Two years ago I wrote that much of the Islanders season was going to depend on how well the group of young players developed and improved over the year before, because the Metro division wasn’t a place for learning on the job and the team had not made many changes in the roster.
Looking ahead at 2017-2018, the only thing different is the names of the young players. Truth be told, while the Islanders appeared to have a whirlwind of change around the draft in June, not much actually changed. Jordan Eberle is the only new Islander this season. The other 22 all played with the team at some point last season. Making the playoffs this season then is going to depend on the team simply being better than it was a year ago. Fans may be hoping that the improvement seen after Doug Weight took over as coach will continue, a full season of Matthew Barzal and Josh Ho-Sang will bring an injection of talent into the lineup, and Jordan Eberle will be a goal scoring improvement over Josh Bailey on the first line. All of those things could happen, all of them may not happen, and the Islanders may or may not be a playoff team this season. Seriously, I could see anything happening with this team, from the kids being a huge shot in the arm to secondary scoring, Eberle brining a boost of offense to an already great pairing of John Tavares and Anders Lee, and the Isles riding into the top 3 in the Metro. I could also see them not getting off to a good start, the kids struggling with the responsibility, Eberle not scoring as much as we hoped, the arena situation and Tavares contract hanging over the team like Pig Pen’s cloud in Peanuts and everything falling apart.
So, like I normally do when faced with both of those possibilities, I look for the middle ground to see what’s likely. And what I see there, is simply more of last year.
Yes, Eberle should improve the offense, and Josh Bailey is an improvement over Ryan Strome back in the lineup, and truthfully is back where he belongs in the lineup.
Yes, a clear goaltending pairing should help improve play in net.
Yes, the kids on defense bring some different talents, especially Ryan Pulock on the powerplay.
The Islanders aren’t the only team that didn’t make the playoffs last year, to make changes that should translate into improvements.
The teams that made the playoffs last year didn’t get any worse.
Injuries will play a major factor at some point. How will the kids hold up when there are 3 young defensemen in the lineup together?
The arena and Tavares situation are questions that will dog the team all year until they are resolved, and if they aren’t, don’t be surprised if there is a Tavares trade at some point, as devastating as that would be for the fans to take. The Islanders can’t afford to let him walk at the end of the year. They just can’t, and at the same time, if the Isles still don’t know where they’ll be playing in the future, I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to see what else is out there.
So my bottom line is this. The Islanders are starting out the season with a more talented team than they did last season. There are a lot of high draft picks up and down the lineup, a lot of potential. Maybe more potential than they’ve actually had in the last few seasons.
And, it may not matter. Because that’s life in the Metro. It’s wide open for the most part with a lot of talented players up and down the rosters of every team. The teams that can tap that potential, stay focused, and get on a roll will make the playoffs, the others will not. I predict the Islanders will be on the “not” side of that ledger, even though they’ll be fun to watch.
I hope I’m wrong too.