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After stunning success, Islanders enter off-season with a few pressing questions

The Islanders ripped all pre-season predictions to shreds by playing into the second round of the post-season, but with their season over, New York enters an off-season with more free agent uncertainty and a few questions that need answering.

There has been some heartbreak to go around in New York over the past couple of days. Such is life for the Islanders and their faithful in the wake of a four-game playoff ousting at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, a sweep that came on the heels of New York’s own surprising four-game series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, a win that had some Islanders fans believing this group was one with a Stanley Cup destiny.

There’s truly no reason for great disappointment in New York, however. Told several months ago that the season would end this way, the Islanders, not to mention their diehard supporters, would have been beaming at the thought of this club defying all the pre-season prognostications. And that’s exactly what New York did.

With most picking the Islanders to slip to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference in the aftermath of John Tavares’ departure as a free agent, New York bucked the projections and rose into the race for top spot in the division, earned home-ice advantage in the opening round, swept a franchise that had only lost one of its past 10 post-season series and the Islanders earned a berth into the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since 1993. Slice it any way you want, that’s a successful season, one of which the franchise should be remarkably proud.

Unfortunately, the Islanders will only be able to enjoy and reflect on those successes for so long before the off-season reality sets in and questions about the future begin to be asked. And the first question, and arguably the biggest, is what to do with Robin Lehner.

The Islanders’ starting goaltender was the embodiment of New York’s season. Plucked off the scrap heap, Lehner penned the comeback story of the season. Early on, the story was that of his battle with addiction and mental health, but it ended as a story of shocking success. Not only did the 27-year-old, who was on a one-year, $1.5-million deal, piece together the best numbers of his career, he put himself into contention for the Vezina Trophy and is considered by some to be the frontrunner for the goaltender of the year honor.

Regardless of whether he wins the award, though, Lehner is in for a raise and one of significant proportions as he heads towards unrestricted free agency and he could command upwards of $4 million on the open market. But what the Islanders and Lehner will need to decide is what the proper term and salary is for the keeper moving forward. Those numbers, in years and dollars, can change things in a hurry, meaning Lehner isn’t necessarily a lock to return.

There are reasons beyond money and term, too, that could impact the Islanders’ decision on Lehner. For example, coveted crease prospect Ilya Sorokin could be on his way to New York by the end of next season. Would keeping Lehner around long-term, if that's what he desires, create a logjam? And with Greiss’ numbers this season, which were comparable to Lehner’s, is there any reason to commit anything from a few- to several-million dollars to keep the platoon of goaltenders together? Greiss is locked up for another season at $3.33-million and a similar contract for Lehner puts New York’s crease at upwards of $7 million. That’s an awful lot to sink into the blue paint, especially when such payment would be based entirely on a one-season sample.

That said, the safe money is that Lehner will return. Why wouldn’t he? He had success, he fit in well with the organization and Lehner was shown great respect in the late stages of Game 4 against Carolina when Trotz sent backup Thomas Greiss over to ask if Lehner wanted to finish what he had started. That’s some good will that can go a long way for team and player. And there’s no guarantee Sorokin is ready to step right into the NHL when he comes over from the KHL. Having some security beyond next season is worthwhile, and Lehner’s history is enough to suggest that even a dip in performance next season would leave the Islanders with a serviceable starting option.

Lehner isn’t the only free agent concern, however, and the reason it’s arguable that he’s the most important is that there are others – namely captain Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle – who can vie for that honor.

Lee, in particular, is an interesting case, and that another off-season is bringing with it another round of free agency for the Islanders’ captain is sure to give some in New York pause. Realistically, though, does anyone see Lee bolting? Though he’s coming off of a down year, scoring 28 goals and 51 points the season after a 40-goal, 62-point output, Lee is a proven commodity and top-six fixture who is about to get his payday. He’s not looking at Tavares-type money, either, which should make this deal an easier one for New York to manage, and a safe bet probably sees him with a cap hit somewhere in the $7-million range come next season on a long-term deal.

Eberle is a different story, though. Fresh off the worst regular season performance of his career, Eberle might be looking for a change of scenery and he’s likely to try to a deal similar to his current contract, which paid $6 million per season. Unlike Lee, it seems equally likely that Eberle will stay or go, and it might depend wholly on what happens with other free agents and what money is left remaining. For instance, New York will also have to explore potential contract extensions for Brock Nelson, who carried $4.25-million cap hit this season, and Valtteri Filppula, who was a handy fourth-line fit for the Islanders at $2.75 million. First and foremost, the free agent dollars are likely to be earmarked for Lehner and Lee. After that, the leftovers could go towards the rest of the group, Eberle included.

And what makes it less certain that Eberle returns is that it's not beyond reason that the Islanders keep a significant chunk of money available for July 1, particularly given the crop of pending free agents. 

For all New York’s successes this season, scoring was an issue. The Islanders finished 22nd in the NHL with 223 goals for, this despite ranking 13th in scoring chances and seventh in high-danger chances at 5-on-5 this season. So, if you’re Lou Lamoriello, why not explore the option of adding a high-powered scorer and proven finisher? And, would you look at that, there’s one potentially set to go to market in Artemi Panarin, who has been rumored to have a desire to play in New York. With $31.7 million in projected cap space entering the summer, according to CapFriendly, it’s not out of the question that the Islanders could make a big-money play for Panarin – or Matt Duchene or Jeff Skinner – after they’re done putting a bow on deals for their own pending UFAs. Any of the three could be an instant impact player, almost surely more offensively productive than an Eberle or Nelson and at the risk of getting of getting way, way, way ahead of ourselves here, it sure would be something to see what Panarin could cook up on Mat Barzal’s wing.

There are other areas for the Islanders to address, as well. Defensively, it’s not out of the question that New York shuffles the deck slightly or brings in another top-four defender to really solidify the blueline. There’s also no question room for some additional secondary scoring after decisions are made on Lee, Eberle, Nelson and others, and that could in turn help what was a woeful power play.

No matter who the Islanders retain or bring aboard, though, they’ve acquired something over the course of this season that they didn’t have entering it: expectations. And now the work the front office does over the next few months will determine whether or not New York can live up to those next season.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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