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Notes from a Failed Rebuild: Unsolicited Advice for the Leafs and Oilers from the Islanders

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Hey, great job, guys. But it’s not over. Not by a longshot.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Washington Capitals
We won’t meet again... except in the regular season.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The best way to ruin a joke is to explain it. So, naturally, I’m going to do that very thing right now.

I said this on Twitter, moments after the Maple Leafs’ OT loss to the Capitals in Game 6 of their first round playoff series. Yeah, I didn’t think it was that funny, either.

I think the idea of it might have been misconstrued. Some of those re-tweets (particularly the ones from joyous Senators fans) probably saw it as a prediction of a quick demise for Toronto’s renaissance. Maybe some self-loathing Leafs fans also took it that way, too. Maybe some just thought I was being an idiot (always a possibility).

But my real point is that a team shouldn’t be satisfied by just having one good season and an exciting playoff run, nor should they expect a linear path to the promised land. The Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers - whose ride is still going - still have a long way to go before they can be considered true contenders.

We should know. We thought our guys were. In 2015, the Islanders finished third in the Metro Division with 101 points, their first triple digit season in decades. They were led by a then-24-year-old John Tavares, who was a Hart Trophy finalist and came within four lousy seconds of winning the Art Ross Trophy with 86 points. They had an actual starting goalie in Jaroslav Halak who set a franchise record for victories in a season. They had a roster stocked with drafted players and the fancy stats flowing in the right direction. They had acquired an excellent first defense pair a week before training camp, who both had career years and then re-signed longterm contracts to stay.

I mean, are we still talking about the Islanders here?

Yes. And that team gave the Caps all they could handle for six games before shrinking in the spotlight in Game 7. Still, they were tied at one with 10 minutes to go in that game before Washington simply hit the gas and pulled away.

Despite the loss, the Islanders had everything going for them as of that moment.

And then poof. It was gone.

They added just a back-up goalie and some AHL depth over the summer, but played the next season boring and safe and, on some nights, straight up unwatchable. Somehow, they earned another 100 points. And by the sheer force of will of Tavares and that same back-up goalie (who, in fairness, turned out to be pretty good himself), managed to win a playoff series, validating the inaction of the previous offseason.

A season later, the Islanders are out of the playoffs, missing the cut-off by a single point with a roster that can’t rightfully be called a rebuild anymore. They are free agents and old vets and depth guys and too many goalies. Their younger players had to wait for a coach to be fired to get regular ice time and an ounce of trust. That is, the ones who didn’t get sent back to junior or who spent the entire season in the AHL, anyway.

Now no one has any idea what kind of team the Islanders have. Are they a few tweaks from being at the top of the division again or a few losses from being just good enough to barely miss the playoffs again? Are they even going to make any tweaks? Can they make any tweaks with the majority of the roster already signed for next season?

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about this topic anymore this summer because this and other dead horses have been beaten so bloody here that PETA is threatening to shut us down. I’m as tired of writing this as the few people that are still left are tired of reading it. It feels like we’ve been in reruns for two seasons, and I have much more interest in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild right now than I do in dissecting this team’s many obvious failures for the four millionth time or writing about possible fixes that I have no confidence will happen.

I don’t think the Islanders fate will befall the Leafs, which is why I’m scared to death of them going forward. Toronto has a strong, intelligent, aggressive front office, an all-time great coach, a core of players that’s impossibly young, and an unlimited supply of money and fan support that the Islanders could never even dream of having.

The Oilers, I’m a little less bullish on, but they can also be a monster in the making. As long as they don’t sit back and let their current roster go without real, significant upgrades, they’ll get better.

My team didn’t do that. Don’t make the same mistakes they made. Don’t assume that today’s 50-point player is tomorrow’s 75-point player. Make sure he is, or find someone who will be. Don’t overpay role players. Never stop finding new prospects to push incumbents. Don’t twist your team into knots to keep a third string goalie on the NHL roster. I’m sure there are more to list, but you get the point. More than anything else, don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Keep building. Because if you don’t, the “glory days” might be gone faster than a lame tweet flashing across a screen.