Can Islanders still make playoffs, or are they better off tanking?

Can Islanders still make playoffs, or are they better off tanking?
Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

As we approach February, the New York Islanders face two conflicting questions. Can they make the playoffs or would they be better off tanking (subtly or shamelessly?) for better picks in the 2022 NHL Draft?

Sometimes, teams don’t really have a choice; they’re really bad, and thus they “tank” by default. But if the Islanders continue to push for a playoff spot, that would likely mean drawing a lesser draft pick, and it also might keep them from “selling” at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.

(If the Islanders are especially thirsty, they might even be buyers at the trade deadline after years of pretty big spending.)

Let’s explore this from a couple of angles: how likely would a playoff push be for the Islanders, and which forces may factor into tanking for better draft picks?

Examining the chances of an Islanders playoff push

Following Tuesday’s win over the Flyers, the Islanders sport a 15-14-6 record.

That leaves them far outside a playoff spot, but the Islanders also hold games in-hand advantages over their would-be competition. They’ve only played 35 games so far this season, while others have already played as many as 43.

So, there’s some reason to believe — but an Islanders playoff push remains unlikely. Of course, the Lou Lamoriello – Barry Trotz era is marked by defying expectations.

What do various projections say. Well, here’s a scattered collection from before Tuesday’s game vs. the Flyers:

Overall? Not exactly promising. Not Dumb & Dumber “so you’re telling me there’s a chance?” bad, but bad.

There’s an interesting side question, though. If the Islanders clawed their way to a playoff spot, could they do much damage?

Would this year’s Islanders likely make much noise in the playoffs if they did make it?

For the most enthusiastic of Trotz enthusiasts, any array of underlying stats can be thrown out the window. The Islanders just find ways to win, after all.

But these metrics still give us some indication of whether there’s some method behind big-dreaming madness. And that’s where things look dicey. It’s no surprise that the Islanders are losing out in “quantity” battles like shot volume — that’s practically their brand at this point.

[MORE: See where the Isles stand in this week’s Power Rankings]

Yet, this season, the Islanders aren’t really winning the “quality” battle that often this season.

Even if you throw out that historic season-opening road trip, the Islanders are only at 47.5% in expected goals (worse than the Blackhawks mostly under Derek King) and controlled only 48.6% of high-danger chances at 5-on-5.

Could the Islanders defy those numbers, even in what would likely be a tough opening series against a team like the Hurricanes or Panthers? Sure, they’re the Barry Trotz Islanders.

Yet there’s the uneasy possibility that they’d bow out meekly after an exhausting, all-out playoff push. Or not make the playoffs at all, but ruin their draft opportunities in the process, falling in “puck purgatory.”

Which brings us to some talk about tanking, and a murky 2022 NHL Trade Deadline for the Islanders.

Tanking for the 2022 NHL Draft, selling at deadline, and the push and pull of an aging Islanders organization

Truly, there’s quite a bit to unpack here. For the sake of your scrolling finger(s), we’ll keep sections simple instead of expansive.

Why getting older might make management less tank-friendly

Look at the Islanders’ roster, and you may notice an aging group. That’s not true in every spot (Mathew Barzal is just 24; both Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are 27), it’s still a larger pattern.

Maybe most importantly, the Islanders front office is almost dusty. Barry Trotz is 59, and Lou Lamoriello is old enough to be Trotz’s father at 79.

(Raise your hand if you realized there was a 20-year age gap between the two. Put your hands down, liars.)

As much as any other factor, “the Islanders are getting old” might make Trotz and/or Lamoriello believe that they only have so many more swings at this, thus discouraging a selling/tanking mentality.

The more logical side of getting old, tanking: the Islanders need more Grade-A prospects

Overall, it’s understandable that the Islanders were such buyers during previous NHL trade deadlines. They ended up painfully close to two consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances.

But such gambits haven’t helped their farm system. Consider where the Islanders prospect pools/pipelines have ranked:

To an extent, that’s the “price of doing business.” But what about when business is soft?

The Islanders might be better off essentially “writing this year off,” and giving their farm system a boost, then hoping for more luck next year.

Limited trade deadline potential, limited room to tank?

“Tanking” may only be a limited option for the Islanders, though.

Realistically, will an experienced, Barry Trotz-coached team finish behind the Devils, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Blackhawks, and others? (The ship probably already sailed with true laggards like the Coyotes, Kraken, Senators, Canadiens, etc.)

So, maybe the key is to try to sell at the trade deadline, to power that prospect pool with a quantity of picks?

There might be some room there, but the Islanders don’t boast the sexiest slew of trade deadline rentals, either. (Many apologies, other Sebastian Aho.)

That said, there’s some room for moves. Zdeno Chara is still large. Cal Clutterbuck still spams the hits category. And, if a team wanted two playoff runs, maybe someone would want to trade for Semyon Varlamov.

All of that said, it’s hard to expect the Islanders to land much more than mid-range picks at the deadline.

Tough spot overall

Zooming out, it feels like the Islanders might just be a little stuck. Maybe they’re best off echoing the 2012-13 Sharks, who sold high on Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe, then made the playoffs anyway?

(Honestly, not so sure about the Islanders making the playoffs, but it might be the best template to roll with …)

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.

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