New York Islanders: Will They Ever Be Stanley Cup Contenders Again?

Michael WillhoftContributor IIIMarch 29, 2012

UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 02:  Former New York Islanders legend Denis Potvin carries the Stanley Cup' before the game against the Florida Panthers at the Nassau Coliseum March 2, 2008 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders are celebrating the 17 men that were part of all four Stanley Cup winning teams from 1980-1983.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Fact: the New York Islanders were at one time the best team in the NHL, winning four consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1980-83.

Fact: the New York Islanders won 19 straight playoff series en route to those titles (and in reaching the Stanley Cup Final the following year in 1984).

Fact: the New York Islanders is not the same team today as it was in the early 1980s, in terms of on-ice quality or off-ice buzz.

These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

The near-instant success of that expansion franchise that joined the NHL in 1972 is a distant memory, and today’s Islanders are a far cry from the storied teams that stockpiled Stanley Cups seemingly at will.

It’s no secret that the blue and orange have lost some of their luster; but that doesn’t mean the Islanders can’t work their way back to the top of the NHL landscape.

Phrases like “once-proud” and “storied history” shouldn’t be the only accolades that apply to the Isles, considering that the team has—relatively quietly—laid the groundwork to contend for the Stanley Cup on a regular basis going forward.

For starters, this team plays in the toughest division in the Eastern Conference—competition among the teams in the Atlantic is on-par with the quality of play normally reserved for the postseason.

In short, the Islanders skate against playoff-caliber teams for much of the season simply because they’re part of the NHL’s Atlantic Division.

When this team makes the postseason—admittedly easier to do in the NHL than in other professional sports such as MLB—it will be prepared for the type of talent it will face in the playoffs.

UNIONDALE, NY - FEBRUARY 24:  Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers and Nino Niederreiter #25 of the New York Islanders fight in the third period at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on February 24, 2012 in Uniondale, New York.  The Islanders defe
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

And it’s not like the Islanders are dealing with an historic playoff drought; they last made the postseason in 2007. What’s more, that was before the rebuild. This team is now better positioned to become a perennial playoff qualifier over a longer period of time.

While Islanders fans can attest that the rebuilding in Uniondale has taken somewhat longer than expected, it still holds true that the team has the potential to be a serious title contender in the coming years.

Take Tuesday’s 5-3 road win over the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example. While most of the talking heads on the major networks will write it off as a fluke, or that the Penguins simply had a letdown against an inferior opponent, Isles fans should take heart in knowing that this team still wants to compete.

It might be another case of too little, too late, but the Islanders have the tenacity—and talent—to challenge the NHL’s elite teams.

Considering that neither center John Tavares nor left winger Matt Moulson factored into the scoring against the Penguins, it’s surprising that the Isles netted five goals against one of the league’s best teams.

Josh Bailey, the much-maligned prospect from the 2008 NHL draft class, was the spark plug for the Islanders offense, recording three assists while playing on the wing. Frans Nielsen, another homegrown Islander, tallied two goals and an assist in the victory.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: Josh Bailey #12 of the New York Islanders scores at 4:14 of the first period against the Washington Capitals and is joined by Frans Nielsen #51 (L)  at the Verizon Center on February 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Bru
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The production from Bailey and Nielsen is a testament to the scouting and development staff in place on Long Island; even when the team’s top players aren’t producing, the Islanders can still get scoring from in-house talent. 

Speaking of Islanders prospects, it should be noted that the Isles have a consensus top-five—if not top-three­—farm system. If there’s one thing the franchise isn’t short on, it’s blue-chip prospects.

Players like Casey Cizikas (C), Calvin de Haan (D), Ryan Strome (C), Matt Donovan (D), Brock Nelson (C), Kirill Kabanov (RW), Anders Nilsson (G) and Kevin Poulin (G) are all poised to join the big club sooner rather than later.

With an influx of young talent, the Isles will have a core of players eager to prove their skills at the NHL level. In terms of contending for multiple titles, the championship window is only just opening for this team—aging teams like the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils don’t have that same luxury.

I’m not saying that the Islanders are the odds-on favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2013, but it’s more likely than not that this team has the potential to make consistent playoff runs based on its youth and talent in the coming years.

Besides a high ceiling and a young core, the Isles have several quantifiable characteristics of a team poised to challenge for the Cup in the immediate future.

They have a legitimate superstar (Tavares is tied for eighth in the NHL with 75 points), a true “grinder” (left winger Matt Martin leads the league with 349 hits) and solid goaltending (Evgeni Nabokov is sporting a 2.55 goals-against average and a 5-1 record in shootouts on the season).

Outside of individual stats, the Islanders are ranked sixth in the NHL with a power-play percentage of 19.4 and are first in the league with 1,275 blocked shots.

It stands to reason that a Stanley Cup contender would show the ability to score with the man advantage and exhibit a willingness to protect the net; hopefully this correlation extends to the Islanders over the next few years.

The playoffs might be out of the picture this season, but the future is certainly bright on Long Island.

Remember, it took the Penguins six years to win a Stanley Cup after they held the first overall pick in the NHL draft. Based on those—admittedly arbitrary—calculations, the Islanders should be posing for pictures with the Stanley Cup by 2015.

Isles fans can dream, right?

All jokes aside, the New York Islanders are a solid young team that has the pieces necessary to contend for the NHL’s highest prize on a yearly basis going forward.

To answer the question posed by the title of this article: yes, the Islanders will contend for the Stanley Cup again—it’s only a matter of time.


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