For the second straight year the Islanders have missed the playoffs, their season concluding Saturday night at Detroit.
The exit meetings start on Sunday and, with them, come the questions as to what went wrong this time. This will be the eighth time they’ve missed the playoffs since Garth Snow was named general manager on July 18, 2006
It is a pivotal offseason with captain John Tavares, the first overall pick in 2009, an impending unrestricted free agent after completing a six-year, $33-million deal and Snow emphatically refusing to deal him at the trade deadline.
Here are five things that went wrong this season:
1. The John Tavares situation.
The uncertainty festered throughout the season, as much as everybody has tried to downplay it. Tavares would not discuss a new deal after last season in order to see what direction the organization took. Yet even after a deal was reached for a new arena at Belmont Park, that did not lead to accelerated negotiations between Snow and Tavares’ agent, Pat Brisson.
2. A good, but not good enough, start.
The Islanders, on the strength of their goal production, were 16-8-2 on Dec. 4. But six of those first 10 losses were by one-goal margins and four of those were in regulation, denying the Islanders points that could have been crucial later in the season.
3. The season-sinking 11-game stretch.
The Islanders still held the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot on Feb. 18 coming off back-to-back 3-0 wins over the Rangers and Hurricanes. But the next day’s 5-3 loss to the visiting Wild started a 1-5-5 skid that effectively ended their playoff hopes. The Islanders were 1-3-4 on the road during that stretch and a 2-1 shootout loss at Edmonton on March 8 exemplified their frustrations as Connor McDavid scored the equalizer at 18:10 of the third period, bouncing a shot off defenseman Brandon Davidson’s stick and goalie Christopher Gibson’s mask.
4. The penalty kill.
In a word: Awful. Entering the regular-season finale, the Islanders were last in the NHL at 73.5 percent, having allowed 62 power-play goals in 234 chances. They had also allowed 11 shorthanded goals, second worst in the league.
It’s not an excuse, just a fact. The Islanders had lost 320 man-games to injury entering Saturday after losing 198 last season. Workhorse defenseman Calvin de Haan (shoulder) last played Dec. 16. Left wing Nikolay Kulemin (shoulder) last played Nov. 7 and the Islanders’ fourth line wasn’t the same afterwards.
And here are five key questions for the offseason:
1. Does John Tavares depart?
If the captain makes it onto the open market on July 1, he will be the most impactful player ever available as an unrestricted free agent in NHL history. Any strategy the Islanders have for 2018-19 must have a Plan A (Tavares stays) or Plan B (Tavares leaves). If Tavares does leave, Mathew Barzal would likely inherit the responsibilities as the Islanders’ No. 1 center and there are questions whether the 20-year-old would be ready for that in his second NHL season.
2. Can the Islanders pull off a sign-and-trade for Tavares?
This presents an avenue for the Islanders to recoup some of their loss if Tavares does leave. Sign-and-trades are typically an NBA thing but, under this scenario, Tavares could get an extra season on his new deal and the Islanders would get some assets back. The Islanders can offer Tavares an eight-year contract under the Collective Bargaining Agreement while other teams can only offer seven years.
3. Does GM Garth Snow return?
This is likely to get answered quickly, perhaps as soon as Monday. There have been no indications from owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, media silent of late, that they are ready to move on from Snow. But two straight seasons out of the playoffs and just one playoff series win in his tenure would seem to make his position precarious.
4. Does coach Doug Weight return?
This one is tied into the one above. It would seem likely that if Snow returns, Weight will as well. A new GM will almost undoubtedly want to hire his own coach.
5. What’s the plan?
Whoever is the GM needs to bring in more talent to address some serious deficiencies among the defense corps and the goaltending as the Islanders allowed the most goals in the NHL. The Islanders have approximately $47.35 million committed to 14 players for next season with the salary cap projected to be between $78-82 million. Forwards Chris Wagner and Kulemin, defensemen Thomas Hickey, Dennis Seidenberg and de Haan and goalie Jaroslav Halak are also unrestricted free agents and forwards Brock Nelson, Shane Prince, Ross Johnston and Alan Quine and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Davidson are restricted free agents.