The New York Islanders rebuild is about to enter its fifth season, and after four consecutive Atlantic Division last-place finishes (five when including 2007-08, the tumble that led GM Garth Snow to change course), the franchise isn't about to reverse this long process.
For 2012-13 that means more waiting for internal prospects for growth -- but more importantly, it means this is the year more of those prospects are expected to pan out.
So far the rebuild has produced John Tavares, a gimme at first overall in 2009, and Travis Hamonic, a key defenseman unearthed as their third pick in the second round of 2008. Other hot names like Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Strome and Calvin de Haan have yet to emerge as NHLers.
Those prospects' times may come soon, and Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Kirill Kabanov and Matt Donovan may also be just around the corner. There is a well-regarded prospect pipeline here, but their corner turn will have to arrive now if the Islanders are to avoid yet another finish in the Atlantic basement.
It's all about internal growth, because help from the outside has mostly proven elusive, or has come in low-risk packages.
Granted, the Islanders' did go outside to address their top offseason need when Snow acquired Lubomir Visnovsky from the Anaheim Ducks to round out his top four defensemen. Yet in a cursed fashion that too often befits the Islanders, Visnovsky's arrival is up in the air as he presses his case to uphold his no-trade clause via an arbitration hearing Sept. 4. Should he remain their property, Visnovsky should help the powerplay too.
While a top-four blueliner was the Islanders' most glaring offseason need, it wasn't the only one -- and other needs are still left wanting, or at least waiting until a prospect steps up to fill the hole.
Sub-par depth defensemen Mark Eaton, Steve Staios and MIlan Jurcina were all allowed to walk and Mike Mottau was happily shown the door at the trade deadline. But the only certain reinforcement beyond Visnovsky is Matt Carkner, a physical veteran coming off a knee injury who is a third-pair guy at best. The Isles are counting on Donovan, de Haan or Aaron Ness to grab any other blueline openings.
Up front, the Islanders allowed P.A. Parenteau to walk rather than re-sign him for the $16 million he fetched from the Colorado Avalanche. They hope to replace him both from within and with the kind of bargain shopping that has previously netted them successes like Matt Moulson and Parenteau himself in the past.
This year their bargain splurge was declining former 40-goal-scorer Brad Boyes, brought in on a one-year deal for $1 million. The Isles hope a combination of Boyes and other home-grown products like Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey after his move to wing (with Cizikas filling his hole at center), and any combination of emerging prospects David Ullstrom, Kabanov and Strome fill the void created by Parenteau's departure.
In goal, the Islanders let Al Montoya leave via free agency after his disappointing campaign. That means oft-injured Rick DiPietro begins the season as Evgeni Nabokov's default backup. DiPietro's health and performance have not been NHL quality for four seasons running now, so if that pattern continues the Islanders will again rely on rebuild prospects: In this case 2008 pick Kevin Poulin and 2009 pick Anders Nilsson are each making great cases to earn a shot at the job, with them taking turns winning AHL Goalie of the Month honors last season.
For the Islanders, a low-budget team in a high-budget division, it's rebuild or bust. To that point, there is a good chance their bevy of prospects will make them competitive one day while keeping the low payroll that young cost-controlled players afford.
But until that day arrives -- until they have their Los Angeles or St. Louis moment when the prospects finally click and compose a playoff team -- it will be more waiting for organic growth on Long Island.