I was in attendance at Game 4 yesterday. By the time it was over, I had experienced a rollercoaster of emotions: excitement, anticipation, agitation, hope, sadness, anger, frustration, and hopelessness. After a day of reflection, I understand now that all those adjectives are linked to a single feeling: pain. Yesterday's game forced me to fully confront the truth I'd known since Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals: the Islanders' Stanley Cup window with its current core of players has closed. I was convinced then—and am still fully convinced today—that if the Islanders had been able to prevent Tampa Bay's short-handed goal and had scored a goal of their own, they would've been the 2021 Stanley Cup Champions. No intended disrespect to the Montreal Canadiens, but both the Tampa Bay and Islanders squads were superior. The 2021 Cup belonged to the Islanders until they choked.
Yesterday's game also encapsulated, in less than 60 minutes, everything that's been wrong with the Islanders since the players cleaned out their lockers in late June 2021. When that fateful offseason began 22 months ago, it was doable for the Islanders to conduct a rebuild on the fly (Rangers style). Unfortunately, the decisions made that summer and in the 22 months since set in motion the events that led to our painful reality. A decade-long rebuild (Kings style) is inevitable for the Islanders.
With the benefit of hindsight, here are seven factors that, in my opinion, were most consequential in condemning the Islanders to this fate.
- THE ORIGINAL SIN: Exposing/losing Jordan Eberle in the 2021 Expansion Draft. Mat Barzal has not been the same player (or person) since Eberle's departure, which has hurt the team as a whole. I understand that the Islanders faced a cap crunch, but there were other ways to address it (see #2-3). I always suspected that Eberle kept Barzal grounded and humble, and sure enough, Barzal has looked lost in more ways than one since the expansion draft. Eberle was also a fast skater, and the Islanders have been slower without him in the lineup.
- Failure to expose Cal Clutterbuck in the 2021 Expansion Draft. I know how popular he is in the locker room, but a $3.5 million cap hit for a player who has and continues to face a lot of injuries due to the wear and tear on his body meant that he needed to go. Seattle would've taken Clutterbuck instead of Eberle for 3 reasons: $2 million cheaper, captain material, and penalty killing. Instead, the Islanders protected Clutterbuck, and his is one of several bad contracts that made it harder to rebuild on the fly.
- Signing Kyle Palmieri. He's been great on the 2nd line in the playoffs, but for the 2 seasons before that, he was a ghost. Also—I don't remember where I saw this, but I think it was in the comment section for Smith's piece—Palmieri's presence has made Anders Lee, who has a NTC, redundant because they have a similar style of play. Instead of having 1 bad contract with Lee, we now have 2 for a combined cap hit of $12 million ($5 million for Palmieri). That is a lot of cap space to use on 2 players with similar skill sets, and again, it makes it harder to rebuild on the fly.
- Re-signing Matt Martin for $1.5 million. He's been good in the playoffs, but in the last 2 regular seasons, he's been a borderline NHL player. Maybe it would've been okay at league-minimum, but personally—and this is very hard for me to say because Martin is one of my favorite players—I wouldn't have re-signed him at all. Every cent mattered, especially with the flat cap.
- Failure to play hard-ball with Casey Cizikas in contract negotiations. I believe it was the right decision to keep him, but not at $2.5 million. He was overpaid for multiple seasons at $3.3 million, and I believe he would've taken a hometown discount like Brock Nelson did in 2019. However, Lou Lamoriello is loyal to a fault (also exhibited in #2-4), and that cost us valuable cap space.
- Firing Barry Trotz and hiring Lane Lambert. This is not to say that there weren't problems with Trotz; there definitely were. The two main issues were his failure to get along with Mat Barzal and his refusal to play young players/prospects like Wahlstrom, Aho, and Wotherspoon. I also know that he wouldn't have re-signed here after this year. But he was our best coach since Al Arbour, and he was fired in favor of Lane Lambert, an inexperienced and iffy (at best) coach. Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov needed an experienced coach to help them through this year, a critical period of their development (as Denis Potvin said, it takes 300 games for a d-man to fully develop). Instead, Dobson has regressed and Romanov didn't receive the instruction he needs to reach his full potential under Lambert's watch. Lane Lambert also displayed serious ineptitude in the many bad or questionable decisions he made in crucial games (e.g., Simon Holmstrom in a shootout—what was he thinking?!). It's time to find a new coach.
- Signing Bo Horvat to an $8.5 million long-term extension. On December 22, Kevin Kurz published an article in The Athletic with the headline reading (in part), "Islanders show they're not quite good enough". That statement has been rattling around in my head ever since because he had the guts to say it early. I still haven't made up my mind about whether the trade for Bo Horvat was bad, but signing him was, without a doubt, a horrible move. After we acquired Horvat, the Islanders gave up valuable points to much weaker teams in early-mid February (loss to Vancouver, OT/shootout losses to Ottawa, etc.). If it wasn't clear on December 22, it should've been obvious to management after Valentine's Day that Kurz was right: the Islanders were "not quite good enough." It wasn't too late at that point for the Islanders to cut their losses: they could've traded Horvat before the deadline on March 4. Instead, he was signed for $8.5 million for the next 8 seasons, and that contract is the albatross hanging around the Islanders' neck that makes an on-the-fly rebuild impossible.
Of course, this is not a definitive list—there were so many events that led us here—but these seven factors stand out after watching the Islanders get schooled by the Carolina Hurricanes yesterday. The Hurricanes have depth and an excellent coach, and they are faster and younger. The Islanders lack all these things, and with the exception of a coaching change, these flaws cannot be easily fixed. To make matters worse, teams like the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres have improved and in all likelihood will be good enough to push the Islanders out of playoff contention next year.
Since Lou Lamoriello's contract has not been renewed, I don't know who will be the Islanders' GM this offseason. But I'm making a plea to that as-yet-unnamed person, anyway. Please begin the rebuild right away and tear down this roster until the players who are currently 26 and under are the only ones left. A long rebuild wasn't inevitable 22 months ago, but it's inevitable now because the current management team failed to realize that the Cup window was closed. Continued ignorance of reality will only prolong the inevitable and make the rebuild more painful. It's bad enough that Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies died without watching the Islanders win another Stanley Cup; please make sure the Islanders win another Cup before the dynasty years are completely erased from living memory.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: If anyone knows where the comparison between Kyle Palmieri and Anders Lee's styles of play was made, please let me know and I will credit that source.