Unfortunately, Islanders fans, it is the building.
Garth Snow and the Isles got on the free-agent scoreboard Friday, adding four players, including veteran defensemen Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina. Eaton won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009 and Penguins general manager Ray Shero called him "a quiet leader for us."
That's the good news.
The bad news is this: Snow made a tremendous pitch to get one of the elite free-agent defensemen, but they signed elsewhere Thursday. Paul Martin got a better offer from the Islanders than the five-year, $25- million contract he signed with the Penguins; Dan Hamhuis got a better offer from the Islanders than the six-year, $27-million deal he signed with the Canucks.
Former Devils defenseman Martin talked directly with Snow and asked him point-blank about Nassau Coliseum and what the situation was with the building, with the proposed Lighthouse project, with all of it.
"Garth was honest with him," Ben Hankinson, Martin's agent, told Newsday. "Garth said the team was there for five more years. And I could just see it in Paul's face . . . That building is going to be a huge hurdle for Garth to overcome with free agents like Paul."
Of course, Martin signed with a Penguins team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He didn't choose a last-place team with a nice, new building. But Martin did choose a team with a new building over the Islanders, who don't appear to be close to anything resembling a new building. And the Islanders don't have the benefit of a group of young stars, just the promise of John Tavares and a team that is trying to build from the ground up.
Eaton, from Wilmington, Del., traveled to Long Island as a teenager to play hockey with the New York Apple Core; he'll be a solid second- or third-pair defenseman. Jurcina is the same, a capable defenseman who will make the Islanders better in their own zone simply with his eight NHL seasons.
But now Snow might have to find a top defenseman through a trade, if that's what he chooses to do. He'll have to surrender one of the precious young assets the Islanders covet, because the top-end free agents don't appear to want to spend their golden years wondering if the Islanders will ever get a new building.
This is not a plea for such a thing, it's simply reality.
If the Isles get better, free agents will regard them more highly. But there is a hurdle out of Snow's hands, one that could tie his hands when it's time for his team to take the next step.