For the fifth straight season, the New York Islanders have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, leaving their shrunken, but devoted fan base wondering if there's any improvement on the horizon for this beleaguered franchise.
Since being saved by current owner Charles Wang when he took over in 2000, the Islanders have only qualified for the playoffs four times and in recent years appear to be spinning their wheels, unable to climb out of fifth in the Atlantic Division, let alone make progress toward playoff contention.
Wang continues to have confidence in GM Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano, confirming in a recent interview both would return next season.
That decision isn't sitting well with some Islanders critics, who feel Capuano is ill-suited to guide the young team, while chastising Snow for, among other things, the mishandling of 19-year-old rookie left wing Nino Niederreiter.
Despite their struggles to develop into a playoff contender, the Islanders have a decent core of talent around which to build.
Twenty-one-year-old star center John Tavares has blossomed as their franchise player. Left winger Matt Moulson recently reached a career-best in goals with 35, while playmaking right winger P-A Parenteau had a career-high 67 points.
Center Frans Nielsen matched his career-best in points with 44, while right winger Kyle Okposo regained his offensive touch after a slow start to the season, reaching 21 goals and 42 points.
Defenseman and team captain Mark Streit showed few after-effects from last year's season-ending shoulder injury by posting up 46 points. Second-year blueliner Travis Hamonic and third-year D-man Andrew MacDonald continue to show promise.
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who refused to join the club when first claimed off waivers from Detroit late last season, had a solid outing between the pipes this season, provided the Islanders with the kind of experienced starting goaltending they'd lacked for some time and signed an extension.
Nevertheless, Snow must address several significant problem areas to get the Isles out of their current rut and into playoff contention next year.
Despite the strong performance from Tavares, Moulson and Parenteau, the Islanders were among the lowest scoring teams in the league this season. Approaching the final weekend of the regular season, only Minnesota, Los Angeles and Columbus had scored fewer goals.
Okposo's first half struggles were partly to blame, as was the decline in left winger Michael Grabner's production, which dropped from 34 goals last season to only 17.
The Isles’ offense will take a further hit if Snow is unable to re-sign Parenteau, who is eligible for UFA status this summer.
Arthur Staple of Newsday reported the winger wants to remain an Islander, but is seeking a four-year, $16-million contract, which he might not get from Snow.
Unless Parenteau agrees to fewer years and dollars, he’ll likely be moving on this summer, leaving a gap Snow will have to fill via trade or free agency.
Staple pointed out the Islanders’ most glaring need was for swift, physical defensemen who can keep pace with their young, fast forwards.
Their defensive game could use improvement. They gave up the fourth-most goals-per-game (only Toronto, Tampa Bay and Columbus were worse), while their penalty-kill ranked 22nd overall.
Blueliners Mark Eaton, Milan Jurcina and Steve Staios are UFAs this summer. Staios recently expressed interest in returning, but it has yet to be determined if any of those three fit into Snow's plans for next season.
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of fleet-footed, physical blueliners available among this summer's crop of unrestricted free agents, so Snow will be pushed into the trade market.
It remains to be seen who'll back up Nabokov next season. Rick DiPietro remains under long-term contract, but the last time he had a healthy NHL season was 2007-08 and, at this stage in his career, he cannot be relied upon to play a half-season, let alone a full one.
Al Montoya is an unrestricted free agent, but isn't expected to be re-signed, as they could employ either Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson to back up Nabokov.
Snow and Capuano may still have the confidence of Islanders ownership, but if this team continues to stagnate, both could find themselves unemployed by next April.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.