With the Islanders officially eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, the collective feeling by fans is one of disappointment, but at the same time they cannot help but be proud of what their team accomplished this season.
It’s no secret that the Islanders defied the odds. The prediction of the Islanders being the laughing stock of the NHL failed. Instead, the Islanders finished the season fifth in the NHL with 103 points.
Impressively, the Islanders went from the worst in the league in goals against to first in the NHL. The last time an NHL team accomplished that was a century ago. The Islanders swept the favored Pittsburgh Penguins, completing a sweep for the first time in franchise history since 1983. In the four games with the Penguins, the Islanders put up 14 goals and limited Pittsburgh to just six.
However, the Islanders struggled against the Carolina Hurricanes. Starting the series as the stronger team, they failed to win Games 1 and 2 at home. The Islanders just could not capitalize on their chances. And it cost them. After taking the first two games on the road, Carolina would then win the next two games at home and sweep a team for the first time in their franchise history.
Now with the season over, many fans are looking toward next season, hoping that the Islanders can build on this year’s success and go further in the playoffs next year. It is beyond crucial that the Islanders do not follow their current pattern- which is taking two steps forward and three steps back.
In the 2012-13 season the Islanders made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006. They battled against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished second in the league, and were favored to breeze by the Islanders. The Islanders took the Stanley Cup contending Penguins to six games and gave the Penguins a run for their money. If the Islanders had a goalie in that series playing like Robin Lehner did this year, they would have won.
The following season, the Islanders failed to live up to expectations. The team finished with 79 points and failed to make the playoffs. After losing ten games in a row early in the season, they never recovered. That season the Islanders defense and goaltending were their Achilles heel. The Evegeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin tandem team was a complete failure. That offseason the Islanders made substantial moves, adding more skill to their roster.
In May 2014, the Islanders acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Capitals. At this time in his career, Halak had 144 wins in 272 games. Halak was a solid NHL goalie and had proved throughout his career that he was a player a team could win with.
Then, right before the start of the 2014-15 season in October, the Islanders added more depth to their roster with the acquisition of defensemen Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks. Both have been talented defensemen and benefitted the Islanders, who were the third worst team the previous season in goals against.
Each had also won Stanley Cups with their old organizations and knew what it took to win. The Islanders added a veteran presence to the locker room. In the 2014-15 season, the Islanders made the playoffs and faced off against the Washington Capitals. Again, the Islanders were no joke at playoff time, and went seven games with Caps. Ultimately, they fell short in game seven.
The following 2015-16 season, the Islanders returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after another successful regular season. In the playoffs, they defeated the Florida Panthers, winning a playoff series for the first time in 23 years. However, they would lose in the next round in five games to a superior Tampa Bay Lighting team.
That offseason, the Islanders failed to sign three key free agents setting the team back for the next two years. They let right-winger Kyle Okposo walk, who was a tremendous part of the Islanders top-six and had 64 points in the 2015-16 season. Okposo would sign with the Buffalo Sabres.
The Islanders also failed to resign two-way forward Frans Nielsen. Nielsen is arguably one of the most underrated players in the NHL. He produced offensively and defensively. At the time, Nielsen killed penalties, contributed on the power-play, and scored clutch goals in the shootout. Nielson took his talents to the Detroit Red Wings.
The loss of Nielsen and Okposo were even more bittersweet when both players were named All-Stars that year for their hockey clubs. Additionally, the Islanders failed to re-sign Matt Martin, a big part of the best fourth line in the NHL and a fan favorite. Martin instead signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Sure, the Okposo and Nielsen signings did not pan out for Buffalo and Detroit. But it is the premise. When a team has talent, they should be looking to re-sign their stars, not let them walk for nothing.
The next two seasons the Islanders failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After a tumultuous first half of the season in 2016-17, the Islanders turned it around for the second half, but still ended up one point shy of the last wild card spot. The next season was even worse, as the Islanders finished with 80 points.
In the summer of 2018, the Islanders would clean house and make substantial changes that brought them success this past season.
So how can the Islanders avoid following their current trend of having success then immediately regressing?
First, the Islanders must re-sign their free agents. Although, there is a long list of free agents this offseason, it is essential the Islanders do not let the majority of them walk.
The number one player on the list must be Robin Lehner. After everything he has done for the Islanders organization this season, he deserves his money. The next two players that must be back are Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. They both combined for over fifty goals this season and are an enormous part of the Islanders success.
While some may argue that the Islanders should not resign Jordan Eberle, they most definitely should try to bring Eberle back for the right price. The Islanders are a better team when he’s on the ice and Eberle has amazing chemistry with the face of the franchise, Mat Barzal.
The next players the Islanders should re-sign are the young guns: Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho- Sang.
Beauvillier adds depth to the Islanders roster, no matter if he is in the top six or not. He is a talented young player who is only going to continue to develop.
This season Dal Colle became a regular in the Islanders lineup. Playing regularly this season gave Dal Colle the opportunity to get his feet wet and develop more confidence so he can make a bigger impact next year. Dal Colle is a talented young player that has the potential to grow.
Finally, Ho-Sang concludes the list. If Ho-Sang is willing to sign, the Islanders should oblige. Ho-Sang and the Islanders organization have had their fair share of problems. From Ho-Sang showing up late to training camp, being a problem in the locker room, to publicly criticizing the team’s decision to send him down to the minors, Ho-Sang and the Islanders relationship has not been an easy one to say the least.
Similarly to Dal Colle, with Ho-Sang the Islanders should not lose sight of the fact that some players take longer to mature. The Bruins traded Tyler Seguin, in part because of some off-ice problems and look how that ended. Rather than finding themselves in a position of regretting a trade or even worse, a release, the Islanders should try and re-sign Ho-Sang. His speed is far from ordinary at the NHL level, and his defensive game will only continue to get better over time.
If the Islanders can re-sign their players, and maybe add a free agent or two, they have a better chance of making the postseason again next year. Otherwise, the Islanders will find themselves in a position of missing another postseason after a successful year, continuing to face difficulties as an inconsistent franchise.