Despite a frantic scramble toward the end of the season, the New York Islanders fell just short of a third-consecutive playoff berth when the Toronto Maple Leafs locked up the final Eastern Conference postseason spot Saturday with a 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Moral victories provide little consolation for a franchise and its fan base, but it was remarkable that the Islanders were in contention given the miserable start they had to the 2016-17 season.
Under Jack Capuano, who had coached the team since the middle of the 2010-11 season, the Islanders sputtered to a 17-17-8 start, which was the third-worst record in the NHL.
After a 4-0 victory against the Boston Bruins in January, Capuano was canned for assistant coach Doug Weight and brought about an immediate revitalization.
The Islanders responded with seven wins in their first 10 games under Weight and charged back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Following a March 9 win over the Dallas Stars, the Islanders held the final wild-card spot in the East and held their playoff hopes in their own hands.
The wheels fell off after that though as New York took just 12 points out of a possible 28 over a 14-game stretch including three-straight losses to the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators and Philadelphia Flyers.
It allowed the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning to hop over them in the standings and created an insurmountable deficit.
Now the Islanders are facing an offseason of uncertainty involving all corners of the organization and it’s not only Weight’s status as head coach.
Starting in the front office, general manager Garth Snow has been in search of legitimate help to flank star center and captain John Tavares on the first line.
He let Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen walk in free agency last season and attempted to remedy the situation by bringing on Andrew Ladd. It didn’t work, as New York’s offense was inconsistent and unable to roll out a bona fide first line every night.
Snow had an opportunity to bring on some much-needed support at the trade deadline when the team was linked to Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene. But he was unable to get a deal done and the deadline went without the Islanders improving the roster.
It was a series of events that would ultimately doom the Islanders to a postseasonless year.
Snow cannot rest his hat on the signings of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy from two years ago that transformed the Islanders into a playoff contender. Ownership should have a short leash with him, within reason, and if he can’t find a way to upgrade the roster, it might be time to look for a new GM.
That means signing or trading for a premier-talent winger that can add a sizeable spark to New York’s offense.
As an offense heavily reliant on younger talent that has not developed as well as planned, management has some candidates to move in order to free up space.
Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome were once considered first-line talents, but have struggled to develop all-around games. If the organization believes a new wave of youngsters in Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Ho-Sang provide better options, there’s an even better chance of their departure.
Not to mention they also have Mathew Barzal and Michael Dal Colle brewing in the minors as possible top-six options. But that is a lot of expectation to put on young skaters.
If it is clear that there is a logjam for roster spots this offseason, one of those youngsters could be used as a possible trade chip.
Keeping them though would make it difficult to justify Josh Bailey’s presence on a top line despite putting up a career high in points this year. Now with nine NHL seasons under his belt, he hasn’t scored more than 16 goals in a single year.
The Islanders’ defense should not be exempt from tinkering as well this offseason. Boychuk and Leddy are the surefire centerpieces of the blue line, but the other four defensemen behind them should be subject to change.
Travis Hamonic was dreadful this season, posting a minus-21 in just 49 games. The defenseman with the second-worst plus/minus was Leddy, who posted a somewhat acceptable minus-six in 80 games.
At 26 years old, Hamonic was almost dealt last season due to homesickness. There were plenty of suitors that could be re-visited if Hamonic was made available once again.
Questions will also crop up around goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s future, as he will be in the final year of his contract. Having already seen his name floated around the trade market this year, Halak was sent down to the AHL after Thomas Greiss won the starting job and inked a three-year deal.
If he isn’t guaranteed the starting job, Halak will not stay in New York meaning management should deal him as soon as possible and get something in return.