Five stretch-run storylines for the New York Islanders

With the NHL back from the Olympic break, it’s time to turn our focus toward the stretch-run of the season. Just about every team across the league has plunged into the fourth and final lap of the mile, but objectives vary. For some teams, this is the race that matters. They’ll push the pace to the finish line in a fight for home-ice advantage, and look to pull over for a pit stop before the March 5 trade deadline. For other teams, aspirations are more farsighted. The field out of reach, they’ll look to pawn off some assets while they still can, and start building a core that can propel them in the future.

The New York Islanders, obviously, find themselves in the latter group. That’s a letdown – a step back, even – for a team that entered the year on the rise, for the Isles expected to jump back in the fray in the 2013-14 season. But a leaky defense and porous goaltending have been too much for the team to overcome, and it’s time now for GM Garth Snow to look himself in the eye and admit a lost year. Set up the yard sale in Uniondale! Just don’t let Mom give away John Tavares.

Without further ado, here are five stretch-run storylines to watch for the New York Islanders. (Click here to check out the Rangers.)

1. Where does Thomas Vanek end up? 

More importantly, who do the Islanders get in return? It’s a foregone conclusion that Snow will deal Vanek before the trade deadline, but it’s less clear which team will win his services.

For the Islanders’ own sake, one would have to think they’ve ruled out any Metro Division foe, although it’s safe to assume Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has at least put in a call. (Collectively, the other six teams in the division yelled “Nooo, Garth! Don’t do it!!”) And ultimately, what matters to Snow and the Islanders is not where Vanek plays next but who next plays for them.

Conventional wisdom might say management should collect as many draft picks as it can, but the Islanders might have a more immediate fix in mind. Vanek’s value is high enough right now to net a prospect/pick plus an NHL-proven commodity, and the Isles desperately need to import someone else to man the net. Evgeni Nabokov is likely gone after this season and Kevin Poulin is, well, Kevin Poulin, so Snow, a former netminder himself, may look to take care of that need through a trade. If he does, keep an eye on contending teams with a goaltender surplus: Toronto, St. Louis and Minnesota, to name a few.

2. Where does Andrew MacDonald end up? 

More importantly, well, you know. MacDonald isn’t quite as sure a thing to be dealt as Vanek, but’s he’s close. Would I put a few limbs on it? For the right return, absolutely.

Like Vanek, MacDonald rejected the Islanders’ contract extension in early February  (a four-year, $16 million offer), thus placing the onus on Snow to either trade him now or let him walk this summer. Obviously, the foolproof move is the former, and the Islanders are believed to be asking for at least a first-round pick in exchange for the young, puck-moving defenseman. That label alone – young, puck-moving defenseman – is enough to end nuclear war in the NHL these days, so the Isles will likely have a number of offers coming their way.

Still, Snow might not be so convinced of MacDonald’s value. Aside from his 26:33 of ice time per game (a number that is due to come down on a better team), the 27-year-old doesn’t have many stats that really make the eyes pop – unless you consider that -16 rating, last among Islander defensemen. If Snow doesn’t get an offer he likes, he very well may hold onto MacDonald and dare him to test the market. It may be that 4 years, $16 million is the best that’s out there.

3. Can fans expect to see more of rookie Ryan Strome? 

You bet. The Islanders recalled the 20-year-old wunderkind from Bridgeport on Monday, along with fellow Sound Tigers Mike Halmo and Anders Lee. Strome, the team’s first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 2011 entry draft, has been setting fire to the AHL this season, posting 49 points in 37 games. He finds himself among the league’s top-10 scorers, despite playing in far fewer games than his offensive counterparts.

His lack of playing time in the AHL, of course, is due to his month-long stint with the Islanders in December and January. Strome struggled in making the transition to the NHL in his first go, scoring just four points in 15 games, but the talent was visibly there. It may be that coach Jack Capuano, realizing what little his team stands to lose, lets Strome center the first line with Kyle Okposo and Vanek (until he’s traded). That’d be quite the experience for the young Canadian, and reason for the fans to come watch this team play, even with John Tavares done for the year.

4. Does Jack Capuano survive the fire sale?

Quickly, a little historical anecdote: in the 2003-04 season, the New York Rangers vastly underachieved. As a result, GM Glen Sather decided to ship off stars Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved and Brian Leetch about a week before the trade deadline, mostly in return for draft picks. Soon thereafter, Sather, who was also serving as head coach at the time, stepped down as bench boss and handed the reins to Tom Renney. If we’re gonna blow this thing up, Sather figured, let’s start at the top.

Coach Jack Capuano finds himself in a similar position on Long Island. The Islanders have fallen well short of expectations this season, and a comprehensive makeover appears imminent. (Tavares, Okposo, Strome and Travis Hamonic are probably the only untouchables on this team right now.)  Snow is prepared to reroute this franchise, and Capuano, who owns a record of 106-113-36 over four seasons with the Isles, is right there on the chopping block with everyone else. Again, if it’s time for a new direction, start with the guy leading the way. If Sather was willing to can himself, after all, who’s to say Snow won’t cut ties with Capuano?

Will Jack Capuano make it to the end of the season as coach of the Islanders?

Here’s the thing: Snow likes what Capuano has done so far on Long Island. He likes the up-tempo, run-and-gun style the coach has fostered on the ice, believing that it plays well to the Islanders’ strengths. Capuano kept two severely undermanned teams competitive in 2010-11 and 2011-12, before bringing the Isles back to the playoffs last season for the first time in six years. It’s fair to say he’s growing something in Uniondale, even if this season’s crop didn’t come to be. Remember, Capuano survived a ten-game losing streak back in November so it’s probably safe to say he’ll make it to the end of the season. That doesn’t mean a coaching change isn’t on the horizon, though. Expect Snow to shorten the leash on Capuano next season, in much the same way that Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren kept Peter Laviolette at his fingertips this season. If Capuano, like Laviolette, struggles to get his team going in October, don’t be surprised to see Snow pull the trigger early. (The great irony, of course, is that Laviolette would be the obvious frontrunner to replace Capuano. Sports make no sense sometimes.)

5. Should the Islanders tank to improve their draft options? 

The Islanders, barring a flat-out miracle, aren’t going to make the playoffs. This automatically raises the question of whether or not the team should tank from here on out to improve its draft positioning. Well of course not, you say. Thanks to that Vanek trade, the team doesn’t even have a first-round pick this year. Why would they tank for nothing? Ah, but there are more layers to that trade than originally reported. If the Islanders finish low enough this season to pick in the top-10 at this summer’s draft, they can defer the 2014 first-round pick they surrendered to Buffalo to 2015. They’d have to sacrifice their first-round pick in 2015 in exchange, but at least there’d be some light at the end of the tunnel in April.

As it stands now, the Islanders are 26th out of 30 in the league standings and safely within the bottom ten by nine points. With Tavares already done for the year and Vanek on his way out soon, it appears the Islanders won’t need to tank after all – they’ve already taken care of it. If they remain in (or near) the position they are now, they’ll have the option of “recovering” their first round pick in this summer’s draft. (Again, at the expense of losing their first-round pick in 2015.) The 2015 draft class is loaded with talent, though, so the Islanders will likely decide to bite the bullet now to keep their options open next year. Once the dust settles on the March 5 trade deadline, they’ll likely find a couple extra 2014 picks in their pocket anyway.

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