It’s interesting how perceptions can change in such a short period of time. For example, does anyone feel a little less optimistic about the future of the New York Islanders now than they did when the playoffs began?
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Islanders were a 100-point team, a franchise that looked poised to eventually become a legitimate force in the NHL. But after being outplayed in the first round by the Florida Panthers and winning basically on the backs of Thomas Greiss and John Tavares, then meekly exiting in the second round to a team that was missing two key players, things don’t look quite so rosy now.
Now we’re left to focus on the uncertainty the Islanders face. Chances are Kyle Okposo, who has finished first or second in team scoring each of the past three seasons, is gone. We’re left to wonder about the future of Travis Hamonic, who loves being an Islander, but feels his Winnipeg roots pulling him back home. And those young players – Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome – who looked so promising not so long ago are prompting a lot of tough questions.
What to do with coach Jack Capuano, who was behind the strategies in Games 3 and 4 that saw the Islanders dominate in the first periods, then sit on their heels and withdraw into a defensive shell before losing in overtime? What about GM Garth Snow? There are so many loose ends for new owners Scott Malkin and Jonathan Ledecky to tie up. And how they do so will go a long way toward determining whether the Islanders are ready to truly make a jump into the NHL’s elite category or remained mired as a borderline playoff team that might be able to surprise and win a round or two in any given year.
In addition to Okposo, the Islanders have unrestricted free agents Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin to consider. And say what you will about Snow, but he was brilliant at getting star players under ridiculously team-friendly contracts, starting with Tavares. Prior to their contracts expiring, Snow had Okposo, Nielsen and Martin all on long-term deals that at up just $6.55 million in cap space. That’s incredible. And, in a way, Snow’s shrewd dealings may come back to haunt him because all three will now be intent on hitting home runs this time around. It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that each of the three will at least double his salary, regardless of where each ends up next season.
And then there is the looming situation with Tavares, whose six-year deal expires in two years, just a month before his 28th birthday. At $5.5 million per season, it might be the most team-friendly contract in the NHL today. So Tavares will get his money. But will money be the only issue?
This is just your trusty correspondent spitballing here, but methinks not. There is no other way of framing this, but the situation with the Islanders playing out of the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn is less than ideal. The ice is terrible, with the puck often bouncing around like the basketballs the arena was meant to accommodate. The commute is a killer, not allowing the players to go back home after the morning skate on game days.
And it doesn’t promise to get any better because unlike the basketball team – which has a practice facility in Brooklyn that allows them to play, practice and live in the same area – the Islanders remain stuck straddling their old home in Nassau County and their arena in Brooklyn. That’s because the Islanders this season purchased a bankrupt facility that is a stone’s throw from the old Nassau County Coliseum. They got a great deal, acquiring a $52 million facility for just $8 million. Earlier this season, Okposo blasted the ice surface at Barclays and was less than enthusiastic when he spoke of the logistical challenges facing the players.
And while Barclays is an intimate place to watch a game and the sightlines aren’t as bad as they’ve been made out to be, it’s hard to fathom how it could be a home for an NHL team for the next 24 years. It’s also difficult to imagine how the Islanders will not lose out on free agents, both their own and those from other teams, under the current arrangement.
So now, after the Islanders won their first playoff series in 23 years, we’re left again to wonder in what direction this ship is heading, both in the short- and the long-term.