By Daniel Friedman
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I know what you're thinking.
"How could you possibly say they're not contending?"
"What are you suggesting? They should just tank?"
"Do you want them to start trading everyone?"
Regarding the first question -- I can do that quite easily, to be honest.
The Washington Capitals are the best team in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference and the clear favorites to climb the playoff ladder to the Stanley Cup. The Rangers might be on par with the Islanders right now, but the playoffs are a different animal and the Blueshirts are more structured and experienced. The Tampa Bay Lightning are deeper and just starting to click.
As for the other two questions -- that's not at all what I'm suggesting here.
What I am doing is taking a realistic approach and keeping in mind the decisions this team has to make in the near future.
Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen are impending unrestricted free agents, while Travis Hamonic has requested a trade to Western Canada in order to be closer to family. Additionally, the franchise is on the verge of an ownership change. You also have to think that contract talks with John Tavares are right around the corner.
There's a lot to consider here, and a handful of significant decisions to make. By the looks of things, Okposo and Hamonic aren't going to be Islanders next season, and the idea that either one will be traded for a player of equal value is pretty naive.
My point in all this is that 2015-16 is looking like more of a transition season than a step forward for this hockey club. The best thing the Islanders can do right now is address the multiple elephants in the room and allow the team to move forward.
If general manager Garth Snow has determined that Okposo can't be re-signed, I can't say I agree with that decision but, nonetheless, it's better to explore trade options for him now.
If a team gets desperate and is willing to pay a heftier price to get him, it might be worthwhile to pull the trigger. If not, the Islanders can live without the first-round pick or mid-level prospect they might get, but I do think they should at least keep the phone lines open and see what's out there.
The same applies with regard to Hamonic. Unless the Islanders plan on letting this become a huge distraction, they'll move him at some point between now and the start of next season. He's unlikely to be on the roster and, again, unlikely to fetch a defenseman of equal experience or value in a trade.
Fortunately, the Isles are prepared for life without Hamonic. They have Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield waiting in the on-deck circle, ready to fill in and establish themselves as capable NHL blueliners. Pelech, who recently suffered an injury that is likely season-ending according to Newsday's Arthur Staple, has already shown flashes of that potential.
It's very tough to find steady defensemen that can slot into your top two pairings and deliver. That's what makes the draft so important, which is how most teams get those types of players. So, whether the return for Hamonic is a forward or a lesser defenseman and picks or prospects, the Isles are built to withstand the loss of a player who's been such a key cog for them.
If the right deal comes along, better for the Islanders to maximize the return for Hamonic than to be a team that puts up a better fight but still loses in the first round (or shortly thereafter).
Once you take care of those things, and you decide which players are being brought back, you can bolster the roster and perhaps the coaching staff in order to arm yourself for a deeper playoff run.
The Islanders aren't rebuilding anymore. They have established themselves as a team that's very good at certain things but one that is flawed in other ways.
They have young players that have been inconsistent at times and are still coming into their own. Their top defensive prospect isn't even on the roster yet. Their superstar is in the midst of a down season. They're dealing with a whole bunch of distractions that are undoubtedly having an effect on their locker room, regardless of what they may say into microphones. They've had a difficult transition to their new digs in Brooklyn.
Put down the pom poms and snap back to reality for a moment here. They are not ready to hang with the big boys and compete for the Stanley Cup.
As much as we want them to be, and as much as we agonize over the fact they haven't won a playoff series in 23 years, this is not the time for them to go all-in and grab an impact rental player at the deadline in exchange for their top prospects.
It is the time to keep trying to make sensible improvements to the roster. If there's a scoring winger under contract that can be had from, say, Edmonton, find a way to parlay someone like Hamonic into a Jordan Eberle. I think the Islanders' offense can be very good as currently constructed, and I've gone to great lengths to defend it, but if there's a logical way to make it better, then it'd be downright silly to pass up the opportunity.
The Islanders will make the playoffs. They shouldn't be sellers, they shouldn't throw in the towel, they shouldn't do any of that.
What they should do, however, is be mindful of their current situation and react accordingly.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @bardownhowitzer
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