team, specifically general manager Lou Lamoriello, with a difficult question to answer: Is this team one or two pieces away from seriously contending for a Stanley Cup? An honest assessment of their chances by Islanders’ brass is necessary before making any moves, a conversation that is probably beginning to come to a head within the organization as the Islanders head into the All-Star break/bye-week.
Reasons Against a Trade
For where the Islanders are right now, including the issues (scoring) that continue to plague them, Lamoriello likely won’t want to simply put a bandage or two on lineup issues with rentals for another second-round exit at the hands of another up-and-coming team. This can always happen despite their roster construction (re: San Jose Sharks, Washington Capitals St. Louis Blues, etc.).
Your team sends assets (draft picks and/or players) the other way only for you to lose your recently acquired player who’s on an expiring contract while you watch the playoffs continue without you in May. A hard pill to swallow for the team and its fans, no doubt. Eventually, the Islanders will be in that position, but with a lack of assets Lamoriello would be willing to trade, like Noah Dobson, it might not be the right time.
Beyond Dobson, the Islanders’ prospects — while highly touted within the organization — may not get the same love around the league. Scott Wheeler of The Athletic had this to say about the Islanders’ pipeline recently.
The Islanders were among a handful of the teams I struggled to rank because on pure talent, if their top prospects live up to their ceilings, it’s a pretty strong group. But it’s also a group that’s filled with players whose floors are as low as their ceilings are high. As an organization, the Islanders have a plethora of prospects who routinely underperform their raw talent.(From ‘Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 24 New York Islanders’, The AthleticNHL – 01/20/20)
This puts the Islanders’ management in a tough position. Not knowing what you really have means your asset won’t get you the return you’re looking for and they may turn out to be a great player down the line. For instance, Oliver Wahlstrom, who played pretty well during his brief call-up earlier this season, is still a few steps behind in his game and clearly needs some time to adjust to the pro game. At just 19 years old, he’s an asset worth investing in and probably won’t yield the type of player that will make a considerable difference in the lineup right now.
There are also upcoming free-agent options. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mike Hoffman, Evgeni Dadonov, and Tyler Toffoli — among others — are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. It’s been difficult for the Islanders to attract free agents in the past, but after two seasons of success, Barry Trotz behind the bench, and a new arena on the horizon, this offseason could be huge for the organization.
Additionally, as the salary cap continues to be an issue for a lot of teams, it may be wise to sit and wait for other clubs to unload burdensome contracts during the offseason, which may open more doors for Lamoriello. At the end of the day, he may not want to risk long-term success for short-term gain, especially with the team playing as poorly as they are right now.
Reasons For a Trade
While salary cap issues could help the Islanders, in the very near future it may be a burden to them as well. The Islanders locked up a number of players this past offseason to reasonable deals, but players like Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews, Casey Cizikas, and most notably, Mathew Barzal all need deals this summer or next summer. Not to mention they’ll need to re-sign Thomas Greiss or acquire another backup goalie after this season. All that said, maybe the time is now while the team still has cap space and a solid one-two punch in net.
There may not be players available right now that would get fans excited, but Lamoriello may be following the mantra Herb Brooks used when choosing players for what would become a gold medal-winning team in the 1980 Winter Olympics: “I’m not looking for the best players; I’m looking for the right ones.” With the way the Islanders play, they may be able to pluck someone off another roster that fits their style without giving up much more than a second or third-round pick.
In addition, as much as I’d like to think the Islanders great play and a new arena will help attract players in the offseason, it’s not something to bank on. However, what we have seen happen is that a player is traded to the Islanders, really likes the organization and Long Island, and re-signs with the team in July or earlier.
So sure, maybe you can sign Hoffman in the offseason without giving anything up, but there may be a better chance he stays for a few seasons after having some success with the Islanders and have a good experience with the organization.
However you slice it, the Islanders are certainly at a crossroads. It’s clear they can be a great team as currently constructed, but that level of play isn’t as consistent as anyone would like, which almost mirrors their issues from this time last season. We saw the Islanders take down the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games only to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in the same fashion. Can Lamoriello find the missing pieces they lacked during the Carolina series to make a real run this postseason? We’ll find out in a little more than a month.