2017-18 NHL Team Preview: New York Islanders

New York Islanders’ rookie Josh Ho-Sang weighs in on the John Tavares 2018 free agency decision, and the acquisition of Jordan Eberle.

Is there an NHL team with more riding on its success this winter than the New York Islanders? Is there a general manager facing a more crucial contract extension than Garth Snow?

We think not.

Under mid-season replacement coach Doug Weight — who did a helluva job with nothing to lose — the Isles battled admirably through goalie controversy, trade rumours, key injuries, and troubling rink issues to nearly snag a wild-card berth and remain relevant until the final weekend of the regular season.

Weight was given the permanent bench gig, contractual mistake Mikhail Grabovski and solid goalie prospect Jean-Francois Berube flew off to Vegas, and top-four defenceman Travis Hamonic and 24-year-old forward Ryan Strome were deployed to the Battle of Alberta.

For right-shot Hamonic, Snow reaped a rich package of futures but weakened an already-questionable blue line. The GM certainly got the better (and more expensive) player in the Strome deal, uniting Jordan Eberle with John Tavares in hopes the friends can lead New York back to the playoffs.

Pressure = on.

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

Gradually, the Islanders are finding more time for their young, intriguing forward prospects. Anthony Beauvillier, 20, Mathew Barzal, 20, and Joshua Ho-Sang, 21, all have a chance to make their stamp on the club this fall.

Partly because he’s the one I’ve watched most in action up close and partly because he’s a treat to interview, Ho-Sang is one of my bets to hop right into the Calder conversation.

The rookie right wing will have the benefit of dodging the most difficult defensive matchups — those will go to Eberle and Tavares — and the franchise has not rushed his development.

Since Snow drafted the creative, confident OHL star as a late first-rounder in 2014, Ho-Sang spent two more years in junior and a season with AHL Bridgeport before earning a call-up in late 2016-17, where he put up 10 points over 21 games.

Ho-Sang has received his share of criticism but has matured immensely. His perspective is now on par with his playmaking.

“It’s tough in sports to grade what makes a guy exceptional,” Ho-Sang told us this summer. “I think it’s your ability to make the players around you better and help your team go for a run. If your team hasn’t made the playoffs and you change that — like Connor — that’s greatness. His team hadn’t made the playoffs in [10] years and he goes to the team. His first full season, they make the playoffs.

“That, in my eyes, is greatness. That’s what I’m chasing. I want to win as many Stanley Cups as I can. That’s my focus. If individual trophies come along, it’s nice. But if I can be a winner my whole career, it’s a better life to live.”

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

Selling out the Barclays Center for a few home playoff dates, for starters.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Everything in Brooklyn revolves around Tavares and his future is in limbo. All the captain wants to do is win — a tall order when you play in one of sports’ toughest divisions.

So, what does a winning Islanders team look like? Eberle needs to rediscover his 30-goal form on Tavares’ right side. Either Thomas Greiss or Jaroslav Halak — who survived the J-F Berube era despite stint in the AHL and the trading block — needs to seize the net and deliver a top-15 goaltending performance. Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson must all build on decent 2016-17 showings, and 31-year-old Andrew Ladd ($5.5 million cap hit through 2023, if you need reminding) cannot afford to let age get the better of him.

Somehow, the Isles’ 23rd-ranked defence — a concern not dealt with this summer — must tighten up despite the loss of Hamonic and limit opponents to fewer than 30 shots a night.

Even if everything turns up Snow, he’ll still need an off year from the Rangers, Blue Jackets, or Capitals to snag a wild-card berth.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

Will Tavares pack his bags?

This isn’t just the biggest question hovering over the Island but arguably the entire league. We’ve examined this mystery more extensively here, but Tavares’ decision — a dilemma knotted in with arena uncertainty, attendance issues, and salary cap concerns — will have a dramatic impact on this franchise either way.

The Islanders are willing to give the 26-year-old superstar all the money and term to satisfy his needs, but if he can’t see a winning future with the team that drafted him first overall?

Well, hockey heads can buckle up for the most intense July 1 in years.