The New York Islanders have, under head coach Ted Nolan, become a team that has mastered the art of overachieving -- making the most with what they have -- but, even so, they didn't make the playoffs in 2007-2008.
Off-Season Game Plan examines the dilemma facing the Islanders this summer.
Nolan's style seems to lend itself to the hard-nosed two-way player but that may be coming at the expense of the highly-skilled player as the Islanders are in desperate need of more talent if they are going to be competitive for a playoff spot.
While the Islanders were buoyed by the performances of their younger players last season, general manager Garth Snow has to manage a delicate balance this summer. Can the Isles afford to just wait on their young players and hope that, through internal improvement alone, the results will be better?
"You don't want to put too much expectation on young players," Nolan told Newsday. "If they have breakout years, that's a bonus. But we'll see what our needs are and see who the free agents are and make some good decisions to help us in that area."
What makes the matter more pressing, particularly for Nolan, is that he's entering the final season of his contract so it's easy to understand that -- barring an extension -- he would like to see Snow bring in some proven talent to help the Islanders immediately.
Aside from Kyle Okposo, the Islanders' prospects aren't projected to be great difference-makers, so the request for an infusion of talent isn't unreasonable.
Now, it's up to Snow and owner Charles Wang have to decide just how hard they'll push to lure the free agents that will help revive the program.
Garth Snow/Ted Nolan
Top Prospects: Jesse Joensuu, Ben Walter, Frans Nielsen
There aren't enough offensive weapons available to the Islanders up front and that's an area that will need to be addressed quickly if the team is going to become more competitive.
The Islanders' best internal hope for a skill upgrade is scoring winger Kyle Okposo. The seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft left the University of Minnesota mid-season and had a smooth transition to the pros, scoring 28 points in 35 AHL games before finishing the season with five points in nine games on the Island. Okposo has the skills and confidence to be a first-rate scoring winger, but the 20-year-old can't be expected to carry the load by himself.
The leading returning scorer is Mike Comrie, who earned a healthy raise for his modest 49-point production (to say nothing of his team-worst minus-21 rating). Part of the problem for Comrie is that he's asked to handle too much responsibility in New York and needs a better supporting cast to be effective.
Similarly, Bill Guerin is at the stage of his career where he can no longer be counted on for first-line production. The 37-year-old had 23 goals and 44 points, but that's following a 36-goal season from the year before and it's hard to imagine a bounceback that pushes Guerin over 30 goals again. At the same time, he's still the goal-hungry Islanders' leading returning marksman.
Though the shelves could be stocked with a few more scorers, the Islanders have a decent group of checking forwards.
Venerable veteran Mike Sillinger plays a good two-way game and has enough of a knack around the net to chip in 20 goals while anchoring the penalty killing unit. So long as he can fully recover from hip surgery, Sillinger should once again be a significant performer for the Islanders next season.
Trent Hunter is a hard-working winger who appears capable of scoring more than a dozen goals, but that might also be helped by playing with more offensively-focused linemates.
Bargain pickup Richard Park earned a contract extension after posting a career-high 32 points, performing well in a checking role and showing versatility by moving to centre for a good portion of the season.
22-year-old Blake Comeau didn't see a lot of action, playing a little over 11 minutes per game after getting promoted to the big club, but his hockey sense should see him in a bigger role moving forward.
Andy Hilbert has established himself as a bona fide NHLer but, with 77 points in 236 career games, he's also established that he best fits in a fourth-line/penalty-killing role.
Hard-working winger Sean Bergenheim showed good progress in his return to the NHL. His offensive upside is limited, but he's a solid two-way player who is still developing; the kind of player who needs to play a regular role if he's going to reach his potential.
Journeyman Tim Jackman provided some toughness on the fourth line but, despite leading the team in scraps, he's not really an enforcer and his skill level could easily be replaced if need be.
Jon Sim and Shawn Bates only played two games apiece after suffering serious injuries, but both veterans would be serviceable in depth roles if they could come back healthy.
While it's all fine and good to hope that the Islanders' young players can improve, any significant changes to their offensive fortunes will likely require acquisitions. Long Island may not be the most desirable destination for free agents, but the Islanders still have to try.
Forwards along the calibre of Kristian Huselius or Ryan Malone would be ideal, as they are younger than many of the other free agents out there, but if the Rangers can't lock up Jaromir Jagr, the Isles might want to consider making a splash by taking him away from their arch-rivals and totally changing the dynamic up front.
Furthermore, free agents like Jason Williams, Andrew Brunette, Vaclav Prospal, Cory Stillman and David Vyborny would all provide offensive upgrades and it's incumbent on the Isles to look at some of these veteran options to help get the team moving in the right direction sooner rather than later.
If GM Garth Snow wants to dip into his past, he could look to Mike Peca, Markus Naslund or Martin Straka, all players that played with Snow at some point during his career, and each of whom might offer some skills that would help the current crop of Islanders.
Top Prospects: Dustin Kohn, Jack Hillen, Jamie Fraser
Thrust into a prominent role, Chris Campoli played well before undergoing shoulder surgery and his ability to move the puck should ensure that he plays a top-four role with the Islanders next season.
Freddy Meyer has been underrated in his brief NHL career. Perhaps it's because he's undersized, but Meyer bounced around the waiver wire a few times before sticking with the Isles and playing well enough to earn a two-year contract extension.
Radek Martinek was tops among Islanders defencemen in ice time, at nearly 23 minutes per game (with hardly any on the power play) and his selfless, stay-at-home style provides a sense of stability. Most teams would likely prefer to have a horse who can log the most minutes and play in all situations, but the Islanders just don't have that luxury at this point.
The Islanders do have their share of nastiness on the blueline and it comes primarily from veterans Brendan Witt and Andy Sutton.
Witt has established, over 11 NHL seasons, that he is tough to play against. While his puck skills are limited and he doesn't dazzle with his wheels, he's combative to the core and knows how to get under the skin of the opposition's best players.
Sutton is similarly difficult to play against because of his combination of size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) and toughness. Teams always seem to be seeking the kind of physical presence that Sutton provides, so he could yield some quality in return if the Islanders choose to explore that option.
Depth comes from some young, mobile blueliners. Bruno Gervais logged 20 minutes per game, which may have been asking too much too soon, but the 23-year-old continues to make steady progress to this point in his career.
Aaron Johnson hasn't been able to solidify a regular spot in the NHL, but he's a useful depth player who skates well and has moved up to forward on occasion.
Another way for the Islanders to generate more offence would be to land another puck-moving defenceman who can run the power play; essentially finding an upgrade over Bryan Berard. John-Michael Liles or Ron Hainsey might be ideal fits -- younger guys who are mobile and can handle the puck and handle a lot of ice time.
Top Prospect: Jase Weslosky
Rick DiPietro's numbers dipped across the board, but that was in large part because of a decline that came after the All-Star game, where he had suffered a hip injury that led to surgery late in the season. Given his contract, the Islanders have little choice but to rest their goaltending fate with DiPietro, but he's played well over the last couple seasons and could really use a stronger supporting cast in front of him if he's going to have a legitimate chance to rank among the league's elite at the position.
While it's fair to suggest that the Islanders need a reliable backup who can handle 20-25 starts to keep DiPietro fresh, that player could well be Wade Dubielewicz, who finished the season strong (.933 save percentage in March and April) enough to warrant a new contract.
The organization's depth in goal isn't particularly strong, but the franchise's commitment to DiPietro makes it difficult to invest too much in the proverbial "goaltender of the future" when you expect the status quo at the top of the position for more than a decade. Just ask the Devils.
5th - Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Nikita Filatov, Cody Hodgson
The Islanders have approximately $32-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top six forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Islanders needed last year: Four top nine forwards, two top four defencemen
Who did they add? Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Josef Vasicek, Sean Bergenheim, Chris Simon, Andy Sutton, Bryan Berard, Aaron Johnson
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com