WASHINGTON -- It has been difficult to pin down what sort of team the Islanders are this season.
They head into Tuesday night's game with the Capitals still in the hunt for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, kicking themselves for numerous missed opportunities to gain points and yet still playing well enough at times to believe they are not far from being a playoff contender.
The trade deadline is eight days away. What sort of team will the Islanders look like after April 3? And what will they look like in September, with a full 82-game season on the horizon?
General manager Garth Snow has not wavered from his commitment to build from within, and the team's recent three-game losing streak hasn't altered that plan. The Islanders still are going to try to re-sign captain Mark Streit, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky. They are not interested in dipping into the deadline rental market, as the Penguins did in the past 48 hours with trades for Brendan Morrow from the Stars and Douglas Murray from the Sharks.
The Islanders are not close to winning right away, as the Penguins are. They also are not ready to dismantle and start over, as the Lightning, Panthers and Sabres have done.
So in the short term, the Islanders will stay relatively the same. The only major addition, the likely signing of draft pick Anders Lee, will have to wait until Lee's Notre Dame squad completes its run in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Thursday.
In the longer term, after this season is over, the Islanders have some room to maneuver. They currently have the least money committed to next season's $64.3-million payroll of any NHL team, at roughly $28.9 million. If Snow decides to buy out Rick DiPietro, that would add $3 million in cap space.
There should be a bevy of free agents on the open market come July. Teams have two amnesty buyouts to use under the new CBA to get to the lower salary cap, so there should be some useful veterans on the market.
But the Islanders first will look within to fill the holes on their roster, and next season could bring a bumper crop of prospects into the spotlight.
Lee, 2011 first-rounder Ryan Strome and the two 2010 first-round picks, Nino Niederreiter and Brock Nelson, will get long looks in training camp to find a dynamic second line and a talented young winger to slot in alongside John Tavares.
On defense, Snow will sign Travis Hamonic to a long-term deal this summer and Griffin Reinhart and Scott Mayfield will get chances to make the team and provide the back line with a big, physical presence.
The Islanders will need only about $16 million worth of contracts to get to the salary-cap floor. Even if they re-sign Nabokov, they might look to add another veteran goaltender.
What this means is fairly straightforward: The Islanders still are committed to their plan. Which means a quiet trade deadline as the team fights for a playoff spot and then an intriguing summer and training camp.
The Islanders will look different in 2013-14. Quite likely even younger than they have been.
Better? That remains to be seen.