Another season gone. Another season without a Stanley Cup championship. That makes 38-years since the Boys from Long Island last sipped champagne from Lord Stanley’s Chalice. Each of those dark 38-years has ended far too soon for Islanders fans, each with a mixture of sadness, grief and pain. But this one, this one is different. Unlike years past when the Islanders gave off a feeling of being happy to simply make the playoffs, this year there were high expectations and simply making it wasn’t enough.
In the moments after the Nassaumen watched their season officially come to an end at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, there were a lot of raw emotions. Mathew Barzal openly shed tears as he addressed the media following the team’s season-ending loss. Other players fought back tears. Some had their voices crack every few words. The pain was real; especially for a team that had come so close.
The Islanders lost Game Seven 1-0 to the defending Stanley Cup champions. And while injuries are certainly part of the game, you couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been different for the Isles had they been fully healthy.
It’s not an excuse. Every team goes through it; specifically at this time of year. But you can’t tell me that the Islanders still would have lost Game Seven had Anders Lee, Oliver Wahlstrom and J.G. Pageau all been at optimal health.
Anders Lee tore his ACL during the season and missed the second-half of the year as well as the playoffs. Oliver Wahlstrom was injured during the Isles’ first-round series against the Penguins. Wahlstrom was deemed healthy enough to skate with the team during the Semi-Finals and was an option to play towards the end of the series; although, Head Coach Barry Trotz chose not to change his lineup. And Pageau, he played every game while nursing a mysterious ailment that clearly negatively affected his performance.
When the Isles addressed the media during their breakup day, Pageau told reporters he’s “a little banged up” but refused to use it as an excuse for his performance. It’s an admirable sentiment but there’s no doubt he was compromised against the Lightning and couldn’t play the way he normally would.
Let’s put the injuries aside briefly and get into several takeaways from today’s breakup day.
Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Casey Cizikas and Andy Greene headline the Isles unrestricted free agent group while Adam Pelech, Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin headline their list of restricted free agents.
In an ideal world, each of these players would be re-signed in short order and the Isles would then go out and add a couple key pieces in free agency or via trades. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world. There’s a salary cap and due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cap is remaining flat for a couple seasons to help the NHL offset some of its financial losses.
Sorokin is a must to re-sign as he’s the goaltender of the future for the Islanders. This was his first season in the NHL and he clearly has what it takes to one day be an All-Star in net. With Semyon Varlamov still entrenched as the starter, GM Lou Lamoriello needs to get Sorokin under contract for a very responsible number — think under $3M AAV.
Zajac, is an interesting situation, but he didn’t really seem to fit the Isles’ system after being acquired. His return likely hinges on what happens with Cizikas.
In regards to Cizikas, Trotz told reporters “He’s an Islander. You know it and I know it.” Matt Martin added: “He has my number and knows he can call me if he wants to talk. But he has his own decisions to make. I’m not going to involve myself for no reason. I think I know where his heart is and I think the team would love to have him back as well.”
Cizikas has been a member of the Islanders since the 2011-12 season and has been a key piece of the team’s “Identity Line.” You’d have to think the team wants one of its heart and soul players back. He’s a leader in the room, but he’s looking for a raise over his current AAV of $3.35M. Might a $4M AAV get it done? We shall see. But if Cizikas is re-signed, then the likelihood of Zajac returning drops to zilch.
Pelech and Beauvillier are core players for the Islanders and each need a raise over their current AAVs of $1.6M and $2.1M respectively. Pelech plays on the team’s top D-pair with Ryan Pulock and Beauvillier, who is rather streaky as a goal-scorer, is firmly entrenched as one of the team’s top-6 forwards. There’s no chance the Isles let either of them leave.
Greene and Palmieri each expressed a desire to return but the numbers likely don’t work in their favor; a fact Palmieri seemed to acknowledge during his media zoom call. “It was an incredible opportunity for me and I would love to keep that going. There is the business side of it…If it was just for that short bit, I’ll remember it forever.”
Greene likely has the better chance of returning as he’ll cost far less, but at his age there’s no guarantee the Isles choose to re-up with him.
With Seattle joining the NHL as its 32nd team, every other team, with the exception of Vegas, will lose one player to the Kraken. That means somebody from the Islanders is heading to the Pacific Northwest.
Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey are two of the names who have been bandied around as potential departures. Both provide a certain level of leadership and offense to the Islanders, so either would be a huge loss.
Is it possible somebody else goes to Seattle? Absolutely!
But until the Kraken make their formal announcement of who they’ve picked the Islanders will be in wait-and-see mode.
Most of the players spoke at length about how much The Coliseum means to them, personally and as a team. There’s no denying the atmosphere at The Coliseum was a huge factor in the playoffs this year as Islanders fans routinely rocked The Old Barn and gave the Boys from Long Island an overwhelming home-ice advantage.
“It was unbelievable,” said Varlamov. “Hands down we have the best fans in this league. They bring so much excitement during the game. It’s just an amazing and unbelievable atmosphere.”
But will that carryover to UBS Arena?
There’s no doubt the franchise and the fanbase are looking forward to the move, however, until everybody gets settled into the new digs, it’s going to be curious to see if The Coliseum atmosphere can be replicated or not.
And according to Trotz, he fully expects the team to open next season on the road to give UBS a little extra time to get ready for the Islanders.
CAPTAIN ANDERS LEE
With their Captain sidelined after surgery to repair his torn ACL it was an adjustment for the Isles to get back on track without Lee in the lineup. And Lee did everything he could to help the transition be as seamless as possible.
In regards to the effect Lee had on the team from an off-ice perspective, Palmieri told the media: “he’s the leader of this group and you see the way he carries himself. You gotta feel for him. Each day he came in with a smile on his face and was emotionally part of this group.”
Lee did give us an update on his recovery though and it’s a positive one. “I’m on track. I was able to do a lot of really good things in the last 13 or 14 weeks. Looking forward to continuing on that path and being ready for training camp.”
Hopefully he’s in the Opening Night lineup, because the Isles are a different offensive team without him.
STANLEY CUP ASPIRATIONS
It obviously hurts to get this far and to still come up short. There’s no way around that. Luckily this is a team that is in the middle of its Stanley Cup window and should have many more bites at the apple.
“There will always be a sting,” said Trotz. “We’re continuing to forge forward.”
Barzal added: “I think anytime you get close as we did to the Stanley Cup it drives you and keeps that fire lit.”
Matt Martin summed it up like this: “We want to win a Stanley Cup. We’ll regroup and we’ll try again next year.”
The fire is there, now the Islanders just need to tweak their roster to get over the hump. And we’ll be here to keep you updated every step of the way.