It's a big next couple of games before the trade deadline for the New York Islanders, and not just because of their position in the Eastern Conference and Wild Card Standings.
When news broke a week ago that Mathew Barzal would be 'out-indefinitely' and later modified to 'week-to-week' with a lower-body injury, the instant reaction from many was that the Islanders would likely become sellers at the trade deadline, given their tenuous playoff position and upcoming schedule. Struggling in the absence of Barzal might have given GM Lou Lamoriello clarity that this was not the time to invest further in this roster.
"It's clearly a big hole for us in certain areas," head coach Lane Lambert said. "It means other guys have to step up to the plate and create some abilities to contribute and make up for what we're missing with him."
But then the Islanders won back-to-back wins against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Winnipeg Jets, which put them into the top Wild Card position as players have stepped up in the absence of not only Barzal but JG Pageau and Josh Bailey as well (Bailey resumed skating on Friday, while Pageau has not yet been back on the ice). Suddenly, the tone shifted from seller to possible buyer.
Despite Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings at home, the two prior wins make it further unlikely that Lamoriello would choose to sell players heading into free agency, including Scott Mayfield, Semyon Varlamov, and Zach Parise. While there could be decent returns for veteran players with deep playoff experience, it would go counter to the way Lamoriello has run things to weaken the roster at a time when they are in or very close to a playoff position, even if the most optimistic Islanders fans understand that the chance of post-season success is slim.
Further, it is not out of the question that Lamoriello plans to have all three players back, continuing a theme of retaining current players and signing them to extensions, especially if the contract is reasonable. Could Parise come back on another league-minimum deal? Varlamov on number about half of what he made this season? Mayfield on his second team-friendly contract?
That all seems possible.
Regardless of whether you believe it would be in the best interests of the team to acquire whatever assets they can at the deadline and use those pieces to either add to a thin prospect pool or give them more trade options in the summer, the feel is that Lamoriello will keep the group intact, provide them with a chance to make the playoffs and see what happens.
The only thing that feels left to figure out is if Lamoriello would decide to add further in the absence of Barzal to sustain the forward group, get into playoff position, and hope Barzal can return for a post-season run. The outcome of the next two games could decide exactly that.