It's the last year for the old barn on Long Island.
And it seems only fitting that the New York Islanders appear to be winding up their tenure at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum the way they were back in the 1970s and early 1980s.
For years, going out to the old, outdated rink in suburban Uniondale has been one of the NHL's easier trips for visiting teams. This is a franchise that – while once a dynasty – hasn't been to the second round of the playoffs since 1993, when Al Arbour was still behind the bench.
They've missed the playoffs six of the past seven years, and 14 of the past 19, if you want to venture back through the tangled mess of wacky ownership and wackier contracts (think Alexei Yashin and Rick DiPietro).
It's early days, but it finally looks as if the Isles have come through the other side of all of that, emerging as one of the league's bright, exciting young teams, and with new ownership set to take over as they move to Brooklyn next fall.
Not only does 24-year-old captain John Tavares have a share of the NHL scoring lead with Sidney Crosby, he's got some real help.
All of those years out of the playoffs paid off with some fairly high picks, including some trickier selections that the Isles scouting staff turned into good bets. Beyond Tavares, who went first overall in 2009, a handful of other first rounders such as Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Calvin de Haan, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome are forming a rising core that could help make the Islanders a power in the Eastern Conference in the coming years. Especially once their two top-five picks from 2012 and 2014, Griffin Reinhart and Michael Dal Colle, are ready to step into key roles.
Heading into Tuesday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Islanders have started their season 4-1-0 and have attracted the attention of a lot of observers around the NHL. While that influx of talented youth is one of the primary reasons they're suddenly a threat, there are others important ones, too.
Goaltending has been their biggest killer historically, masking the quality of the rest of this cast. The past five years, the Isles have the league's worst team save percentage (.899) – an aging Evgeni Nabokov and two poor backups were the culprits last season.
Throw in a season-ending injury to Tavares at the Sochi Olympics and a questionable defence corps, and that's how the Isles wound up 26th in the NHL a year ago.
Here's where much-maligned GM Garth Snow deserves credit. For one, he solved the problem in goal, signing Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson for the reasonable cap hit of $5.8-million (U.S.).
Then, taking advantage of two cap-strapped contenders, he rebuilt his blueline's top four right before the season started, landing Johnny Boychuk from Boston and Nick Leddy from Chicago for prospects and draft picks.
The resulting pairing, with Leddy on the left and Boychuk on the right, has been one of the team's early revelations, with both players flourishing with the bigger minutes and responsibilities.
"It's funny how things work out," coach Jack Capuano said. "Before the Leddy and Boychuk deals, we were pretty banged up on the back end … I know Garth was looking. To pull off [getting] those two guys was a big plus for us."
The Isles have beaten some good teams, too, knocking off the rival Rangers and the San Jose Sharks before narrowly losing their first game of the season, to the Penguins on Saturday.
"They're a very quick team," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after his team was surprised and outshot 14-3 in the first period by Capuano's, "and they have a tenacity to them that we hadn't seen."
That's been enough to give the Isles an early lead in the Metropolitan Division, where Pittsburgh is the favourite but the other playoff spots are wide open. The Long Islanders could easily slip into second or third.
Expectations have also been raised considerably. Tavares's incredible competitiveness has been well documented the past few years, but it's begun to rub off on his teammates.
Even with their youth and with the organization's historical lack of success, the Isles now expect to win, even against teams such as the Penguins.
"Guys weren't happy," Capuano said of his group after their first loss. "And that's exactly what you want to see."