What’s Next for the Islanders?
by: Patrick Hickey, Jr. | Senior Writer - NY Sports Day | Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fighting all season to stay in a playoff race that everyone in the league didn’t feel that they belonged in, the New York Islanders proved that grit and heart can take you to the dance that is the NHL playoffs but failed to put it together against the top-seeded Buffalo Sabres, losing the best of seven series in five games.

Nevertheless, the team for the most part is happy with their season, but understand that they have a tougher rough ahead of themselves if they want to repeat the same success they had this year.

“Overall, we fought as a team and battled a lot of adversity since I arrived here,” Islanders forward Ryan Smyth said on the team’s official website. “You had Ricky [Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro] out for a while, you had (Andy Hilbert) playing with a third-degree shoulder separation and (Arron Asham) with a broken hand. There were a lot of guys hurt and we really battled through everything. I'm proud of that. I got a taste last year of being so close to the Trophy we're all going for. This one tonight really hurts. It's going to hurt for a while.”

With vital cogs in the Islanders offensive attack like Jason Blake, Viktor Kozlov and Smyth all free agents after the playoffs are over, the team has some serious questions to ask themselves. Do they decide that Captain Canada should stay on the Island or do they invest money in a first-time 40-goal scorer who has said all along that that he wants to play there? Or can the Islanders do both?

If that is the case, do they have the money after that to keep Kozlov, who they signed for just $865,000 after a few mediocre seasons with the Devils? As well, what does the team do with captain Alexei Yashin?

The questions don’t end on offense either.

With Sean Hill’s suspension for using performance enhancers costing him the first 19 games of next season, it’s unlikely that he’ll be in an Islanders uniform again. As well, Tom Poti, who had a splendid season on both ends of the ice with the Islanders, scoring 44 points in the regular season, may want more than the $2.75 million the team paid him this year and could be willing to test the free agent waters. With Hill’s departure and Poti’s return unknown, the Isles may get a lot younger on defense next season and could possibly feature both Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais in much more prominent roles.

The question remains if they can be successful in those roles however.

For the time being however, the Islanders organization feels that they’re headed on the right path. Asking a team to make the playoffs in spite of everything that happened during the course of the season would have been a daunting task for most NHL teams, but they somehow found a way. As far as next season is concerned, the Islanders organization may have a tougher go of things, trying to hold on to a half-dozen players that were important pieces in the team’s success, but if all tells true, it’s nothing they haven’t handled already.

“We set out to change the culture on Long Island and I think we made a lot of strides doing just that. When the season started it looked like five, six thousand fans in the Coliseum. In the last few months the building was filled just about every night and one of the loudest buildings in the league,” said Islanders head coach Ted Nolan on the team’s official website. “We still have a lot of work to do and changes to make. I don't think you can model yourself on another team. The Sabres did a great job molding a team around speed, but I don't think you should copy another team's identity. It's Garth's [Islanders General Manger Garth Snow] job and my job to work together to create a new identity for the New York Islanders. I'm confident we're going to do that.”

Whether or not the new Islander identity Nolan and Snow want to create for next season will bear any resemblance to the gritty, hardworking Isles of the present or be able to induce the same amount of success is unknown, but if their performance during the last month of the season is any indication, they should get much more respect from the rest of the league when the puck drops next season.

For the organization and its fan base, which has been stuck in seclusion like a group of Dungeons and Dragons playing teenagers for the past half decade, just waiting for something to be proud about, that’s a good thing.