It sure sounded nice when Lou Lamoriello came out and said how much he believes in this Islanders group, and how, as team president, not making any moves before the Feb. 25 trade deadline was his vote of confidence. Oh, the players ate it up, reveling in their first-place standing and the slack-jawed reactions of those around the league looking up at them.
But the biggest question was one that went unanswered: Lamoriello believes in them to do what exactly? Win a Stanley Cup?
Because that is the only goal that exists. Either a team is trying to win this year, or it is building to win in the future. Any half-measure results in half-success, which is not success at all. Lamoriello, rightfully lauded as the best GM in New York-area sports history, knows that better than anyone. And yet, he still stood pat.
Of course, now that feels like a mistake. Since the deadline has come and gone, the team has lost three of four, the only win being that epic night on Thursday, when former captain John Tavares returned to the Coliseum. The Isles have since been leapfrogged by the Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division, and after getting another day off Monday before a home-and-home with the woebegone Senators, suddenly the six points that separates the Isles from being out of the playoffs seems all too real.
A collapse here would be catastrophic. It still seems unlikely for a team that has done nothing but show collective character this whole season. As first-year Isles head coach — and front-runner for the Jack Adams Award — Barry Trotz likes to say, they play with “backbone.”
But to think that the return of Thomas Hickey or Andrew Ladd from long-term injury was really going to create a boost in the same vein as a deadline pickup was pie-eyed optimism. Just as it is now to think that recalling Josh Ho-Sang or Michael Dal Colle will jump-start a stagnant offense, currently tied for 20th in the league at 2.83 goals per game — strangely the exact same number as the Rangers and Devils — with a power play ranked 25th (16 percent).
Fact is, the Islanders aren’t all that talented. No shock that Trotz nailed it on the head after the deadline when he said “the strength of our group is the group.” The commitment it takes for basically the same players to go from last in the league in goals against to first is staggering.
That also has something to do with the goaltending dramatically improving, with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss ranked second and third, respectively, in save percentage for netminders who have played 30 or more games.
Lehner could very well win the Masterton Trophy for his career resurgence after battling addiction and mental illness. And Lamoriello and ownership should be given all the credit for believing in him and taking a risk on a one-year, $1.5 million deal.
But there wasn’t a team out there — the Sharks come to mind — that wouldn’t have made a nice offer to rent him for the stretch run? Or, for that matter, how about renting any of the pending unrestricted free agents, like the entire top line of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle? With Lee in his first year of captaincy, it’s more likely a contract is pretty much done and just needs to be hammered out. But are Nelson and Eberle both going to re-sign or just walk out the door with nothing in return?
Of course, it’s very difficult to be a first-place seller at the deadline. That would have absolutely demoralized the group. And being an outright buyer, moving picks and young prospects for the sake of this season, would have been antithetical to Lamoriello’s plan to turn this team into a perennial contender.
It was a tough spot, and Lamoriello got handcuffed. Rest assured he will be first in line this summer for Artemi Panarin, if not also Erik Karlsson. The Islanders need what so many teams need, and that’s top-end talent. Maybe Mat Barzal is the future, and maybe he needs to pass the puck a little bit more, but he needs good players to pass it to.
Right now, the Islanders are still adjusting to that huge emotional high of the Tavares night. They’re still more than likely going to make the playoffs. But they will not win the Stanley Cup this year. So, what exactly did Lamoriello believe in?
At this point, what he’s asking the fanbase to do is believe in him. A leap of faith, indeed.
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