For the second straight year, the New York Islanders are watching the Stanley Cup Final. They were a game closer this year than last at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, taking them right to the limit of a seventh game.
But alas, the result ended up the same.
Losing on a shorthanded goal, that resulted from a soft cross-checking penalty against Blake Coleman that went unpenalized both ways throughout the course of this series, and the entire playoffs, to be honest, is the cruelest form of karmic intervention.
Brock Nelson inexplicably curled away from Ryan McDonagh, not once, but twice, allowing him time to decide a better course up-ice than your typical shorthanded dump-out. Nick Leddy and Josh Bailey both went to Anthony Cirelli, while Yanni Gourde streamed off the bench and Kyle Palmieri was puck watching just outside his two teammates.
That was enough for the Lightning, who played like champions in locking down their defensive end, allowing only 18 shots, six high-danger chances and blocking 21. The Islanders had an expected goals for of 1.63 for Game 7, and ended up scoring none.
In listening to the players on Sunday, the pain was evident and very fresh, mostly in Scott Mayfield’s voice. That is a good thing. Before you feel too sorry for them, pain feeds desire. Desire feeds improvement. This team knows exactly how close they were, they don’t need to be reminded. The only caveat to that is the fact that it’s so very difficult to even get to this point, final four, one game away. These moments are so precious and fleeting, the guarantee of being able to return is the farthest from a guarantee.
With that being said and a cap crunch looming, here’s how the Islanders offseason will be impacted by some of their biggest looming questions.
Which Islanders player leaves in Expansion Draft
There will be plenty on these pages in the coming weeks on who might or might not be protected, but this is the first step in team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello’s off-season work.
Jordan Eberle shouldn’t be in jeopardy and there could be a trade to ensure that the Islanders get away with not protecting players such as Casey Cizikas, allowing time for important discussions to take place. Nick Leddy could be the most at risk and could be attractive to the Seattle Kraken as a puck-moving defenseman, as long as they didn’t notice how Leddy seemingly lost his legs as the season went along.
Forget about the fantasy of them taking Andrew Ladd off Lou’s hands. It’s just not in the cards for the Islanders to shed Ladd’s albatross of a contract in the expansion draft. That sounds like a condemnation of Ladd himself, but it’s not personal. New York could really use his salary cap space, especially since he will likely never suit up for the team again.
Lamoriello said in his season-ending media session, Ladd “is healthy, but I cannot discuss his future at this time.”
Free Agency – big decisions
This is the biggest threat to the Islanders’ current group. It’s simply very difficult to keep teams together year over year and rise to a past season’s point of ascension. According to Puckpedia, New York has just shy of $6 million in cap space with 17 skaters signed.
Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, which cost Lamoriello his 2021 first-round draft selection, are both unrestricted free agents. The feeling is that by the time the Islanders address their own, Palmieri, who does want to return, might not want to wait it out. Zajac might wait a bit longer and ride out the results of the discussions with Cizikas, who is a player that is certainly not at all guaranteed to return. That would be a huge blow, not only to what New York likes to do on the ice but off the ice as well.
Andy Greene would like to return and would be in no rush to force Lamoriello’s hand before all other business is taken care of.
On the restricted front, Michael Dal Colle, Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech, and Ilya Sorokin do not yet have any leverage, even though all are arbitration-eligible.
Creativity is going to have to be the theme once Seattle makes their selections and the Islanders get down to their own.
Additions? Can they even think about it?
The addition might have been in the press box for the entire Tampa series – Oliver Wahlstrom. Trotz said Sunday that he has no regrets for his decision during the semi-final.
“I don’t question any decisions,” Trotz said. “If you could sit in the coaches’ room and know the injuries and all the possibilities, it’s easy to play fantasy hockey when you don’t have all the information sometimes.”
What fairly comes with the job is questioning and Trotz deserves to be questioned for his decision to not play Wahlstrom. New York scored 11 goals in seven games and went 1-17 on the power play. Would Wahlstrom have won them the series? Heck, I don’t know, but I’m with the majority that feels the Islanders might not have fielded their absolute best lineup. A shooter could have given you more of a puncher’s chance.
In terms of outside additions to bolster the Islanders attack – seems like we’ve been talking about that for 20 years – with the current cap situation and all the internal housekeeping that needs to occur, I don’t see anything of significance happening in free agency.
So, here we are. It still stings the fans, it still stings the players. But that sting will fade.
And attention will quickly turn to Lamoriello to enact his offseason plan.