"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."
-Robert Frost 1915
"A few years ago we knew we'd go through some rough patches...and what doesn't kill you will make you stronger. We're going to keep working at it, both as a staff and as players, and we're going to get better every day. This is a team, to me, that can rattle off several wins in a row."
-Garth Snow 2011
A look at the standings will show the Islanders are in a precarious position. They currently sit 10 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (that's surprising right there) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They also sit only 1 point above the Carolina Hurricanes for the worst spot in the conference.
While 10 points is not an insurmountable lead, the fact is the Islanders are closer to the absolute bottom of the NHL (9 points away) than they are to a playoff spot. With 42 games left in the season, history shows that the Islanders can not afford to fall any farther back if they have any notions of making the playoffs.
The NHL's biggest point differential ever overcome during a season to make the playoffs was 12 points, done by our current Islanders forefathers back in 1993-94. It gets even dicier for the Isles because the greatest point differential overcome since the introduction of the shootout was 11 points, done by the Sharks in 05-06 and the Blues in 08-09.
So the Islanders clearly don't have any wiggle room being behind by 10 points at practically the midway point of the season. That makes the next two weeks pivotal as to what the Islanders will be playing for in the final two and a half months of the season. The Islanders have 8 games upcoming before the All-Star break, 7 of them against Eastern Conference foes, including a handful of games against teams they need to climb over to get to the playoffs.
If the Islanders can't make up any ground, or worse lose ground, by the All-Star break, then management will have to make a decision. They could continue to play the current team as is, try and rattle off several wins in a row like Garth Snow thinks they can, and continue chasing the pipe dream that would be the playoffs.
The other option, a month before the trade deadline, would be to try and shed some of the players who do not figure into the Islanders future plans, give the players who do figure into those plans regular playing time and responsibilities, and continue to get better every day, like Garth Snow suggested they should be doing.
Obviously the cap floor will figure into those decisions (unfortunately), and there will be little to no value for any of the players deemed expendable. Evgeni Nabokov would probably fetch the best (and only) ransom, and the rest (Rolston, Reasoner, Pandolfo, Staois, Jurcina, Eaton, Mott...my fingers are getting tired from typing, but there's a lot of guys) wouldn't even fetch us a $25 gift card to Sizzler.
But if the Islanders hit the magic 12 points out of a playoff spot by the All-Star break, it will be important for the players that the team will count on in the future, to use the rest of 2011-12 to grow. This would include Nino Niederreiter getting more than 9 minutes a game. It would also include seeing a healthy David Ullstrom getting 3rd line minutes, and Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey seeing an increased role in the team's offense outside of 3rd line minuites. It would most definitely include keeping Kevin Poulin up with the big club, and making him part of a regular goalie rotation.
And if sending a gaggle of veterans the way of Jon Sim, and releasing them, helps free up time for the team's future players, then it must be done. If we're getting nothing in return for any of them, and they're not going to be on the roster next year (and let's hope that's the case), then it doesn't hurt the Islanders one way or another to cut the cord on these space fillers and provide some on the job training for their younger talent.
Even with a slew of teams to leapfrog, the Islanders have every reason to come out firing the next two weeks and try to cut their deficit to as little as they possibly can. Will all the ups and downs of the 2011-12 season, the playoffs are still an obtainable goal. But the Islanders have an uphill battle, and that battle needs to start on Thursday against the Flyers.
Come the morning of January 25, the Islanders will be at a fork in the road. A path will need to be chosen and followed into the off season. Maybe Mr. Frost's words will be heeded. Because for the good of the future of the franchise, Islanders management will need to choose wisely.