Islanders faltering, freeze looming: Now begins the denouement

So here we are. The Islanders have two more home games before the Olympic break, back-to-back against difficult opponents (Tampa Bay and Ottawa), with their two "size infusion" prospects assigned back to Bridgeport to beat Friday's roster freeze and spend the rest of February playing in the AHL. [Note: That may be the wrong assumption. During the NHL's holiday roster freeze, players can be called up "if roster space becomes available," but I've yet to see definitive word on how it applies to this very special Olympic freeze.]

The Islanders sit in 13th place with 56 points. To make what James Mirtle recently pegged as the minimum playoff threshold of 87 points in the East, they'd have to go 15-6-1 in their remaining 22 games. The Islanders have had no 22-game stretch that even comes close to that record. Their best stretch of the season was 10-3-1 -- including five shootout wins -- between Dec. 23 and Jan. 21. They enter the break still without injured Josh Bailey and Jack Hillen, two youngsters who have been big contributors during 2009-10's successful times.

If it's not clear to the players in the locker room (who understandably must keep the faith and try to entertain us to the end), it's clear to Garth Snow and fans what comes next:

A decision on Andy Sutton, a thorough exploration of what can be retrieved for a veteran goalie -- or two? -- a decision on Jeff Tambellini, and the work and evaluation that can convert Year 2 of the rebuild into a successful building block for Summer 3. While once I held the outside hope that the break could help rest the Islanders for a run while contenders' stars wore themselves out chasing gold, now that's moot. Now I just hope it allows a struggling and snakebitten John Tavares time to recharge.

Chris Botta listed a number of teams said to be interested in Sutton and/or Dwayne Roloson. Losing the pending UFA Sutton would mean losing a very steady defenseman who has shined this year and provided the majority of the blueline's physical play. If Snow cuts bait for an offer he can't refuse, I sure hope he has an aggressive summer plan to compensate. As we saw with Mike Komisarek last summer, size on the free agent market still comes at an exorbitant price.

The option to trade Roloson creates an interesting choice: It's hard to imagine Roloson, nearing The End, wouldn't like one more crack (or two) at a Stanley Cup run that hopefully does not end with a knee injury in the finals. He has been the better goalie this season and historically thrives with regular work; he would return higher value than Biron from a team that can fit his modest but higher salary and term. But does Snow trust the health and form of Rick DiPietro (2.60 GAA, but just .900 SV%) enough to make that leap? The goalie market is flooded, but Snow's summer replacement options are narrower than most because -- as we've seen with both Roloson and Biron -- it takes special circumstances for a proven NHL goalie to want to enter the shadow of the 15-Year Contract. Even more so now that DiPietro is back from rehab.

While Friday brings a roster freeze and the possibility of a trade in the next 24 hours, my gut says Snow takes the Olympic break to weigh his options -- including contract discussions with Sutton. Maybe even have another discussion with the coach about Tambellini who, at this rate, may play his final games in an Islanders uniform this weekend. [Or not: If Joensuu and Martin evade or otherwise are up outside the roster freeze, then Tamby may already be done. Regardless, he's...not in the long-term cards here.]

The season has transitioned from the outside hope of a playoff bubble run to the always more realistic evaluative mode. But as with last year's deadline buzz and post-deadline stress-free kids' play, there is more fun to be had.

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