After watching free agents Ryan Smyth and Jason Blake sign elsewhere, New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow began his plan to rebuild the club into an annual Stanley Cup contender in the summer of 2007. With the attraction of a new arena far from guaranteed, Snow knew the only way to rebuild his club would be through the draft.
It was a long, grueling process. After entering each of the past five NHL drafts in possession of a top-five selection, the Islanders are finally back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Islanders went the first three weeks of April without losing a game in regulation. They finished the season 14-6-4 on the road. And with superstar John Tavares leading the way, they're capable of beating anybody on any given night.
Now that the Islanders are back in the playoffs for the first time in six years, here are five important questions to consider as they look to win a series for the first time since 1993:
1. Is John Tavares ready for the big stage?
You better believe he is. The No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL Draft, Tavares has emerged as one of the best players in the League. He's led the Islanders in scoring every year since his arrival in the fall of 2009. He makes his linemates better. His desire to be the best player on the ice rubs off on all of his teammates. He's the face of the franchise in every possible way. If the Islanders end their 20-year drought this spring, Tavares will more than likely play the biggest role.
2. Can Evgeni Nabokov hold up?
With a shortened season in 2012-13, Nabokov had to play a lot of games in a short amount of time. Each time the question arose about whether that was an issue, the goaltender consistently said no. But there's no doubt if the Islanders are going to advance this postseason, Nabokov will have to be on top of his game. He played awfully well down the stretch -- a good sign that his coaching staff and teammates have no concerns.
3. Can the second line continue to produce?
One of the biggest reasons the Islanders qualified for the postseason was the play of its second line during the final month of the regular season. The trio of Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo consistently produced offensively for the club, which took immense pressure off the top line of Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes. That needs to continue in the playoffs if the Islanders are going to advance.
4. Is this defense good enough?
Snow's best move of the offseason came at the 2012 NHL Draft, when he acquired veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round pick. There was some drama at the start -- Visnovsky fought that he had a no-trade clause, then his arrival was delayed for a few weeks -- but the 36-year-old averaged more than 22 minutes of ice time per game, which helped Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic a great deal. Those four, along with Thomas Hickey, really sealed some holes that had been on the blue line for the past few years. Now we'll find out if it's good enough to withstand one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference across the course of a seven-game series.
5. Will the Islanders take care of business at home?
New York struggled immensely on home ice during the first half of the regular season before it turned things around just in time to make a run at a playoff berth. While it remains to be seen if that will carry into the postseason, one thing is certain: The Islanders' building will be one of the loudest. When it's full, few are noisier than Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. And after a six-year playoff drought, rest assured this fan base is ready to blow the roof off the 41-year-old arena.