By Jeff Capellini
It’s the story that won’t go away, even though it has no basis in fact.
At least not yet.
As the Islanders limp home down the stretch of a season that has fallen well short of expectations, thoughts of the offseason have slowly been replacing visions of playoff success. Unless this team figures out how to take its game to the next level and keep it there, and quickly, it will miss the postseason, something that, if it does happen, should be viewed as a gigantic failure on just about every level.
The Isles have won just two of their last six games since ending their franchise-record nine-game road trip with a 5-3-1 mark. They have been the ultimate enigma, at times looking good, like in their back-to-back wins last week over the Rangers and Pittsburgh, and in other instances horrific, like scoring a combined two goals in their most recent games — a 2-1 loss to visiting Boston on Saturday and Monday night’s 3-1 home defeat to Nashville.
Heading into play on Wednesday, the Islanders (35-28-12) found themselves tied with Carolina for 10th place in the Eastern Conference, four points back of the Bruins and one behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. And while there are still seven games to play and anything can happen, the Isles don’t exactly have the look of a team coming together at the right time.
They seem more like a group ill-equipped to handle the task at hand.
I could go on and on (and on) about the self-inflicted wounds the Isles have suffered all season, most notably general manager Garth Snow’s unorthodox approach to improving a team that is in no way better than the versions we saw in each of the previous two seasons. But you already know everything you need to know about that. Even if the Isles do manage to sneak into the playoffs, their hit-or-miss play and likely opponent suggest their stay won’t last more than one round, anyway.
And that’s unacceptable given the fact that they came into 2016-17 off their best season in the previous 23 years.
So, logically, fans have started to see the writing on the wall and are worrying about other things, and I’m not just talking about how the expansion draft will impact next season.
The Islanders may end up with an even bigger problem than trying to improve what is already a club pushing the salary cap ceiling. As the days before the summer count down, they have to hope superstar John Tavares doesn’t decide he can no longer deal with this franchise’s maddeningly deliberate ways.
In case you don’t know, Tavares is signed through next season. As his current employer, the Islanders have an exclusive one-year window to extend him long term before he can become an unrestricted free agent. Hence, why the first day he can sign a new deal, July 1, matters more to many Islanders fans right now than the current state of the team.
Like it or not, Tavares is the Islanders. He is why people show up at Barclays Center (those who actually do). He is why this team is occasionally considered for nationally televised games. He is the franchise’s ultimate marketing tool. He is arguably already one of the top five players to ever put on the team’s colors. He is still only 26 years old, and has proven to be every bit worthy of the No. 1 overall draft pick the Isles used on him back in 2009. He’s also been grossly underpaid for a very long time.
Tavares has never once publicly hinted in any way that he won’t re-sign. What’s more, money won’t be a problem, given the Isles’ new deep-pocketed owners and their stated desires to make sure he stays put. Yet, it’s still hard to remain confident that come that first week of July he’ll put pen to paper.
Because he’s a true competitor, while the Islanders seem to only like the idea of competing.
The fact is, the Isles have done a pretty poor job equipping their best player so that he can be all he can be. Look at this team of late as just the latest example. Fans have been more excited about top prospect Josh Ho-Sang gaining a head of steam through the neutral zone than they’ve been about any other aspect of the club, save for hoping and praying No. 91 carries the Isles in even grander fashion than he did in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
Tavares is a marked man every night. He’s also a human being every night. His frustration on the ice this season has been more evident than in any previous season. His point production has dipped. He has been, at times, less disciplined. His body language hasn’t always suggested he’s impervious to the mental wear and tear of being the leader of what amounts to a slightly above-average team.
Despite his young age, Tavares has been here a long time. Yet the Isles have won one playoff series in that time and are now resorting to fighting for the eighth spot in the conference instead of, you know, winning division titles or at least being considered a fringe threat to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Tavares might be the most underappreciated superstar in New York. Most anywhere else he’d be a god. Assuming the Isles make a monster offer, which will almost certainly include an eighth year, something only they can offer, if Tavares is hesitant to sign July 1 or lets this thing drag on, they can’t take solace in the fact that they did the best they could.
They had years to get this thing right.
I understand how good of a soldier Tavares is. Heck, he’d have to be to put up with building a contender at a glacial pace, which the Isles have perfected during his entire eight-year run with the organization. Snow has reportedly only targeted specific types of players on the trade front, as if only young guys with controllable contracts are worthy of taking a team to the next level.
The building through the draft idea, while admirable, is a frustratingly tedious process. As with most prospects, you never really know what you have until you have it. The Islanders have signed some free agents, but not the types who have been able to help Tavares elevate his game from very good to all-world on a consistent basis.
And let’s be fair here. Despite being a superstar, Tavares should not be viewed like a Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, someone who should automatically make every last player around him better. He’s just not at that level. Nobody is. But at the same time, as incredible as those two were, even they had help, and plenty of it.
The Isles have been derelict in providing a dependable supporting cast for far too long, regardless of how much so-called potential their otherwise good drafting has displayed over the years. Sooner or later, this team actually has to go for it, something it hasn’t done since pulling off the miraculous trades for defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on the same day in October of 2014. And even with those trades, Tavares’ production has actually decreased, from 38 goals and 86 points in 2014-15 to 33 and 70 in 2015-16 to 28 and 65 this season.
Were the Isles wrong about Tavares? Nobody believes that, and I don’t think they’d offer him what amounts to a max contract this summer if that was indeed the case. They’ve been wrong, in several instances, about the players they have put around him.
And considering how long they’ve been at it, that’s just insane.
If you had told me at the conclusion of last season’s playoffs, as disappointing an end as it was for the Islanders, that Snow would actually be forced to consider trading his top — and only — gun at some point before he hit free agency in 2018, I would have told you stop hating and to worry about something else.
But if Tavares in any way wavers about re-signing between now and July 1, they will almost certainly have to trade him.
So it is incumbent upon Snow to leave nothing to chance here. He has time before the probable point of no return to convince Tavares that what he envisions for the future of this team is the same as what any of the Islanders’ long-suffering fans have been demanding for a long time.
John Tavares deserves a championship-caliber cast of characters around him. If he ultimately decides otherwise, or is satisfied with the team’s direction, a major bullet will have been dodged.
But if that ends up not being the case, make no mistake, you will see incensed mobs armed with torches and pitchforks storming toward Barclays Center, as well as the team’s practice facility on Long Island.
And there will be nowhere for Snow to hide.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ