Most Important Few Months Maybe In Franchise History To Begin

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK (WFAN) — There are two schools of thought that pertain to the 2010-11 Islanders. One says if they had stayed healthy they would have been right there in the battle for the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The other suggests that even at full strength this team was still a good year away from making its long-awaited statement.

I tend to lean toward the latter, and not because this team and farm system aren’t loaded with talent. They most certainly are. Though the Isles actually finished with six less points than the 79 they amassed in 2009-10, they were without question a more talented team. They just couldn’t stay healthy, were saddled with coaching issues early, didn’t find a true No. 1 goaltender until it was way too late and all too often showed their youth, often at the most inopportune times.

Many have suggested if the Isles can avoid losing 586 man-games to injury, an astonishing number and by far the most in the NHL this season, they will be good enough to get into the playoffs next season. But, to me, the bottom line is making up 20 points in the standings (the Rangers took the eighth spot in the East with 93 points) basically boils down to winning 10 more games than they lost. So, if you figure it will take a minimum of 90-93 points to have a shot next season, which seems to always be the case, instead of winning 30 games as they did this season, the Islanders would need to win around 40 next season to be in the conversation.

Is this doable? Yes. I just think they will need some help this offseason that goes beyond having All-Star defenseman Mark Streit and do-it-all forward Kyle Okposo in uniform for all 82 games. The Islanders also played most of this season without key parts in defensemen Mark Eaton, who missed 48 games, Mike Mottau (62) and lucky charm Milan Jurcina (36) , plus former 20-goal scorer Trent Hunter (65), who really is the type of player the Isles need offensively, even if he, himself, hasn’t played like that player for a long time, if ever.

The Streit injury was a killer in so many ways. James Wisniewski figured to be a suitable replacement, though the idea was to have him and Streit together on the power play. But Wisniewski had value and was dealt to Montreal while the Isles were in the midst of the 14-game losing streak that basically sank any chances they had of making the postseason. Eaton, a solid stay-at-home type, never really had a chance to establish himself thanks to a hip injury, and Mottau, a player brought in to offset the loss of Streit, suffered a bad eye injury that has put his career in jeopardy. For whatever reason, the Islanders played extremely well with Jurcina in the lineup, going 24-15-7.

The offense, long a thorn in this franchise’s side, proved to not be the liability many expected. While the Isles could have benefited from Okposo playing in more than just the 34 games he actually participated in due to his recovery from shoulder surgery, they more than held their own thanks to the maturation of John Tavares and Frans Nielsen, the steadiness of Matt Moulson and the brilliance of GM Garth Snow basically stealing Michael Grabner and P.A. Parenteau.

All five of these players surpassed their previous career highs for points, with Tavares now on a collision course with greatness, Nielsen leading the NHL in short-handed goals and proving to be an excellent second-line playmaker, Moulson throwing up a second straight 30-goal season, Parenteau finishing tied for second on the team in scoring and Grabner exploding onto the scene in the race for the Calder Trophy. And don’t forget the emergence of forward Blake Comeau, who enjoyed the best season of his short career, becoming one of six Islanders to crack 20 goals.

The goaltending situation was comical most of the time, what with Rick DiPietro doing his usual song and dance with injury, the trade of valuable but 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson, the subsequent recall of talented Kevin Poulin, only to have him get a skate caught in a groove during a pregame warm-up, resulting in a dislocated kneecap, and the desperate Mikko Koskinen experiment.

It wasn’t until Snow shipped a draft pick to Phoenix that the Islanders finally got a true No. 1 netminder. Al Montoya came in and went 9-5-5 with a 2.39 goals-against average and stellar .921 save percentage. He is, at least from where I am standing, the Isles’ future in net and should be anointed the starter in training camp. The backup should be DiPietro, but conventional wisdom suggests he will be given every opportunity to win the job or at least split time because owner Charles Wang seemed to swear a blood oath of loyalty when the two agreed on the maligned 15-year contract some years ago.

Despite all of this, lost somewhere in the confusion of injury and career seasons was the fact that the Islanders had a lot of players who simply played and didn’t do all that much. I believe Snow should spend the better part of arguably the most important offseason in franchise history putting into motion a plan to deal from strength or spend a little more money than the Isles are accustomed to get a few veteran role players in here to bridge the gap between youth showing potential and players fighting to return to form thanks to injury or inconsistency.

Snow has said in the past it is his job to be fiscally responsible because of the Islanders’ tenuous at best financial situation. We all know the issues with the team’s arena lease and the problems getting a new building. However, Snow has also said if ever feels compelled to approach Wang about opening his hemorraging wallet he would do so and the owner would, in all probability, give him the green light to do what needs to be done.

This is the time for that conversation.

It’s not about signing every free agent with a pulse. That won’t happen. In fact, this year’s class is mostly filled with guys 35 or older. Some former stars, yes, or players still with plenty left, but certainly not the type of players that the Isles should consider shelling out more per year for than say, Moulson, who they re-upped with during the season for a little more than $3 million per for the next three.

Can I see them going after an Eric Cole type? Maybe. But it might be smarter for Snow to strongly consider dealing one or two of his young guys with potential for someone established to provide some leadership and depth, not to mention finishing skills and grit. The Isles certainly got tougher in 2010-11, but they still lack bangers up front, a role Hunter should have seized long ago but hasn’t for a variety of reasons. Zenon Konopka will be an unrestricted free agent and should be brought back, but not to supply the corner work and crease presence this team needs.

Would Snow consider trading someone like Josh Bailey, a former first-round pick with plenty of skills but has yet to really find his way? He should. Bailey will eventually be a second-line center in the NHL, but as it stands right now — and with stud Nino Niederreiter nearly ready to assume control at the highest level — he’s going to have a hard time breaking into the Isles’ top nine forwards next season because he’s yet to show he belongs. That doesn’t mean a change of scenery wouldn’t help him, while at the same time bringing back to the Isles someone they can count on to center that third line, kill penalties and basically make the absolute most of his minutes.

The Isles should also greatly consider trading their lottery pick. Odds are if they stay at No. 4 in the draft, which is highly possible, they won’t get anyone NHL ready. Why not ship the pick for an established player? They certainly do not need another 18-something down at Bridgeport. While the future has been what this franchise has been building toward, make no mistake, the future is — or should be — next season.

An infusion of more players who know how to win will only turn those nights the Isles blew a chance at a second point, or let a late lead evaporate, into wins. At this point that’s what it’s all about. If you believe the defense and goaltending will be solid next season, which is possible with studs Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic, a healthy Streit, Eaton and Jurcina, and Montoya getting the bulk of the work, then it stands to reason a tweak here and there in the offensive end, mostly in the intangibles department, will be the difference between ending the run of just four playoff appearances in the last 17 seasons and making this team into a consistent playoff participant.

Don’t just assume the maturation process will work. There’s no denying this team’s talent and potential, but Snow must be proactive. There’s simply too much riding on the fourth year of the rebuild.

It’s time for this franchise to take all it has learned and supplement it with some outside voices with experience.

I cannot imagine this fan base sitting idly by for yet another season of “just wait until next year.”

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini.

What do you think the Islanders should do this offseason to improve their chances of making the playoffs next season? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.