What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out?

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New York Islanders fans and observers are still absorbing the stunning truth: John Tavares is gone. He’s now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

(Let that sink in for a moment if needed. It’s OK.)

As The Athletic’s Arthur Staple noted in confirming Tavares’ departure (sub required), there will be a lot of finger pointing involved after the face of the franchise left. Fueled by hindsight, critics will batter the Islanders for getting nothing – aside from cap space – for Tavares. Not trading Tavares while missing the playoffs in 2017-18 stings on a deep level.

Tavares, for his part, said goodbye to Islanders fans in a message that was too large for one tweet. He called this “the toughest decision of my life.” Islanders fans are, uh, not quite ready to forgive him just yet.

So, for the Islanders, what’s next? You know, beyond putting up sad GIFs, taking a long walk, and flat-out weeping? Here’s an early look at the good and bad while we process the ugly.

What’s left after a strong-yet-futile final push

How close did the Islanders come to getting Tavares back? Ultimately, we may never know.

The Islanders take on a very different look after this final surge. It’s a veteran front office in charge, considering the age of GM Lou Lamoriello (75) and head coach Barry Trotz (55).

(Admittedly, Trotz is younger than I initially thought. Apologies, Barry.)

You wonder if those two will really have the patience for much more than a soft rebuild, but that’s the interesting consideration.

Rebuild or reload?

On one hand, there are commitments that were made with a Tavares-fueled future in mind. After bringing back Thomas Hickey, the Isles are committed to five defensemen for at least three seasons, with four of them locked down for four or more. The Josh Bailey extension seemingly stemmed from imagining him tethered to Tavares for the foreseeable future; will the winger be worth $5M per season through 2023-24 without him?

Making a “rebuild or reload?” call soon is imperative to avoid losing more valuable assets to unrestricted free agency. Jordan Eberle‘s $6M cap hit will expire after 2018-19, as will Anders Lee‘s cheap $3.75M clip. The Islanders would be wise to figure out a) if they want to keep one or both of those forwards and b) if Eberle and/or Lee want to sign extensions.

If the answer is “No” from either perspective, the Islanders could recoup some nice assets for those scorers, especially if there’s a rebuild in mind.

Lee, in particular, could fetch quite a bounty. The big winger carries that cheap cap hit, and his 74 goals during the past two seasons ties him for Auston Matthews for fifth-best in the NHL. (And he’s not that far behind first-place guy Alex Ovechkin, who scored 82 goals during that span.)

The thing is, the Islanders could attempt to compete in 2018-19.

One interesting consideration would be going after Ryan O'Reilly. Of course, ROR isn’t Tavares, but he’s a talented two-way center who could take on tough assignments while Mathew Barzal leveraged golden offensive opportunities.

You could do worse than to ice that sort of one-two punch at center while hoping that Trotz’s system plugs the many leaks the Isles suffered with Doug Weight behind the bench. Incumbent goalie Thomas Greiss really doesn’t have anywhere to go but up, after all.

No doubt, if the Islanders want to strain to contend/compete next season, they’ll need to ask tough questions about Greiss’ viability in net.

Realistically, a rebuild (“soft” or full-on) would probably be the Islanders’ best course of action. Considering the depth of quality teams in the Metro, it may boil down to being their only true choice.

At least that Tavares-free scenario is more promising today than it was before June 22.

Some bright spots

It’s probably tough for Islanders fans to contemplate following Tavares’ departure and Garth Snow being ousted not long after that grim billboard campaign, but there have been some positives to consider.

For one thing, Barzal won the 2018 Calder Trophy thanks to one of the most dazzling rookie seasons in recent memory. This clip might soothe some of those hard feelings for Islanders fans.

[PHT Q&A with Barzal.]

While the heat’s going to turn up on Barzal to be “the guy” for the Islanders, the good news is that help should be coming. Eventually.

Things could have gone either way for the Islanders during the 2018 NHL Draft, as you never know what kind of talent will be around at picks 11 and 12. As it turns out, the Islanders landed two very promising prospects in defenseman Noah Dobson and potentially prolific winger Oliver Wahlstrom. Their overall haul earned rave reviews, as they also grabbed interesting talents such as Bode Wilde.

It will take time to find out if the steak matches the sizzle, and a strong-on-paper draft wasn’t enough to retain Tavares, but a slam-dunk first draft for Lou sure beats landing “Gotti”-level reviews.

If management goes to a more overtly rebuild-friendly route, maybe a strong 2019 top pick could also ease the pain?

***

Yes, it’s true that there’s only so much you can do to rationalize this loss. It must feel like a cannon ball to the stomach right now.

The Islanders don’t have any choice but to regain their wits and figure out what’s next.

All things considered, it could be worse, even if it probably doesn’t feel that way for their star-crossed fans.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.