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Islanders at the Trade Deadline: As you were

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A team stuck in neutral punted any significant decisions until...next time, maybe.

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
“Peter...Peter...need another favor here.”
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New York Islanders didn’t do anything at the deadline but add a solid third-pairing defenseman in Brandon Davidson and fire Jason Chimera into the California sun — though only after waiting nearly 60 games of shell-of-former-self production to finally scratch him and see him lose his spot to an AHLer.

But we knew there was nothing major to add, really; this team is more than flawed, and has no business mortgaging its uncertain future today for an upgrade that might at best help them qualify for a first-round playoff humiliation. Barring a shoot-the-moon and transformative move for Erik Karlsson, they were destined to remain just...the Isles.

Over the past few days across the league and around the Metro, top teams and the Isles’ rivals made moves, some of them huge, to either further an “all in” stance or double down on a decision to rebuild. The Islanders did neither, perhaps accurately understanding the position of their team but likely not understanding how it got there.

Because whenever this franchise does good things — and there have been some really good moves — they seem to feel they’ve done enough or conclude that the final step to contention is just saying “you players, we believe in you so you go out and win this thing, man.”

Last summer the Islanders traded Ryan Strome for Jordan Eberle and resisted the lure of Matt Duchene if the price included top prospect Mathew Barzal. At the time the first was a no-brainer and the second sounded like it was probably the right call; six months later the former has still proven a no-brainer and the latter was a meteor dodged that would have crippled the franchise.

The Magnetism of Mediocrity

And now, with the trade deadline past and the team on the lower arc of the playoff bubble, that is part of the annual problem: Every successful move (or non-move) they pull off only serves to keep them at par, or at best incremental improvement.

There have been some tough circumstances this season, sure: Calvin de Haan lost for the season, Johnny Boychuk missing significant time (though neither is a complete shock given their health history), and even if aging goaltending was a question mark, no one expected the position to crater this badly as it did in the first third of the season. But then no one could have relied on the emergence of Barzal to be so fast that it almost single-handedly mitigated that deficiency.

But again, there we are: A boon like Barzal, or even Eberle, should push them into a new tier, one with comfortable playoff qualification and a possible home-ice seed. Instead those moves have only served to help paper over other unaddressed flaws, like the inability to develop a consistent third line and, in the futile pursuit of that, the debilitation of the fourth line too.

We can also talk about the over-commitment to third-pair blueliners, but shouldn’t let that distract us from the maddeningly deficient power play and overall decay in their commitment to team defense.

You cannot fix what you do not see

All of which is to say: The real issue was and remains that they didn’t do enough (again) last summer, and were slow to recognize — or incapable of addressing — the flaws and injury impact that became increasingly evident as the team swooned through the end of 2017 and on up to the 2018 trade deadline.

For me personally, it was an easy trade deadline to watch: I expected nothing — desired nothing, frankly, for fear of what active decisions might be made — and got nothing.

Some argue, with reason, that they should have sold a UFA like Thomas Hickey or shopped Brock Nelson harder if neither is in their future plans, but even there I’m not convinced whatever return this franchise could fetch would amount to much, or would be worth whatever distressing signal it might send the captain in the delicate and murky dance to sway him to stay past July 1.

GM Garth Snow did acknowledge to Arthur Staple of The Athletic that the team knows its current form is stuck in a static mediocrity, but he also said this: “With the personnel we have, if we can get everybody playing to their potential we can beat anyone in the league,” Snow said. “We’ve shown that.”

Therein lies the problem. Snow’s statement is true in an “any given Sunday/regular season game” kind of way, but not remotely true of a best-of-seven game set against any of the conference’s top six teams. From the draft, to the trades, this franchise always bets on “playing to their potential.”

Even when this version of the team was at its best in the fall, sure maybe they could win a best-of-seven round. But two? Three? {Gasp} four? (remember, that’s the ultimate and annually stated goal). Please.

So for this trade deadline, the die was already cast. Mediocrity and puzzlement remain the status quo. We wait, once again, for a sign of urgency to replace the persistent complacency.