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The post-Tavares era is here all too soon for the New York Islanders

As months turned to weeks and weeks turned to days and then hours, minutes and eventually seconds, the Islanders became all too aware that their worst fear heading into this off-season could become a reality, that after every attempt to sign captain John Tavares, New York could enter next season without their superstar center in the lineup. Worse yet, they realized he could be lost for nothing, walking as a free agent and leaving the Islanders without receiving a single asset in return.

Those fears and concerns were heightened in the time leading up to midnight, when the time for Tavares to stick around on an eight-year term — and the Islanders were the only team able to offer him that extra season — would pass by for good. And as 12:00 a.m. turned to 12:01 a.m., it seemed all the more realistic that Tavares was packing his bags and leaving. This is to say that when word came down that the Islanders were indeed out of the running, when Tavares had made his decision and it was not New York, the fanbase was collectively prepared, understanding that they were primed to lose inarguably the greatest talent the team has seen in the modern era.

This is, no doubt, the worst-case scenario of all the worst-case scenarios. Not only is the team’s franchise center long gone, he remains in the Eastern Conference where he can torment New York for the next seven seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while it would have been equally painful to lose him to the San Jose Sharks, at least that would have resulted in only one clash with No. 91 each season, with the only other potential head-to-heads coming in the Stanley Cup final.

Now that the dust has begun to settle on Tavares’ monumental — and for the Islanders, torturous — signing in Toronto, New York is faced with a new reality: the post-Tavares era. So, now with more than $30-million in cap space, more than a third of which was previously reserved for ‘JT,’ the Islanders need to decide how to proceed.

Given New York and their faithful are in desperate need of a pick-me-up right now, let’s start with a Mr. Brightside approach to the state of affairs on The Island. And that begins with the realization that while Tavares is gone, few teams seem as primed to replace one high-scoring center with another quite like the Islanders from an offensive standpoint.

Mat Barzal broke out as a rookie last season, putting up a point total not seen since Evgeni Malkin made his debut more than a decade ago. That Barzal won the Calder Trophy was a given, he was the hands-down victor almost from the moment Vancouver Canucks standout Brock Boeser fell injured. And the only question for Barzal, it appears, is what he manages to do for an encore. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that playing against the other team’s top defenders on a nightly basis, a situation that No. 91 sheltered him from last season, will truly test his offensive mettle. But Barzal wasn’t playing against slouches last season. He skated against a decent quality of competition and still dazzled and dangled his way to a 22-goal, 85-point campaign.

Barzal isn’t alone as an offensive asset that can replace some of the lost offense, either. Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee scored 60-plus points each last season, and the likes of Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle each bring with them some nice offensive upside. The Islanders, who were a top-10 offensive club last season, won’t be hard-up for offense, even if there is a noticeable downturn on the top line without one of the league’s most savvy scorers.

The other positive for the Islanders is that there are tools in the system. Granted, it’s likely to take some time before 2018 first-round picks Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom earn their way into big roles with the big club, Kieffer Bellows might be on the fast track and defenseman Sebastian Aho looks primed to make the leap to the NHL in the near future.

And while questions permeate the rest of the roster, the fact of the matter is that New York would have had to answer many of the same questions with far less money to spend if Tavares was on board. So, yes, there are still many concerns on the blueline given the Islanders had the league’s worst defensive squad in the league last season. But on top of veterans Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, the Islanders managed to re-sign Thomas Hickey and have Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield in the fold. It’s the same cast as last season, but the guidance of coach Barry Trotz could make a noticeable difference. Plus, with money to spend, maybe there’s a deal to be made that brings the Islanders another true-blue top-four rearguard.

In goal, the concerns remain, too, but as with the defense, those issues would have been there with Tavares or not. And this could be the time for New York to worry not about trying to find a long-term solution but realizing that it’s OK to have a stop-gap in place right now. Islanders 2014 draft choice Ilya Sorokin is considered one of the best netminding prospects in the league. He’s almost certainly NHL bound in the near future. And if he is the No. 1 of the future, it’s all right to find a temporary solution in the likes of a Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard or Robin Lehner, although the latter has seemingly untapped potential.

There will be no way, particularly in the short term, to view Tavares’ exit as a positive. But practically speaking, the argument can be made that New York has more money to build around the youth of their roster and a greater opportunity to truly rejuvenate this team than they may have had if Tavares was retained at somewhere in the $12-million range. All is not lost in New York, even if it may feel that way today.

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