There really isn't all that much riding on the next six months for the New York Islanders—only where the franchise and its best player will call home next year and beyond. Coming off a playoff-less season that began with high expectations, first-time full-time coach Doug Weight could be seen sitting arms folded and foot stomping outside a farm-to-table beet salad eatery across from Barclays Center.
"Is there any more shit we can pile on to the outcome of this season?"
Make no mistake about it, John Tavares still without a contract for next season is basically an open rebellion. In any other sport, a star player unsigned a year from free agency would barely register as news; in hockey, a sport where players are so desperate to be seen as team guys that they'll leave $1 million on the table when signing a new deal, it might as well be a football player walking into training camp, dropping his contract on the field, and taking a 73-second piss on it.
All of this sport's best players routinely get the next contract ironed out before the current one expires; when they don't—like Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay, for example—they are at the very least looking longingly at the waters they want to test, if not imagining splashing around in them. Maybe Tavares pulls a Stamkos and re-signs if he doesn't like what he sees in free agency but considering the current state of the Islanders, it should be a concern for fans and management that don't want to see their team revert to a pile of crap or move very far away.
The future of the Islanders is about as unclear as the view from most of the seats in Barclays Center, an arena that draws more Joel Osteen fans than Islanders fans. The move from Long Island to Brooklyn, while amazing for those of us that well up with tears of joy at the thought of taking a subway to sporting events, hasn't worked out. Barclays is a great building but it's bad for hockey and they want to kick out the Islanders, who probably aren't all that sad about the possibility.
That leaves the Islanders and Tavares in limbo, because while the sensible solution is to move the Islanders back to Nassau Coliseum or on any parcel of land on Long Island that will take them, you just never know with the NHL, and Tavares is probably aware of this. He loves the area—another reason to be worried because if anyone would immediately sign an extension to stay somewhere, it's Tavares and Long Island—and the last thing he wants is to sign an eight-year deal and have to play it out in Quebec or Seattle.
So let's say the Islanders are utter dogshit this season. They're looking up at Vegas in the standings. Doug Weight can't get the dry erase markers to work. Josh Ho-Sang oversleeps for a dozen games. Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss can't make a save. The team is drawing 9,000 a night and there still isn't a new arena deal in place. And all the while, Tavares is his usual brilliant self, watching everything go to hell and pretending he's happy after every practice and loss like the dog in the "This Is Fine" meme.
Tavares would be a fool to do anything other than sample what's on the open market. He has been as loyal as anyone to a mismanaged franchise that has done nothing to deserve that loyalty. Garth Snow has wasted the first eight years of Tavares' career so why should the two-time Hart Trophy finalist allow him to waste the next eight years? You couldn't begrudge a guy who had to lug around P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson for years for leaving after a ninth failure of a season.
But Tavares is a reasonable guy who doesn't crave the spotlight of a place like, say, Toronto—he wants to stay. He just needs a reason. He's Lady Gaga. He doesn't want to pack his life and move somewhere unfamiliar; if there's a land deal in place at Belmont Park and the Islanders are nestled into second place in the Metro with 30 games to play, Tavares would be happy to sign a new deal. The team sucking butt, though, even if there's a new local arena coming, may be his breaking point.
And if you don't think the Islanders moving to Seattle or Quebec or anywhere far away from New York isn't at least a faint possibility, what league have you been watching all these years? The NHL will absolutely stick a knife through your heart and relocate this team if it means a few more dollars for everyone. This is a league that a few weeks ago waved around a letter from the fucking Pope about inclusiveness, then stood and watched one of its marquee teams accept an invitation to the White House from a President who thinks there are good Nazis and is taunting Puerto Rico on Twitter for being in debt. Don't trust anything Gary Bettman tells you about teams relocating—ask Atlanta Thrashers fans about that.
Yes, there were Atlanta Thrashers fans. Don't be a dick.
The Islanders have a roster capable of reaching the playoffs (although Bovada believes a miss is more likely than a make) but the pressure on this team is unlike anything seen in the NHL in a long time. If ownership can't lock down new land for a new arena, Tavares may be gone. If the team sucks, Tavares may be gone. If the team is good and there's nothing final on an arena deal, then what does Tavares do? Hell, what if another first-round exit doesn't satisfy Tavares? If the Islanders draw jack shit again because they're bad, do they say "fuck it" and become the Quebec Nordiques Part Deux?
I don't know, I'm genuinely asking.
If Tavares leaves, you may as well root for relocation because no one wants to see this team even when it has one of the game's best players and is competitive, and nobody will want to see a 68-point team led by the decaying husk of Andrew Ladd take the ice, either.
Islanders fans that have endured registering just one playoff series victory over the past 25 years have routinely asked themselves, "Is there any way this can get any worse?"
Great news! It might!