Loyal readers may recall that not quite four weeks ago, I wrote an essay urging Islanders fans to enjoy the quest, stay positive and not worry about the future until the 2021-22 present sorts itself out.
About that . . . never mind.
Since then, the Isles are 5-5 overall and 2-5 against teams that do not have a scary, orange mop for a mascot. Most recently, they were seen losing at home to the expansion Kraken in a mind-blowing 3-0 sleepwalk.
Other than that, everything’s great!
But back to that hopeful column from mid-January. Sure, it is mathematically possible for the Islanders to rally and sneak into the playoffs. More than half of the season remains, starting on Wednesday night in Vancouver.
Many road games and a hellacious closing stretch will follow. Again, though: Not impossible.
But what really matters over these last 43 games — forty-three! — is team president/general manager/enigmatic-but-historically-brilliant hockey guru Lou Lamoriello assessing what he has and what he needs moving forward.
That includes determining whether the window is closing on a team loaded with key players on the wrong side of 30 or whether with a few well-placed tweaks it can get back to normal in a normal season come 2022-23.
This will be a tricky process as the March 21 trade deadline approaches.
Are the Islanders merely victims of what has been a uniquely messed-up, start-and-stop season, an anomaly that can be shrugged off come October?
Or are they what they looked like against Seattle: Old, slow and lacking scoring punch?
For much of this season, it was difficult to assess them fairly, given the 13-game road stretch, COVID-19 disruptions, injuries and whatnot.
But with defenseman Ryan Pulock finally back, the roster largely is intact. There will be no excuses this month if the team does not return to its two-time NHL semifinalist standards.
So what to expect?
I expect the Islanders will play well down the stretch because they have talent, experience, character and good coaching but that in the end, they will fall short — a huge disappointment for their fans and themselves.
The question is what they need to be better over the next year or two before a complete generational overhaul is necessary. It does not take Lamoriello or Barry Trotz to figure this out. The rest of us can see it, too.
They need a dynamic scorer or two, especially someone special for Mathew Barzal to pass to after he is through making opposing defenders dizzy by skating circles around them.
Somehow the Islanders got within a game of the Stanley Cup Final last season with Leo Komarov on their first line, one of the most remarkable achievements in recent NHL history. Uncle Leo was miscast, obviously. Trouble is, the Islanders have been unable to figure out what they do want there.
Kyle Palmieri has been a disappointment. Oliver Wahlstrom is the people’s choice, but Trotz has had reservations about his game. Even in the best-case scenario, let’s not confuse Barzal/Wahlstrom with McDavid/Draisaitl.
Lamoriello and Trotz favor a defense-first approach, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there are times when goals are required.
Let’s look at the last three games of the conference finals loss to the Lightning in 2020, shall we? In regulation time, the Islanders’ goal totals were one, one and one.
In 2021, they scored two goals in regulation time over the final three games, including a 1-0 loss in Game 7.
Since-departed Devon Toews scored in the first period of Tampa Bay’s 2020 clincher. After that, the Isles did not score a goal in five periods and one overtime in the Lightning’s two series clinchers.
Even if those two semifinals prove to be the last gasp for this core group of Islanders, fans will have emerged way ahead — enjoying more success than in nearly 40 years and with a shiny new arena as a bonus.
But is there still some toothpaste left to squeeze out of this tube? The first step in finding out is Wednesday.