By Jeff Capellini
It cannot be overstated how important the next few months are for the Islanders.
Will it be a spring and summer of satisfaction on Long Island, or a time of utter anguish? We’re going to find out between now and April.
The Islanders (21-18-4) currently sit in last place in what has proven to be a very difficult Metropolitan Division, but with a modest winning streak, they can find themselves back in decent playoff position in no time. Eleven points separate the top and bottom spots in the division, and the Isles sit just one point out of the second wild card in the Eastern Conference race.
Now in the midst of their league-mandated bye week, the Islanders (46 points) will return to the ice Saturday against the Rangers (49), who currently occupy the first wild card. If not for Sunday’s shootout win over the Devils, there would be utter panic in Brooklyn and all points east.
Injuries, inconsistency and by far the NHL’s worst defense have set the Isles back following a very good start. New York has won just six of its last 19 games (6-11-2), allowing 82 goals, or 4.3 per game. In all, the Isles’ 158 goals allowed this season are eight more than the lowly Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes, who sit in last place in their respective divisions.
But as much as the next three months will determine if the Islanders avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight season, what they do in the short term will almost certainly impact how they’ll look in 2018-19. I’m talking beyond the obligatory loss of a few players here and the acquisition of some others there.
John Tavares’ future with the franchise will likely need to be determined long before we find out if this team is good enough to make the playoffs.
Barring the Isles’ captain having some sort of secret agreement with co-owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, Tavares looks poised to at least flirt with the idea of testing unrestricted free agency, which is a problem considering the NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26.
This isn’t about money or the length of his next contract. By signing an extension with the Islanders at any point before July 1, Tavares would guarantee himself an eight-year deal that would put him among the highest-paid players in the league. If he opts for free agency, he can get no more than seven years. The money will be there either way, especially off what is shaping up to be a tremendous offensive season for him. Tavares has 22 goals and 29 assists in 43 games and is on pace to set career highs in all three major categories.
Ledecky has said money is no obstacle. Tavares has said he’s not worried about the Islanders doing right by him financially.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it has long been suspected that Tavares wants to see this franchise heading in the right direction personnel-wise before he commits to abdicating his prime years. It is believed that he wants the team constructed in a manner that would allow it to consistently compete for the Stanley Cup.
The problem is the Islanders are not built that way now, nor have they ever been during general manager Garth Snow’s 12-year tenure, as one playoff series win since forever indicates. If I can see it and the fans in attendance, watching on television and on social media can see it, you better believe Tavares can see it.
So don’t get angry with me when I say I really find it hard to believe this team will be Cup-worthy anytime soon.
Snow has done some good things of late, like stealing Jordan Eberle from the Edmonton Oilers over the summer, but not nearly enough of them. Most would agree the Islanders are still a solid defensemen or two and a No. 1-quality goaltender away from being a serious threat in the East.
Those types of players don’t grow on trees, and when they do become available, teams lucky enough to have them hold out for huge compensation packages because of the demand. The apparent urgency here to acquire assets like that to appease Tavares is palpable, but the probability of Snow pulling off those types of deals feels like it is next to impossible.
We’ve been socialized to think that way.
It has been very rare to see Snow make huge trades, the Ryan Smyth deal in 2007 notwithstanding. Even when he acquired Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, two very good but not elite-level defensemen, in October 2014, Snow didn’t do it under normal circumstances. Those players were salary cap crunch casualties. The trades were made at a relative stress-free time on the calendar. At this point, every team knows what the Islanders’ needs are, so Snow would not be operating with anything remotely resembling leverage.
What scares me more is the possibility that Snow and the new owners are somewhat satisfied with the roster and somehow think Tavares is fine with it, too.
I may like young defensemen Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech, and think the future is bright with Sebastian Aho and Devon Toews (once he recovers from reported season-ending shoulder surgery), but that doesn’t mean they are the keys to championships in the immediate future. You don’t need to be a personnel expert to see that.
As for the most important position on the ice, the Islanders haven’t had a franchise goaltender that has actually done anything in ages. They gave up early on Roberto Luongo and Rick DiPietro’s body betrayed him before we could really find out what he was. Most everyone else for as long as I can remember has either been a stop-gap, past his prime or in over his head.
Fast forward to this season. Jaroslav Halak has been better of late, but is he capable of consistently stealing games as the porous defense in front of him requires? Probably not. Thomas Greiss likely wishes at this point he could take a time machine to last January.
And there’s no telling what the future holds. Sure, Ilya Sorokin looks amazing in the KHL, but will he ever come here? Linus Soderstrom? Your guess is as good as mine.
I just don’t see how Tavares could be encouraged by the situation in net, either.
So, yeah, the immediate goal is for the Isles to get healthy and stake their claim to a playoff spot, but beyond a serious second-half run, it might just be on Snow to act — and act big — to guarantee Tavares sticks around. If the captain doesn’t sign between now and the trade deadline and, assuming there are no assurances in place that he will prior to July 1, how can Snow not seriously consider sending his best player elsewhere for a sizable haul?
There’s simply no way around that.
Prior to the deadline during the 2015-16 season, Snow opted to keep Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, and eventually lost both to free agency for nothing. It later became clear the Isles had no intention of ever re-signing Okposo, and Nielsen reportedly turned down a more lucrative offer from New York to go to Detroit.
You can argue that those decisions alone should have cost Snow his job, regardless of the fact that Okposo and Nielsen played a role in the Islanders winning that one postseason series.
Can you imagine if Tavares walks for nothing, especially if the Isles don’t make the playoffs?
Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point. But there’s not a lot of history to suggest Snow will do what’s necessary to make the Isles great again and too much recent history to suggest he just might be crazy enough to see where this Tavares thing goes after Feb. 26.
Forget the new arena, these are still scary, scary times for Islanders fans, to say the least.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ