The ice was tilted in Nassau County on Sunday, and it wasn’t because of poor arena construction.
The New York Islanders—sent adrift by the Buffalo Sabres in five games in the yesteryear of 2007—once again had a home playoff game against the top seed in the East. All square with the Pittsburgh Penguins, this incarnation of Islanders pushed the pace and applied pressure to a superior team that was satisfied meandering through Game 3 after a home split.
Comparing the Penguins to the Sabres of 2007 is just as absurd as comparing these two versions of the New York Islanders. Just Radek Martinek and Frans Nielsen remain on the roster six years later. In the space bookended by postseason appearances, Long Island’s hockey team turned a draft lottery win into John Tavares. It somehow convinced Swiss standout Mark Striet to stay on the Island while they retooled, toiling on the blue line while the team bottomed out and started anew. The New York Islanders have rebuilt, and on Sunday afternoon they were in overtime in a tied series against the best team in the Eastern Conference.
The rebuilding took plenty of losing to achieve. Really, it starts and ends with John Tavares. Winning the draft lottery and getting the first pick is one of the only reasons things have turned around for the Islanders. Their other draft picks—save for Kyle Okposo (7th overall, 2006)—have been unremarkable thus far.
It was Tavares that helped the 263rd overall pick in the 2003 draft flourish on the left wing. Matt Moulson has turned into a perpetual 30 goal scorer for the Islanders, turning 1-year contracts into a career. The two combined for 91 points in 48 games this season. Brad Boyes had 35 points in the half season, and is perhaps a better example of a distorted lens than Raffi Torres was. He also benefited from playing next to No. 91, much like Ryan Malone made the most of his time with to Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. It helps to stay close to superstars.
What the Islanders have done over the last six years is the true definition of “rebuilding.” For all the talk of suffering and rebuilding we’ve heard about the Sabres over the last few months, it’s tough to classify anything they’ve done as a true rebuilding effort. Claiming the Paul Gaustad trade was the start of rebuilding was a ridiculous bit of revisionist history, but even after that there’s little evidence that much has changed.
The idea of “rebuilding” is a tricky one if you never truly flame out. If the bottoming out produces a franchise player then you will see real change and a bounce back. The Islanders will go as Tavares goes for the next decade, and right now he’s making five seasons without the playoffs look like a small price to pay for his services.
Without the seismic shift that comes from a franchise player’s arrival, it’s tough to rebuild much of anything. With the eighth overall pick this year, the Sabres will simply draft a guy they hope can make the big team one day. It’s the same thing they’ve done with Pysyk, Armia, Grigorenko and Girgensons.
Without major trade activity or a big splash in the weak free agent market, it’s tough to call anything the Sabres do a true rebuild. Even then, they will still be searching for the next decade of Sabres hockey. It’s just a team with a bunch of mediocre hockey players swapping those guys out for some new ones. Not every team needs to bottom out to find success, but pretending you’re at the bottom doesn’t get you any closer to the top, either.