Only thing Islanders have to do is improve
This day has arrived at about the same time each of the last 10 years, though perhaps a little later this season than has been the Islanders' routine. It's the day of wondering what happened and, typically more urgent, what do the Islanders need to do to improve?
Even after their surprise playoff appearance following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, there was much to go out and get. But general manager Garth Snow didn't get much out of that offseason and his team took a step back.
He got a whole lot last offseason, though, and it showed. The Islanders closed their 43 years at Nassau Coliseum with a flourish, winning games in front of sellout crowds for much of the season. The last Coliseum game was a stirring win, even though the Isles followed it up with a flat Game 7 and a first-round elimination at the hands of the Capitals.
So now the time has come. What do the Islanders get this summer?
They get better. That's it. No big signings, no shrewd Snow steals from cap-strapped teams. The Isles need to improve and grow as a group, and good things will come.
There will be some tempting free agents on the market come July 1, and the Islanders, even with big-ticket extensions given to Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, will have the cap space to add.
There will be big-name coaches available once the playoffs end, the sort of headline names that might add a bit of cache to a team moving into snazzy new digs in the big city. But Snow has already said Jack Capuano and his assistants will be back; the GM won't be tempted by the likes of Ken Hitchcock, Mike Babcock or Dan Bylsma.
But the simplest way to get over the hill of winning a playoff round lies with this current group. They were good enough for three-quarters of the season, good enough to beat the Caps even down three key defensemen. Had the Islanders simply shown half the effort on Monday in Washington that they displayed two nights earlier at home, they easily could be the team battling the Rangers.
There is room to improve everywhere you look. Start with the coaching staff: Jack Capuano is loyal to his veterans and wants his youngsters to play with consistency. But Anders Lee, who helped get the Isles across the regular-season finish line, deserved a chance to be on the ice for Game 7 no matter how much he had struggled.
Benching Lee didn't cost the Islanders the series, though. No coach's decision did.
John Tavares was Hart Trophy-worthy all season long and into Game 7, but he was a ghost on Monday. That was the tone-setter for the Isles, who needed their star to shine when it was clear there were too many nerves to overcome.
Getting better means getting healthier for Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic, who had two of the worst-timed injuries in recent team history. Both were having career years that were damaged by Okposo's emergency eye surgery in January and Hamonic's torn knee ligament in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
A healthy Hamonic changes the Caps series for sure.
There are small pockets to change on the roster. If Lubomir Visnovsky doesn't return, the Islanders could use a veteran puck-mover to mix in on defense. Michael Grabner appears to be the odd man out among the veteran forwards.
But the group that the Islanders started the season with, primarily the same group that finished the season, is more than good enough. The players knew it. That's why the exit interviews were so somber.
"We knew really early on that we had a good team," Okposo said. "We are a good team."
One that needs to get better. There isn't anything else to get.