The New York Islanders have to meet three big needs if they are going to take it to the next level and win the Stanley Cup.
- They need more scoring
- They need to get younger
- They need better playoff production from Mathew Barzal, who remains unsigned; Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle.
Few expected the Islanders to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals last season because they were barely a .500 team in the regular season. Yet with a tight defensive structure and a strong work ethic, the Islanders took a superior Tampa Bay Lightning team to six games.
It shouldn’t have been that close. The Islanders didn’t have the firepower to compete with the Lightning, who could count on Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point for offense up front and defenseman Victor Hedman for both defense and offense on the back end.
Look at the scoring differential between the Lightning and Islanders during the regular season and you will get a sense of how lacking the Islanders were in scoring.
The Lightning had a +50 in goal differential, while the Islanders were -1, having scored 192 goals and given up 193 in the regular season. That’s not going to get it done if you want to win a Stanley Cup, no matter how much you turn it on in the playoffs.
No team in recent memory has won a Stanley Cup without a sizeable goal differential on the plus side. And few teams have won a championship without some elite scoring up front. The names Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Patrick Kane come to mind.
The Islanders might go deep in the playoffs again in 2020-21, but to get to the Stanley Cup, they need a pure sniper, either someone who can emerge from their current roster or someone acquired via a trade or free agency. Or by clever drafting, although that method takes time and luck.
It’s too early to tell how the most recent draft picks will pan out. The Islanders have had only one first-round draft pick in the last two seasons, and it’s a fool’s errand to project superstar success for first-round selections like Oliver Wahlstrom (first round, 2018) and Kieffer Bellows (first round, 2016), although they seem to have promise.
Welcome to the Show, Kieffer Bellows (@BellowsKieffer)!
— NHL (@NHL) February 7, 2020
Wahlstrom scored his fourth goal of the season for AIK in Sweden’s Hockey Allsvenskan league on Dec. 5. He has four goals and three assists through nine games after returning from an injury.
Last season, Bellows scored two goals in eight games for the Islanders after coming up from the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Like the Islanders dynasty of the 1980s, the club needs to build through the draft, and GM Lou Lamoriello understands that. In October, he traded defenseman Devon Toews to Colorado for second-round picks in 2021 and 2022. And the Islanders own first-round picks in 2021 and 2022.
In the short term, the Islanders need to clear up some salary-cap room and sign a free agent (Mike Hoffman is still available) or work a trade that will bring them a scorer who can collect 30 or 40 goals a season. Finding an elite scorer would be the most difficult job because superstar scorers don’t grow on trees.
Barzal skates like the wind and has superstar potential, but can he develop into a consistent 30-goal or 40-goal scorer? The jury is out on that one.
The team also needs to get younger.
They were the oldest team in the playoffs, averaging almost 30 years. While Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier are both 23 and represent the future, there are too many forwards who are 30 and over or pushing 30, such as Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle.
The problem with this aging lineup is that most of the older group are locked up contractually for years to come.
- Bailey, who is 30, is signed up to 2024.
- Eberle, who is 29, is signed through the 2023-24 season.
- Lee, who is 29, is signed through the 2025-26 season.
- Brock Nelson, who is 28, is signed through the 2024-25 season.
The third need is to have Eberle, Lee, and Barzal maintain their regular-season production levels through the playoffs.
Although Eberle was the double-overtime hero to force a Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Final, he struggled with only two goals the whole series, while Lee and Barzal did not score a single goal in the Lightning series.
If all three players bounce back, the Islanders have a chance to make a deep run again, especially if the rest of the defensive structure holds up.
But until all three needs are met, the Islanders are unlikely to win a Stanley Cup anytime soon.