The devastation felt in the immediate aftermath of Game 6 was gone, but the hurt of a collective dream gone unfulfilled lingered.
Almost 36 hours after Brooks Orpik's first career Stanley Cup playoff goal, a slap shot at the 7:49 mark of overtime Saturday night which ended their season, the Islanders congregated at the Nassau Coliseum Tuesday to say goodbye and reflect on a season in which the franchise qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
“It’s tough,” Matt Moulson said. “It’s a crappy feeling.”
Despite acknowledging the pain of a season ended far too soon, the Islanders spoke of a sense of accomplishment in transforming the perception of the franchise and expressed excitement about what the future may hold. The Islanders compiled a 24-17-7 mark in the regular season and fought the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Penguins to six games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
“We’ve come a long way,” John Tavares said. “Obviously we’re getting a new home in a couple years, here. You can really see the team we’re becoming. I, for sure, think it will change a lot of the perceptions that were out there. I think it’ll make guys think a little bit. [Whomever general manager] Garth [Snow] and the organization approaches, we’ve got a great thing going here and it’s a great time to be part of the New York Islanders.”
Organizational decision-makers have been unequivocal about their plan to rebuild the franchise from within. Already, there are pieces in place. Tavares is a Hart Trophy finalist. Kyle Okposo began to play the power-forward game which made him the seventh-overall pick in the 2006 draft. Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald are a solid shutdown pair.
And more is on the way. Prospects Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart made an impression at training camp before being returned to their junior teams. Brock Nelson did not look out of place during his 7:44 of ice time in Game 6 Saturday night.
All three could earn jobs next year.
“My mindset doesn’t change as far as guys that [can] produce [and] help us are going to play, but all of the personnel questions are going to have to go towards Garth,” head coach Jack Capuano said.
Snow was unavailable for comment.
The stockpiling of cost-controlled assets has been vital for the Islanders, who have not been able to attract high-end free agents. Last season, the Islanders had the NHL’s third-lowest payroll at $53 million.
That number will assuredly change even with the league salary cap ceiling falling to $64.3 million next year. Fourteen players are free agents this summer, with Hamonic (restricted free agent), Josh Bailey (RFA), Mark Streit (unrestricted free agent), Evgeni Nabokov (UFA) and Kevin Poulin (RFA) being the most critical signings.
Nabokov reiterated his desire to re-sign yesterday. When asked directly if he and his agent had spoken with Snow, Nabokov said they talked briefly “three, four weeks ago” because the goaltender did not want to divide his focus between the team’s playoff push and contract negotiations.
While it is likely Nabokov re-signs, Streit could be a different matter. The 35-year-old is the pre-eminent defensemen in a rather mediocre market. Streit played in all 48 games last season and recorded 27 points (six goals and 21 assists) while averaging 23:35 of ice time. The Top-4 defenseman was minus-14 and had 22 penalty minutes, as well.
There will be suitors, especially for teams looking to improve their power play from the back end.
“This year is a little bit of a different situation because my contract is running out,” Streit said. “I’ve been here five years and played with a lot of great players. It’s a great organization. I love the team and living on Long Island. I really want to come back.”
He added that his representation would reach out to Snow shortly.
Then there’s Tim Thomas. Acquired in February from the Bruins in exchange for a conditional second-round draft pick in 2014 or 2015, Thomas did not play this season as he took a year’s sabbatical. Thomas is also an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.