The New York Islanders have been one of the most captivating teams to watch this season as they have ascended to the top of the Metropolitan Division with a 38-19-1 record. With the club's high-octane offense, much-improved defense and solid goaltending, it's hard to believe that this team isn't for real.
Whereas the long-suffering franchise got only a brief tease of playoff action during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, we could really see them do some damage this postseason. The Islanders are relocating to Brooklyn's Barclays Center next season, and we can't think of a more fitting way to say goodbye to their old relic, Nassau Coliseum.
Available: Though the Islanders boast impressive forward depth -- "They have one of the best fourth lines in the league," one Western Conference executive told ESPN.com -- coach Jack Capuano's squad could use some help in shoring up what has been a woeful penalty-killing unit. The Islanders are 29th in the league with a concerning 74.2 percent success rate through 58 games.
Who could help? Pending unrestricted free agents Daniel Winnik (Toronto) and Erik Condra (Ottawa) are both versatile and cost-effective. Plenty of teams are interested in Winnik, which could drive up the price as the deadline nears and make Condra a more realistic option.
The one wild card here is the status of top-line winger Kyle Okposo, who is recovering from an eye injury. If his rehab does not go as planned, that could change the Islanders' approach, though 24-year-old Anders Lee has been sensational in stepping into that power forward role. He has nine points in his past six games and 19 goals already in his first full season with the big club.
Finances: Though the Isles barely hovered above the cap floor for years with a penny-pinching philosophy that drove fans mad, general manager Garth Snow has since shown a willingness to spend money and surround phenom John Tavares with some quality players. The Isles still have plenty of flexibility in cap space to make some moves, with approximately $5.75 million in room, according to NHLNumbers.com.
That gives Snow an upper hand on some of the other top teams in the East that are hamstrung by their finances. In the Metro, both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers are feeling the crunch. The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens are also limited in the types of deals they can make, with the Tampa Bay Lightning the only other real contender in the conference with the same sort of maneuverability.
Scouting the GM: Take a bow, Garth. For as much criticism as he endured in recent years, he did a heck of a job this past summer in improving his team. He acquired the rights to and then signed veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak, bolstering a position that has long been the team's Achilles' heel. But Snow really knocked it out of the park when he traded for defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy on the same day back in early October, providing his defense a monster upgrade.
The prevailing thought is that it could be a quiet deadline for the Islanders, with Snow having already been so aggressive in the offseason. And considering how well the group has performed this season, maybe there is some reluctance to tinker too much with a good thing.
Said one NHL scout: "It almost feels like, unless there's a good bargain, why bother?"