By Daniel Friedman
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Every team strives to make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. Delusional or not, that’s always the goal.
For the Islanders, it’s at the point where there’s really no other way to explain it without being blunt.
They need to make the playoffs this season.
Not just because it’s the final season at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and not just because they took themselves out of the Connor McDavid sweepstakes by giving their 2015 first-rounder to Buffalo.
But because it is simply time for the Isles to break out.
The Isles have an elite — or very, very good — starting goaltender in Jaroslav Halak, depending on whom you ask. They have a franchise superstar in the prime of his career in John Tavares, as well as an excellent supporting cast on offense. They have burgeoning young defensemen in Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan and Griffin Reinhart.
Most importantly, they have the benefit of being situated in the Metropolitan Division, arguably the NHL’s weakest cluster of teams.
That’s not a slight against the Islanders, who are slowly but surely morphing into a powerhouse and will likely become one within the next 2-3 years. However, if they want to get back into the postseason, it’s quite doable given the circumstances.
In the new playoff format, the top three teams from each division automatically clinch. Assuming the Penguins and Blueshirts occupy the top two spots, it’s entirely realistic to suggest that the Islanders are capable of finishing right behind them.
Columbus has Sergei Bobrovsky on the case, but is not as good on offense or defense. Philly can score but can’t keep the puck out of its own net, though Steve Mason is quite good. The Capitals will either boom or bust, and I suspect the latter will occur. New Jersey’s in great shape between the pipes with Cory Schneider, but it isn’t particularly deep otherwise, and Carolina has a ton of questions surrounding its defense and goaltending right now.
Pittsburgh aside, the Isles have better center depth than any other team in the division. With the acquisition of Halak, they now can at least hold a candle to some of their competitors in terms of goaltending after years of being the worst of the pack in that category. Their defense is a question mark, but the same can be said for everyone except the Rangers.
To expect the Isles to place third or, worst case, fourth, is perfectly justified. Believe it or not, it’s been quite a while since expectations of that magnitude were reasonable. It should’ve happened last year; it must happen this year.
I’ve spoken at length about the need to switch gears. Excuses need to become a thing of the past, the word “rebuild” erased from the collective memory.
That reality is nearing, and though the Islanders did make the playoffs two seasons ago, the fact is that they didn’t really improve the team that summer and therefore got left behind. It wasn’t because that six-game series with Pittsburgh was a fluke.
Now, however, Garth Snow has improved the team. The Islanders boast the deepest offense they’ve had in years and are stable in goal. They still need a defenseman and, as I wrote last week, I think this does need to happen before the season starts. It doesn’t have to be today, but at some point between now and October, something’s gotta give.
The stars appear to be aligning for the much-maligned Isles and their long-suffering fans. They have the team and the time is ripe; all that’s left to do is go out and win.
Make a statement. Show that you have zero intentions of drafting in the top five anymore, that you’re turning the corner and that, at long last, you’re ready to do this thing. Send Nassau Coliseum out with a bang and head for Brooklyn on the right foot.
This is a pivotal year for the Islanders, and they’re going to be under a ton of pressure to come through. Fortunately for them, playing in the Metropolitan Division makes that task significantly less difficult.
Sometimes, expectations can be unreasonable. Not here, not anymore.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.
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