With the Penguins’ grand goodbye to Mellon Arena last night, the Islanders witnessed not only a monumental celebration of the building and it’s rich history but also a tribute to an organization that has risen rapidly to a winning franchise.
And with the Islanders in transition much like the Penguins were six years ago, they can’t help but wonder if they are capable of a similar transformation.
After finishing in 30th place in 2003-2004, the Penguins 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, who the Islanders selected 9th 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 Malking and Crosby, perhaps the most potent 1-2 punch in the league, they have made stark improvements since last season’s 30th place finish.
They have a promising young core of players in Bailey, Kyle Okposo and 2009 first overall pick John Tavares and are already 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,” said Scott Gordon.
The Chicago Blackhwaks are probably the most realistic comparison. While they don’t have Malkin and Crosby in the Windy City, they have drafted rising stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and groomed talents like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook into a formidable pair of stud 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 have also drafted well defensively—nabbing top prospects Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic—as well as identified some hidden gems like Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald.
What remains to be seen, however, is where the Islanders will go from here.
Beyond what will likely 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.”