For Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, the challenge is easy to explain, hard to address.
With just over a fifth of the regular season gone, the Isles are fighting for a playoff spot in the very competitive MassMutual East Division. As Lamoriello and Trotz assess a roster averaging north of 30-years-old, they know that before long the window of opportunity to realize championship aspirations will start to close for the current group. Moreover, as with most NHL teams, a series of long-term contracts have not aged well, leaving the team with very little salary cap flexibility and hampering its ability to pick up another piece.
Even as several players approach the end of their contracts (Casey Cizikas comes to mind), and other players await significant raises (notably Adam Pelech and possibly Ilya Sorokin), the Isles will lose another player in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken. Matters look brighter the following season, when a number of contracts expire, freeing up some money. Whether the current core continues to improve or begins to drop off as more players move into their 30s remains to be seen. Although the latter is more likely, the same was true of the post-dynasty Islanders of the 1980s.
Other NHL teams face similar problems.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks doled out big contracts to cornerstones of their championship teams, and now are struggling to reclaim their past glory, with cap restraints limiting their ability to add talent and at times forcing them to shed key players. But those teams won six of the last thirteen Stanley Cups, so at least their gambles paid off. In Pittsburgh, the new brass of Brian Burke and Ron Hextall will do what they can to give Sidney Crosby a chance at another Cup, but it will be challenging.
In contrast, the Islanders have engaged in a long-term rebuilding program that has been far less fruitful, having progressed just once to the semifinals (for the first time since 1993) during the same period.
They managed to survive John Tavares’ departure in 2018, and even improve. The current squad at its best can compete with any team in the league on any given night, but their lack of collective offensive punch means that their margin of error is exceedingly thin. It’s rare when they survive more than a few mistakes.
The Isles have a hard choice to make.
Should they go all-in all in with the current roster, knowing that it will be a tough slog (the struggles of Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson have magnified the offensive issues of the team)? Or is it time to give younger players a chance, knowing full well that they will make mistakes that the Islanders can ill afford?
Leo Komarov’s recent struggles seem to suggest that experienced veterans are not exempt from on-ice blunders. And the only way to see whether Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom, and company can make it is to play them, live with the mistakes, and see if they develop. It’s the same case with sophomore d-man Noah Dobson.
Does going with the kids come at the expense of the present group’s chances to win now (or very soon), at least as a group?
Probably, at least at first.
But at present Jean-Gabriel Pageau might remind us of his previous playoff exploits if he can count on having the same wingers so that they can develop some chemistry. Bellows and Wahlstrom have offensive upside, something this team dearly needs.
This team gave fans a playoff performance to remember last year. Still, was the end result a sign that they lacked what was needed to take the last steps?
Had this team more to show for its struggles, one might be tempted to stay the course a little longer. But it may well be the time to see if the youth should be given a chance to see if they can eventually advance the team further.
One thing is for sure: if they don’t play, we’ll never know.