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Question #20: Can the Isles make the playoffs?

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The last one of the series: anything is possible... well, almost anything.

NHL: Florida Panthers at New York Islanders
How it feels to be eliminated by the Panthers, from the night they were eliminated by the Panthers.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On March 26, 2018, the Islanders were scratched out by a score of 3-0 at the claws of the Florida Panthers, one of their more lackluster efforts in a season seemingly filled with them. This languid and bittersweet defeat stands out a bit more than its many 2017-18 counterparts, as it marked their mathematical elimination from postseason contention. This iteration of the squad was put, officially, out of its misery.

Of course, by that point, there was little doubt of how the season would ultimately conclude. The subhead of Dom’s recap that evening: “Finally, the math has done what the spirit began in December: Eliminated the Isles from the playoff chase.”

Once the remaining six games were out of the way, looming offseason questions became present questions. As each one was answered, the makeup of the organization was altered incrementally. The cumulative result is a product that is significantly distinct from its immediate predecessor, for better or, more likely, worse.

The most obvious difference: a glaring gap at the top of the lineup. Like patching a hole in the road with toothpaste and gravel, the organization stuffed it up with a litany of fourth-liners.

But off the ice, they exchanged their Fiats for Cadillacs (though, much like in Get Shorty, one of them is kind of like “the Cadillac of minivans” Oldsmobile Silhouette, a car name that matches almost too perfectly with the man it is symbolizing here, since he was the one who decided to acquire old school-type players that haven’t been good in years, or ever) and with this development comes a certain level of prestige, at least among Hockey Men. Say what you will about Lou Lamoriello’s player evaluation and silly rules: the man commands respect, the kind of respect that lures in a coach that just won a Stanley Cup with another team. Money helps, too, but nevertheless.

In some ways, last season’s Islanders were more unlucky than terrible, even though they often looked the part of the latter. Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss (and other assorted goalies, including Christopher Gibson and old pal Jean-Francois Berube) combined for a .903 all-situations save percentage last season, after posting .911 and .920 together the two previous seasons. Contributing to that, most likely, is that the team conceded almost 300 more shots than league average, a number so absurdly high that it couldn’t possibly be repeated. (Well, it probably could have been repeated if Doug Weight remained coach.) These two extreme occurrences effectively overshadowed the fact they scored 264 goals, good for eighth in the league in that category - you would have to go all the way down to twentieth place in Goals For to find the next team with a negative goal differential, the Edmonton Oilers.

On top of natural regression, Barry Trotz’s arrival to Long Island is an important factor in where they end up. His presence and his system, as it is implemented with this squad, should at least help to shore up the defense; they may not even have to sacrifice any offense to do it. In their four seasons under his watch, the Capitals never finished lower than fifteenth in Goals Against and ninth in Goals For - both of which happened last season, when they won the Cup.

However, the team, insofar as their players, is considerably worse than last season. Obviously, John Tavares is gone (by the way, happy birthday, you douche), and while Mathew Barzal has shown himself to be more than capable of playing that role, the on-ice product will suffer as a result of not having both of them around to split the load. As previously stated, Lou thought it necessary to supplement that loss with team toughness at the expense of team skill, and the team can now roll two fourth lines if they so choose.

And, because they’re the Islanders and they can’t help themselves, both Dennis Seidenberg and Luca Sbisa are in training camp on PTOs. At least one of them figures to “earn” themselves a one-year deal, and if we’re being honest with ourselves here, it’s hard to see how they don’t give them both contracts. They are the Islanders, after all. If either of them are signed, they would probably be blocking one of the prospects that deserves it more. Like Devon (pronounced deh-VAHN, as I learned tonight) Toews, who received this praise from Arthur Staple just tonight:

So, to answer Question #20 of 20: Can the Isles make the playoffs? No, I don’t think they can. I think they’re gonna fall right into that halfway point between mediocre and abominable - say, sixth or seventh in the division, twelfth in the conference, maybe like twenty-fifth in the league. 84 points, -ish. Right where you do not want them to be, as they’ll be out of the running for the postseason fairly early and by a decent margin - hell, they play on March 26 again, they’re in Columbus that night taking on what figures to be a strong Blue Jackets squad, let’s call that Elimination Night - while also being “good” enough to prevent themselves from better draft lottery odds. Otherwise known as “The Most Islanders Standings Position.” But don’t just take my word for it. Take my wonderful colleagues’ misery as well! I asked them all whether they thought the Islanders could qualify for the playoffs and whereabouts they’d finish in the standings.

From Jenny:

I don’t think the Islanders will make the playoffs. I also think there’s a decent chunk of the Metro that will take steps back, while others only take tiny steps forward. The Caps, Devils, and Blue Jackets (if Panarin is moved) are all probably worse than they were last season, even if they’re still in playoff contention. I think the Flyers and Penguins are about the same as where they are, and the Hurricanes will for real be in play for a wild card spot. That pretty much leaves the Islanders and Rangers at the bottom, but I think the Rangers are more likely to be truly bad while the Isles will be mediocre bad.

I’m bad at predicting points so I won’t, but my thought is that the Isles will have a terrible October (take a look at that schedule, it’s rough), have an okay enough November to not be dead by the time the Coliseum games come around, and put together enough to be in that extremely mediocre “not playoffs but not lottery” spot by the end of the regular season.

Either that, or the goaltending collapses on itself and we end up at the bottom of the Metro.

I just can’t see this team getting enough points to beat out the rest of the Metro or Florida for a wild card spot.

Spizzwolf:

I’m not big into predictions. So this is not “what i think is gonna happen” as much as it is “what I’d say if i HAD to predict what will happen.” Since I now have to do just that, I’d go with:

Miss playoffs, 92 points

That’s a 12-point increase from last season but still out. However I would not be surprised in the slightest if they do qualify for the playoffs.

I can’t remember the exact figure but in most seasons, I think it was something like at least 1/3 of the 16 NHL teams that qualify for the playoffs didn’t the year before. Shit is always changing and it’s often completely unexpected. So my real answer is i have no idea and I think predictions are truly pointless and I do not actually place any value at all in my opinion on the matter. But gun to my head, if I had to to pick something, that’s what I’d pick.

Noel:

If last season taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected. Vegas making the Cup Final, Both Jersey and Colorado, predicted to be two of the worst teams, making the playoffs. That being said, and finally having an NHL coaching staff, I think the Islanders will have a double-digit point improvement. I don’t think it will be enough to make the playoffs with this current roster.

Travis:

Miss playoffs, 76 points, 7th in Metro, ahead of NYR.

The biggest worries:

A) I think Lehner + Greiss provide below-average goaltending.

B) I believe it is likely one of Eberle/Lee is traded mid-season, effectively killing any chance of suiting up a decent 12-man forward unit. I don’t think it is wise to sign both for 7+ seasons, and I’m optimistic that Lou sees a huge risk in doing so.

C) I see Flyers and Hurricanes taking big steps forward this season, making it very difficult for NYI or NYR (or even NJD) to qualify for the playoffs.

Three things I am not concerned about: the power play with Eberle in for Tavares (and hopefully Pulock for Leddy), Mat Barzal vs the NHL’s best players at 5v5, and the defensemen in general.... But goaltending always makes a huge difference.

Dom:

My forecast: No playoffs. They’ll spend it rooting for the Leafs to lose in the second round. They’ll finish tied for sixth in the Metro. Biggest concerns are goaltending (although more than ever we don’t know what New Lehner is capable of), Barzal being blindsided by Tom Wilson (even though Tom is totally a good guy), and emerging research indicating clean shaves and low numbers will not quite hold the bottom six together.

Dan:

I have half a mind to be the contrarian and say, “Hell yeah the Islanders are gonna make the playoffs, Barzal will win the Hart, Trotz the Jack Adams, Lehner will be a finalist for the Vezina and everything will come up Millhouse!” But even I don’t believe it.

I do think the Trotz effect will be real and they’ll see a marked improvement over last season’s amateur hour (my apologies to the Islanders Tank Division). I’m also not sold on Carolina because, for all we know, their amateur hour may just be beginning. I can see the Devils taking a dip, too. And the Rangers are aiming for the bottom. Still, I can’t see the Islanders cracking the playoff bubble unless the Atlantic Division is a raging tire fire (which may happen, you never know).

Like Mike said, weird shit happens in the NHL every year. The Islanders may be better in the long run, but any playoff hopes for this season will have to fall into “weird shit” territory.

And my personal favorite response, Keith:

However, you may have noticed that Dan referenced Mike talking about all the weird shit that happens in the NHL each season. That’s right, there was a lone dissenter in the bunch, a man whose optimism knows no bounds. An Islanders fan we should all envy (or, perhaps, medicate) for his everlasting hope.

From Mike B:

I am really torn over this. I am generally optimistic, but I realize that usually I will be disappointed, and when it happens I won’t be surprised. Occasionally, though, I get a weird vibe where I feel the team will be better than my normal optimistic opinion.

That vibe isn’t perfect but it has a better track record than my actual “I really thought about this” opinions. I had that vibe about the ‘86 Mets in Game Six. (No lie, I actually wasn’t surprised they came back and won even with two strikes on Carter, two out and none on. It was surreal.) I had it again just before the ‘93 playoffs. Giants-Patriots, same thing. And even though each required a ridiculous event to consummate the upset (Buckner, Volek, Tyree), it happened.

And I kind of have it here. There’s no reason this team minus PJ Masks should be a playoff side; there are a zillion bottom sixers and veteran PTOs and question marks everywhere; but I think they make it. If may be that Lehner or Greiss have an inexplicable hot streak that carries this team well into May, or Kovar and Ho-Sang each scores 30 goals, or Sbisa has his best-ever season… I have no clue. If I could explain it then it wouldn’t be The Vibe and I would be hopelessly wrong like I was about last season. But some damned odd thing is gonna happen and they’ll get themselves into the top 8 and upset a couple of teams and we’ll just have to all throw up our hands and say That’s Hockey.