For the 17th time in the last 25 NHL seasons, the New York Islanders won’t be advancing to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of the last time the Islanders marched to the Stanley Cup Final, bringing to an end one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. Winners of four consecutive Stanley Cup and nineteen straight playoff series.
Those days are ancient history now. An entire generation has grown up never seeing the Islanders win a Stanley Cup. They’ve known nothing but decades of futility, supporting a poorly-run, badly-managed laughingstock.
I’m not an Islanders fan, but during their glory days I certainly respected that team. I said this before and I’ll say it again, it hurts to see this once-proud franchise reduced to its current state, mired in a seemingly never-ending culture of losing. As the late, great Hunter S. Thompson would ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Sure, the die-hard fans can convince themselves better days are around the corner, especially given their 7-2-1 streak entering this weekend. When you’re a fan of a sports team as lousy as the Islanders, you cling to whatever hope you can find, real or imagined.
Last season seemed so promising. They made the playoffs for the first time in six years, throwing a scare into the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins before falling in six games in the Conference Quarterfinals. Finally, the Islanders seemed to be turning the corner. Finally, better days were surely were ahead.
And then came this season, when everything again fell apart.
The goaltending was terrible, the defense walloped by injuries. And then the biggest blow, as superstar John Tavares suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Olympics.
GM Garth Snow’s early-season acquisition of Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres failed to pan out. He compounded that failure by failing to land a decent return when he moved Vanek to Montreal at the March trade deadline.
Following yet another failed season, what’s next for the New York Islanders?
If recent reports are true, they could get new ownership before next season, which will be their last at the Nassau Coliseum before their move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn next year. It’s anyone’s guess if Snow and head coach Jack Capuano retain their jobs.
The Islanders’ roster consists of one superstar (Tavares), an emerging star (Kyle Okposo), an underrated two-way center (Frans Nielsen), a solid defenseman (Travis Hamonic), a handful of promising youngsters (Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Calvin De Haan) and not much else.
Snow or his successor must address the club’s lack of depth throughout the lineup The priority is acquiring a genuine starting goalie. Snow gambled and lost bringing back Evgeni Nabokov for one more season. At this stage Nabokov is a reliable backup, not as a starter.
They must also get a good puck-moving defenseman to replace the departed Andrew MacDonald, as well as a strong shutdown blueliner. They need to bolster their second-line scoring depth, find a decent power forward and get stronger in the faceoff circle.
This off-season could be crucial for the Islanders long-term improvement. They must be a playoff club when they make the move to their new arena. More importantly, they must show Tavares that this season was an aberration instead of a harbinger of things to come.
Tavares has wholeheartedly bought into the role of franchise player. He genuinely wants to carry the Islanders back to glory. He’s only 23 and his best years remain ahead of him. However, his current contract expires in 2018. That’s only four years away. If the Islanders are still floundering, will he remain committed to the Islanders? Or will he decide his future belongs elsewhere? His fans want to believe he’ll stay no matter what. That’s not a certainty.
For far too long the Islanders have been mired in mediocrity. For too long they’ve been an also-ran, a league-wide punch line. It’s not funny anymore. It’s sad. It can be changed, with an owner willing to invest as much in a strong front office and coaching staff as he would his roster. Until that happens, the Islanders will remain a pathetic shell of a franchise and a continual target of mockery and scorn.