RALEIGH , N.C. — The template of success under Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz has been established, the baseline of accountability and work ethic etched now into the logo made famous by the dynasty teams.
But even though there is so much of which to be proud, the Islanders lost not only a series when they were swept out of Round Two with Friday’s 5-2 defeat to the Rock Candy Canes, they lost a massive opportunity to, you know, actually compete for the Stanley Cup in this year when it is possible that four wild cards will advance to the conference finals.
Scenarios like this don’t necessarily come around every year.
“When you work so hard to get to this position and have it end like this, it’s hard,” said an emotional Anders Lee, who did not have an especially good series. “There were a lot of things nobody expected us to do, but you get this far, expectations change.”
No longer a laughingstock. No longer the NHL’s Shipwreck Franchise. The Islanders will be taken seriously. This all represents a quantum leap in credibility. But though their progress was as incontrovertible as it was dramatic and unexpected, it is not as if the team can count on being back in the same place next year.
If for no other reason — and there are other reasons, manifest among them a lack of upper-echelon, high-octane offensive talent beyond Mat Barzal — that it is impossible to project what the roster will look like next season.
It is a Lamoriello team, so therefore little smoke surrounded the pending free agency of the core of the team. Lee, the captain, can go to market on July 1. Robin Lehner, the goaltender who reversed his life and career, can go free. Brock Nelson, the senior Islander, is a pending free agent and so is Jordan Eberle, the sniper who is essentially out the door.
The Islanders have oodles of cap space, perhaps up to $34 million, but available money has never necessarily been known to burn a hole in this general manager’s pockets. How much will he ante up in order to prevent a well-respected captain from defecting for a second straight season? How much will he throw in the pot to keep Lehner, pulled through no fault of his own at 3:17 of the second period after Carolina scored twice in 66 seconds to grab a 3-1 lead and essentially put away the series. Will the GM go all in on Nelson, who had little in this series after an impressive performance against Pittsburgh?
And how will the team add more elite skill and additional polish to the grind? Will Lamoriello commit to a bidding war for the Blue Jackets’ impending free agent winger Artemi Panarin that will surely include the Rangers and Panthers?
Could he, would he, pull a loo-loo and offer-sheet Toronto’s Mitch Marner?
Another question: Will the players, so willing to sacrifice for the greater good following the defensive follies of the previous season, be as keen on grinding when the big bucks still go to people who can put numbers on the board?
Picking up where they left off may not be so simple given the volatility of the roster. This, too, of course, with newly established respectability, comes a burden. The Islanders won’t sneak up on anybody next time around.
That’s the circle of life in the NHL.
The Islanders were beaten at their own game, and increasingly decisively so as the series moved from Brooklyn to ACC country. Their top guys were outclassed by the Hurricanes’ Justin Williams, Jordan Staal and Sebastian Aho, the latter a marquee talent in the making. The Islanders never were able to apply more than modest pressure against Curtis McElhinney, the journeyman backup who was pressed into action when Petr Mrazek went down 6:27 into the second period of Game 2.
The fact is the Islanders scored all of two goals at five-on-five (the second recorded by Nelson with 1:09 remaining in the series) in the series while notching three on the power-play. They were chasing the faster Canes just as they chased the series from the moment Staal scored in overtime for a 1-0 Game 1 victory.
“I think it was the trigger moments,” said Barzal, who did create a bit of time and space through the first half of this one. “If we’d score, they’d score. Carolina did to us what we did to Pittsburgh. We just never could get a hold of it.”
The season was a smashing success. It is insane to frame it any other way.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t go further,” said Trotz, who worked wonders. “But you have to start somewhere.”
And when next season starts, the Islanders will have to start all over again. But with who, nobody can quite know.
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