What can Islanders do to take next step?

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The New York Islanders have come a long way in two years.

It was the summer of the 2018 when things were looking bleak. They had missed the playoffs two years in a row and were an afterthought in the NHL. Making matters worse, their franchise player (John Tavares) bolted in free agency for Toronto after more than a year of contract drama.

But during that same offseason the Islanders hired a Hall of Fame general manager (Lou Lamoriello) and the reigning Stanley Cup winning head coach (Barry Trotz). All they have done since is go from being the absolute worst defensive team in the league to one of the best, compile the seventh best record in the league over the past two regular seasons, and have more postseason success than the organization had experienced in nearly three decades.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just for some perspective on how far they have come…

  • In the first two years of the Lamoriello-Trotz duo the Islanders have already won three playoff series and 14 total playoff games.
  • In the 24 seasons prior to that the Islanders won only one playoff series and only 16 total playoff games.

It is not even a case of Lamoriello overhauling the roster. If you look at the Islanders’ top-11 point producers from this season, 10 of them were players that were members of the organization before he arrived. His most impactful additions in the two years have been the hiring of Trotz, the signing of a new starting goalie each year (Robin Lehner last year, Semyon Varlamov this season), and this year’s trade deadline acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

Outside of Varlamov and Pageau, this is mostly the same roster that finished with 80 points and missed the playoffs by double digit points during the 2017-18 season. The turnaround is a testament to the goaltending improvement (and they have Ilya Sorokin coming next season) as well as the stability and structure that Trotz has brought to the team.

And that is what Lamoriello and Trotz have brought. Stability and respectability.

All of it has gotten then closer to a championship than they have been in nearly 30 years.

Now that they are here, how do they not only stay here, but also take the next step?

Which Islanders team is the REAL Islanders team?

This is the big question that has to be answered, because we saw two very different performances from this team this season.

  • Through the first 20 regular season games the Islanders were 16-3-1 and were in the process of putting together a 17-game point streak (15-0-2).
  • They followed that up by going in the tank for the remainder of the regular season and were statistically one of the league’s worst teams over their final 48 games (19-20-9 record), while also finishing on a seven-game losing streak (as part of a 2-5-4 stretch).
  • Then they came out in the playoffs after the four-month layoff and just started dominating teams again (Florida, Washington, and Philadelphia), right up until they ran into Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final.

Just like the 2018-19 season, they found their success this season despite some ugly underlying numbers, which doesn’t seem to be a thing that is going to change with this roster or playing style.

It is important to point out that the Islanders did have some major injury issues during that middle part, with defenseman Adam Pelech being the biggest. His return in the playoffs was a huge factor, as was the arrival of Pageau via trade with the Ottawa Senators. They are excellent players, and having a full season of Pageau will definitely help.

They could still use another impact forward

They saw a nice spike in scoring this postseason, but this is still one of the weaker offensive teams in the league at both even-strength and on the power play.

Yes, their game is all about defense and goaltending. And yes they have found success with that the past two seasons. But there is still a lot to be said for adding another potential game-breaker to a lineup that really only has one of them (Mathew Barzal).

That is not to take away from some of their forwards on the roster because there are some really productive players there. But after Barzal there really isn’t another player that is going to consistently strike fear into an opponent.

The problem: Finding another player like that isn’t easy.

Internally, the Islanders’ top forward prospects are Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, and Simon Holmstrom. Is there an impact player here? And if so, how soon?

The Islanders have $8 million salary cap space right now, but almost all of that (and perhaps more) is going to get eaten up by Barzal’s new contract (he is a restricted free agent). That means they will need to shed or hide salary somewhere else (and there are plenty of contenders for that).

On the free agent market Taylor Hall is the top forward available but he seems like a pipe dream given the salary situation (both his and the salary cap situation). Mike Hoffman or Evgeni Dadonov coming out of Florida could be intriguing.

Beyond that, it is slim pickings and you are looking into the trade market.

Hope Ilya Sorokin is the real deal

This one is pretty simple.

Great goaltending changes everything.

Islanders fans have been waiting for Sorokin for years now, and they will finally get a chance to see him next season. If he becomes the player they want him to be — and hope he can be — that gives them another outstanding goalie duo along with Varlamov.

Nothing cover up for shots against and below average offense like outstanding goaltending. If this guy is legit, the Islanders will be as well.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.