PITTSBURGH - With the Penguins' grand goodbye to Mellon Arena last night, the Islanders witnessed not only a monumental celebration of the building and its rich history but also a tribute to an organization that has risen rapidly to become a winning franchise.
And with the Islanders in transition much as the Penguins were six years ago, they can't help but wonder if they are capable of a similar transformation.
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After finishing in 30th place in 2003-04, the Penguins, who beat the Islanders, 7-3, last night, drafted two of the most dynamic players in the game - Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby - peppered in some top-shelf talent through free agency and found themselves hoisting the Stanley Cup only five years later.
"They're a good role model for a lot of organizations with the way they built through the draft," said Josh Bailey, whom the Islanders selected ninth overall in 2008. "They really turned the organization around. They're a couple of years ahead of what we want to accomplish."
While the Islanders lack the explosive tandem of Malkin and Crosby, perhaps the most potent 1-2 punch in the league, they have made dramatic improvements since last season's 30th-place finish.
They have a promising young core of players in Bailey, Kyle Okposo and John Tavares, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, and already are 17 points ahead of where they finished last season. Not until the last week of the regular season were the Islanders officially eliminated from playoff contention.
"Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago are all teams that have developed their young players, drafted well, and that's certainly a direction we've tried to model ourselves after," coach Scott Gordon said.
The Chicago Blackhawks probably are the most realistic comparison. They have drafted rising stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and groomed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook into a formidable pair of defensemen.
"I think for us, a great team to look at it is Chicago," said Tavares, who entered last night's game with 22 goals in his rookie season. "They've been able to rebuild really quickly with a lot of great young players."
To complement their emerging group of forwards, the Islanders also have drafted well defensively - nabbing top prospects Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic - and identified some hidden gems in Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald.
What remains to be seen, however, is where the Islanders will go from here. Beyond what likely will be a good draft pick, the team must decide how aggressively to approach this year's free-agent class to bolster their lineup and boost them into serious contention.
"It'll probably come down to how we fill out our roster this year," Gordon said. "Obviously, some contracts are up. What we're able to add will give us a better picture of where we are at."
Where will that be? "We certainly hope it's next year we get into the playoffs," Tavares said. "That's where we can get some really good experience, see what it takes to win in the playoffs and be ready for the sacrifice it takes to win the Cup."
Notes & quotes: Matt Moulson picked up his 28th goal, Okposo his 18th and Bailey his 16th, but the Penguins scored the final three goals of the game. Sidney Crosby scored his league-leading 49th goal and recorded three assists for the Penguins, two on goals by Bill Guerin. Crosby has 104 points this season and 501 in his five-season career. The only players younger than Crosby (22 years, 244 days) to hit the 500-point mark faster were Wayne Gretzky (21 years, 52 days) and former Penguins star Mario Lemieux (22 years, 172 days) . . . Greg Mauldin made his Islanders debut after being recalled from Bridgeport to replace injured center Richard Park (eye).