The Olympic break was hardly one of rest and relaxation for Islanders fans. Honestly, can’t they catch a break? Instead, they saw their star player go down with a season-ending injury, leaving the outlook for the remainder of the season pretty bleak. Here are three things to watch now that the Olympic break is over and NHL action is set to resume:
1. Where will the Isles finish?
The Islanders were not going to make the playoffs, even with a healthy John Tavares -- they are 12 points behind in the race for the last wild-card spot in the East. That doesn’t soften the blow much, though. The season-ending knee injury to No. 91 remains a crushing disappointment for the player, the club and the fans.
With what is expected to be a depleted lineup after the trade deadline, it is not inconceivable that the Islanders will fall even further down the standings.
That’s not the worst thing in the world for the floundering franchise, considering it could set up the Isles with another top-five draft pick. General manager Garth Snow gave up a 2014 first-rounder in the Thomas Vanek-Matt Moulson deal with the Sabres early this season, but he has the option to retain the pick if the Isles finish in the bottom 10. Assuming that happens and Snow does indeed exercise that option (surrendering a first-round pick in 2015 instead), Snow has to hope for a much-improved performance next season. After all, that is the draft class featuring highly regarded prospect Connor McDavid.
2. What will happen with Vanek and MacDonald?
If nothing else, Tavares’ injury has given Snow the green light to establish himself as a seller at the trade deadline, and fortunately for the Islanders, they boast two of the most attractive rental players on the market in two-time 40-goal scorer Vanek and defenseman Andrew MacDonald. Snow will shop both players aggressively and definitely will be looking to recoup that first-round pick it took to land Vanek.
That should not be an unreasonable asking price for Vanek, who is an elite scorer who can slot in on most teams’ top line. The unrestricted free agent has said he would like to test the market for the first time come July, so he likely would be just a rental, whereas MacDonald might be a player a team could lock up long term. Although MacDonald has not had a banner season, he logs top-pair minutes and is an excellent shot-blocker -- a sturdy option as a second-pair defenseman for a playoff team looking to bolster its back end.
3. What youngsters will get a shot?
With the Islanders likely to be without two of their top three forwards in Tavares and Vanek (and center Frans Nielsen also sidelined with a broken hand), look for some young prospects to get an opportunity in the coming weeks for the Islanders.
Both Ryan Strome and Anders Lee have had terrific years in the AHL playing for the Islanders’ affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and likely will get a shot with the big club soon. The two players, who have a combined 17 NHL games between them, can gain some experience and seasoning while providing coach Jack Capuano and Isles brass a glimpse of what is to come in the future for this team.