THE NHL TRADE deadline is a time for teams to recommit to their fans. The buyers spring for exorbitant gifts: Look how hard I'm trying! The sellers admit to problems and make promises about the future: I've made some mistakes, but let's try for a fresh start at the draft in the summer!
Fans of the Islanders can be forgiven, then, for feeling put out last March when, with the team well out of playoff contention, GM Garth Snow shipped star winger Thomas Vanek—acquired just four months earlier from the Sabres for winger Matt Moulson and New York's first- and second-round picks in 2014 and '15, respectively—to the Canadiens for a minor leaguer and a second-round pick in the '14 draft. The response from the Islanders' faithful was along the lines of, I think we both know this hasn't been working for a long time.
Complicating things was the fact that New York's fans had been hoping that last season's team would remind them of why they fell in love with the Islanders in the first place—maybe by contending for the Stanley Cup, which the team won four straight times in the early 1980s but hadn't come close to again since losing in the finals in 1984. New York had pushed the heavily favored Penguins to six games in the first round of the 2013 playoffs—the team's first trip to the postseason in six years—and genuinely appeared to be fighting for its fans' affection. Instead the Islanders finished 34-37-11. How could they squander all that momentum?
But last off-season Snow, instead of riding out another so-so year in 2014--15, went out and got the New York faithful everything they wanted: a playoff-tested goalie (Jaroslav Halak), a second-line center (Mikhail Grabovski) and a top blue-line pair (Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy).
Now the Islanders, in the final season before their move from Uniondale to Brooklyn's Barclays Center, are one point out of first place in the Eastern Conference. Boychuk (who has missed the last eight games with an "upper body" injury) and Leddy—at a combined +14, with each playing about 20 minutes a night—have stabilized the defense. Halak (above) started slowly but then allowed just 14 goals, with three shutouts, during a franchise-record 11-game winning streak. Most important, center John Tavares has returned from the season-ending knee injury he suffered at the Sochi Olympics to tie for the team lead with 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists).
It may seem unbelievable that New York could be so much better after just one off-season, but this team is built to go deep into the playoffs. Pittsburgh, the Islanders' top rival in the Metropolitan Division, lacks New York's depth at forward, and age and injuries seem to finally be catching up with the Bruins. Only the Lightning, with a raft of young scoring talent, seem poised to challenge the Islanders for Eastern supremacy this year—and for years to come. It's time to believe.
But for many loyalists, it's now or never. The Quebec Nordiques infamously waited for the very season they became the Colorado Avalanche (1995--96) to win their first Stanley Cup. Brooklyn may be technically on Long Island, and just 25 miles from Uniondale, but it might as well be on the other side of the world. There won't be too many Nassau Coliseum regulars making the reverse commute to see New York in its new digs in 2015--16.
The NHL may be salivating at the prospect of having another franchise within the New York City limits, but these young, exciting Islanders understand the history of their team. Before every home game Tavares pauses before a plaque of Mike Bossy, a leader of the great dynasty teams of the 1980s. This season represents Tavares's last chance to win a Cup in the same building, in front of the same fans, as his hero. That kind of motivation can't be acquired at the trade deadline.
It may seem incredible that they could be so much better after one off-season, but these Islanders can go deep into the playoffs.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES