There will be a sour taste in the Islanders' mouths after being swept by Carolina, one round after sweeping Pittsburgh. This surprising season was indubitably a success given their low expectations, but knowing that the Eastern Conference was wide open and there for the taking will leave the Isles closely examing the hows and whys of their elimination.
It leads into what will be a crucial summer for the Islanders. They've got the coach, they've got the GM and they've gone from having a bleak outlook to legitimate contenders. Now they need to figure out how to take the next step toward winning the Stanley Cup. Here are five big questions the Islanders face entering the offseason.
1. Will Robin Lehner remain with the Islanders?
The single biggest move Lou Lamoriello made after taking over last year was signing Lehner to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Lehner joined the Isles on a mission to revitalize his career and to take back control of his life, having begun his quest for sobriety last year.
The Isles helped provide Lehner with a stable enironment, and he thrived in it, becoming a finalist for both the Vezina and Masterton trophies. While splitting time with Thomas Greiss, Lehner had a .930 save percentage and 2.13 GAA in 46 appearances (43 starts) during the regular season, helping the Islanders go from worst to first in goals allowed. Even though he was pulled in Game 4 Friday, Lehner wasn't the problem for the Isles in the postseason, during which Lehner had a .936 save percentage and 2.00 GAA.
Now, though, Lehner is in line for a nice pay raise. Will he get it from the Islanders or from another team on or after July 1? How much will Lehner weigh the comfort level he felt with the Isles? How much of a factor will Ilya Sorokin be from Lamoriello's perspective? The Isles need to figure out if and when Sorokin will come over from the KHL. He has another year on his KHL contract.
With Sorokin being somewhat of an unknown as far as how he'll adapt to the NHL, bringing Lehner back would seem like the way to go.
2. How much of a player will the Islanders be in free agency?
The Isles have a number of their own free agents they'll have to make decisions on. Everything will be impacted by whether Lamoriello decides to go big-game hunting this summer. With the option to try to re-sign Lehner, it'd seem unlikely the Isles would make a play for Sergei Bobrovsky.
But what about his Columbus teammate, Artemi Panarin? It will take a huge contract to land him, but just imagine Panarin on a line alongside Mathew Barzal.
What about another Blue Jacket, Matt Duchene? Or Jeff Skinner, who's coming off a 40-goal campaign? These guys will have to be seriously considered as the Isles plot their future.
3. Will the Isles lose another captain?
Anders Lee took over the captaincy after John Tavares went home to Toronto, but Lee is among several Isles forwards on the brink of hitting unrestricted free agency. On a team with a dearth of goal-scorers, Lee has found the net often over the last few years. He had 28 this season after scoring 40 last year and 34 in 2016-17.
Lee, who turns 29 in July and had a $3.75 million cap hit this season, will have to get a sizeable raise. He's been good for the dressing room and is probably worth paying.
4. How about Eberle, Nelson and the rest of the UFA forwards?
Some other team will probably be willing to pay Jordan Eberle what he wants, and frankly, the Islanders should let someone else have him. He had a disappointing regular season and seems a bit too finesse in Barry Trotz's system. Brock Nelson had a career-high 53 points and would be nice to keep around if the price is right.
Valtteri Filppula was a solid veteran presence as the third-line center. Not a lot of depth there for the Isles, so bringing him back on a similar one-year deal could work. Tom Kuhnhackl and Tanner Fritz are depth players not worth throwing off their plans for by any means.
5. Which players in their system should be in their 2019-20 plans?
Josh Ho-Sang will be a restricted free agent without arbitration rights. How much longer can the Isles keep this saga going? It seems like it's time to decide if he's going to put it all together. Michael Dal Colle showed some promise both in the NHL and AHL this season. Does he open next season in the Islanders' top nine?
Defenseman Sebastian Aho could find his way into the NHL next season. Will Oliver Wahlstrom be ready? How about Kieffer Bellows? Is it still too early for Noah Dobson?
There are some high-end prospects in the Isles' system, which makes their future following this surprising season that much brighter.