UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) -New York Islanders captain Doug Weight walked out of Nassau Coliseum at the end of another disappointing season with his arm in a sling.
But all was not lost for the 39-year-old wounded warrior. He left feeling hopeful for his hockey future and the prospects of a team that is showing signs of improvement.
"I expect myself to be back here and playing," Weight said. "I want to be back on this team and I want to be physically strong for the first time since the first 40 games I played in '09. If those things work out, it would be great. If not, I can certainly look at myself in the mirror and know I've had a lot of fun in my career and see what happens."
Weight earned $2 million this season and there is no guarantee he will be back with the Islanders, who try to be judicious while operating on a tight budget. Some unrestricted free agents, such as backup goalie Martin Biron, likely won't return.
The Islanders' payroll does little more than meet the minimum requirements set by the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' association. The plan is to build a winner through youth and effective scouting.
They will be able to supplement the roster with another high draft pick and maybe add some free agents while trying to remain fiscally responsible.
"It wouldn't hurt us if we had some size," second-year coach Scott Gordon said. "The value of being able to take away time and space makes you a better defensive team. That's something we lacked this year both up front and on defense."
While the Islanders went from having the worst record in the league last season to tied with the fourth fewest points in this campaign, there are tangible glimmers of hope. New York jumped from 26 wins and 61 points in the 2008-09 season to 34 wins and 79 points this time.
"We said this year that we want nothing more than to be in the playoffs," said Weight, who was limited to 36 games and is unsigned for next season. "Going into next year, I expect to be in the playoffs. That's a little different situation than we had coming into this year."
Whether that is a realistic goal or not remains to be seen. One thing, however, is for certain. Although few, if any, predicted the Islanders to reach the postseason this year, the young core of players they are building around are brash enough to genuinely feel disappointed they fell short.
Third-year forward Kyle Okposo finished with a career-best 19 goals and 52 points. Second-year player Josh Bailey had 16 goals and 35 points. And John Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, debuted with 24 goals and a team-best 54 points.
All three were first-round picks and make up the foundation of what general manager Garth Snow and Gordon expect to be a perennial postseason contender in years to come.
"It's tough," Tavares said. "We didn't have the success we would've liked to have had. We made some improvements and some strides this year. We want to take a big step next year. That's the goal from everybody in the organization. Losing is no fun. The fans here are dying to see us back in the playoffs and competing well in the playoffs consistently.
"I want to win the Stanley Cup real bad. I think everybody does here."
For now, they must try to make incremental steps. Some more finds like Matt Moulson would certainly help. Moulson was signed last summer to provide depth in the organization, but showed talent during training camp. He went on to lead the Islanders with 30 goals.
New York has finished last in the Atlantic Division in the three seasons since its last playoff appearance in 2007. The Islanders haven't won a postseason series since stunning the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 1993 and reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
"I thought that our guys competed, and when the chips were against them they competed at a level that probably wasn't to be expected," Gordon said of this season. "It's encouraging to see that. We've got some building blocks in place for next year, and we've just got to put it all together."
Gordon measured success in the point increase over last season, one he said didn't really get started until it was half over. Constant injuries to franchise goalie Rick DiPietro have set the club back in recent years and prompted the Islanders to sign veterans Dwayne Roloson and Biron last summer to stabilize the position.
Roloson, who has one year left on his deal, will be 41 when next season starts.
"The first year to me pretty much didn't even exist," Gordon said of his debut season as coach. "It was like trying to play five-card draw with four cards. Last year we had some good games but we had a lot of games that we didn't even have a chance to win.
"This year there weren't too many games we didn't have a chance to win. We were competitive every night. To know that we didn't have too many off nights is a good thing knowing we didn't add anything - other than John and the two goalies. We didn't go out and put together that you said at the start of the year was going to win the Stanley Cup. We went into the year with the intention of trying to build off the players from the year before and just take our time with it."