NHL playoffs: Islanders face off-season of upheaval
A day removed from their 4–0 elimination loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5, the New York Islanders can look back on their season with some measure of pride.
They finished the regular season with 100 points for the second straight year and second time in more than three decades. They won a playoff round for the first time in 23 years, knocking off the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers.
But as their meek second-round showing against the Lightning proved, the Isles dress a spotty roster blessed with one transcendent talent and not enough support. They still have a long way to go before they're considered a bona fide Stanley Cup contender.
And now, they face a summer of upheaval.
After more than a year of sharing power with Charles Wang, the new ownership group led by Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin will take full control of operations in July, leaving Wang in a minority status. What that means for the future of the organization is impossible to say, but there's a better than zero chance that they'll want to replace both general manager Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano and his staff.
It's an awkward bit of timing, though, as Snow will remain in place at least long enough to oversee the draft and the optimum window for trading defenseman Travis Hamonic, who wants to play of a team closer to his family's home in Western Canada.
Snow will also be the one addressing the futures of impending UFAs Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin. And with more than $54 million already committed to seven forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies, he won't be able to re-sign them all.
The 28-year-old Okposo has been a constant on the top line alongside John Tavares and fairly productive along the way, notching three seasons with at least 20 goals. That includes 2015-16, when he went 22-42-64 in 79 games.
But Okposo was a non-factor in the playoffs, scoring just two goals in 11 games. That might make it hard to stomach his ask, which is expected to be in the $6 million range, more than double his current hit of $2.8 million. It's likely he'll be wearing a different sweater next season.
Nielsen is regarded as one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and at 32 still has something to offer. He'll be looking to bump his current cap hit of $2.75 million to somewhere around $5 million. He's worth the money.
Martin led the league in hits for the fifth consecutive season and, with linemates Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, has been an integral part of what many consider to be the best fourth unit in hockey. But it would be foolish to overspend on that role. If another team wants to open its checkbook, Snow would be wise to thank Martin for his service and send him on his way.
The club is expected to re-sign RFA forwards Cizikas, Shane Prince, Ryan Strome and Alan Quine, along with goalie J-F Berube and defenseman Scott Mayfield.
Hamonic would be a tougher call, although the situation may have resolved itself. Capuano on Sunday left open the possibility that Hamonic might return to Brooklyn next season and now it looks like he may be willing to stay with the team after all.
If that's the case, it's a huge win for the organization. At 25, Hamonic is rounding into form as a unique top-four defender, a player who can dominate with his physical play. With him in tow, and Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech ready to slide into regular jobs next season, New York's blue line is well situated moving forward.
The Isles still need a lot of help up front, though. Fortunately, there's some hope in the system. Ryan Strome was wildly inconsistent and, at times, too easily distracted from the task at hand. But as frustrating as he was, there were also those glimpses of something special. The talent is there for him to become a productive top-six forward and he's now one year closer to maturing into that player. Recent first rounders Matthew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle enjoyed productive junior seasons and will battle for roster spots next season. Prince, Quine and Sebastian Collberg (the return on the Thomas Vanek debacle of two years ago) could fill support roles on the wings.
Given the Isles' abundance of prospects, there is some thought that Snow should deal some of them to fill immediate holes with veteran help rather than continue with the slow boil maturation process. Tavares is signed for two more seasons, but the window on his tenure may be closing fast if the Isles fail to acquire that badly needed support or take a step backward next season, and he ultimately decides to leave via free agency or simply becomes too pricey for the franchise.
It's also worth noting that the team's new home in Brooklyn turned out to be a mixed blessing in its first season. It was filled with electricity during the playoffs, but housed crickets and owls on many nights during the regular season. (The Isles ranked 28th in attendance at 13,636 per game.) The team's identity and, to a certain extent, its fanbase is still in flux.
This roster and franchise remain a work in progress, but at least there was more progress to report. That's something. What comes next will rely heavily on what Malkin and Ledecky have in mind and how they go about achieving it.