STILL IN NEED OF A MAJOR UPGRADETwo months remain for Snow to make his big move

10:35 am: You might say they haven’t really gotten started yet, but you’d also better believe the Islanders are not done improving their roster this offseason. They cannot possibly be done by just adding to the 2011-12 lineup free agent fourth-liner Marty Reasoner, a (hopefully) healthy Mark Streit and (possibly) teenager Nino Niederreiter, who still has much to improve. The offseason is far from over.

It makes no sense, on July 12, to believe they’re done kicking tires, to believe they won’t add at least one key piece in the next 50 or 60 days. Before the UFA market opened, everyone knew teams had to offer front-loaded contracts to land the few big fish in the market. Then the Islanders went out and acquired the rights to Christian Ehrhoff, failed to sign him and watched the former Canucks defenseman sign a drastically front-loaded contract with the Buffalo Sabres.

But we do know that Charles Wang gave the green light to Garth Snow to offer Ehrhoff an average of $5.5 million a year, no matter how the dough would be paid out. This was not about reaching the salary cap floor – one signing or trade that adds a few million to the payroll, the retention of their own RFAs and some minor creativity will get them above the floor. In Ehrhoff, the Islanders attempted in their own way to add a quality player.

In case you were wondering, the inactivity has nothing to do with waiting for the Aug. 1 vote. The Islanders are playing in Nassau for at least four more full seasons, so they understand the big picture. They made a few offers the first week of July, but were rejected in favor of other teams. They signed Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo long-term in the spring. The Islanders wanted to put their best foot forward prior to Aug. 1, but couldn’t close the deal with Ehrhoff and so far have not made a very big splash.

Still, it doesn’t mean the Islanders are done.

They’d better not be. There is the issue of the level of competition in the Eastern Conference. For example, the Flyers may not be better today than they were in mid-June, but they are better than the Islanders today. It’s simple to reel off at least eight teams in the East that are better than the Islanders today. (Feel free, if you wish, to debate the issue in the Comments thread).

I continue to hear from agents that Snow has been regularly checking in, expressing interest in the low-hanging fruit, but there is not one player of major consequence left at the UFA table. The Islanders will also not be extending any offer sheets to star restricted free agents with other teams.

There is the exciting option of a trade. The Islanders have the cap space and the assets to bring in an ace. What remains to be seen is whether Snow can pull the trigger on a genuine franchise-shifter.

Despite Darren Dreger’s portrayal of Snow in this space as some sort of riverboat gambler, the general manager has been extremely cautious while attempting to rebuild the Islanders outside of his trade-up/trade-down fun with Wang at the draft table. Since the pre-tear down trade for Ryan Smyth, Snow has not made a single bold swap to make the Islanders better in the present tense. Stealing a late first-round pick from Bryan Murray for Chris Campoli was a coup for Snow, but it was another investment in the future. The Smyth deal was more than four years ago.

While opting not to make upgrades, Snow has watched his team finish 30th, 26th, 26th and 27th the last four seasons. Wang and Snow have said repeatedly that there are no restrictions to improve the lineup, so Snow has obviously had his reasons to stand pat during the slow and steady rebuild.

But it’s not difficult for anyone to collect top-five draft picks while their team was the worst in the league over four years. At the top of the draft, Snow was gifted with one very good/ possibly great player (John Tavares) and a pair of top-six forward prospects (Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome). The scouts identified some talented and determined athletes in the later rounds, with Travis Hamonic the best of them all. To his credit, Snow has made the act of taking chances in the discount bin into an art form. It’s painful to ponder where the rebuild would be if Snow hadn’t signed off on the acquisitions of Michael Grabner (waivers) and Matt Moulson (two-way contract).

In the six drafts since Mike Milbury resigned, the Islanders have culled a very good pool of prospects – conservatively among the top ten in the NHL. To improve his team eventually, Snow may have to part with one or two of them. The Smyth trade showed Snow has a knack of knowing which youngsters won’t burn him.

Sooner or later, Snow has to be creative and bold. Sooner or later, Snow has to make his team better. Sooner or later, the Islanders have to get out of 26th and 27th place.

One year ago, Wang and Snow said the goal was the playoffs and anything less would be a failure. Then Streit and Kyle Okposo suffered serious shoulder injuries and the team folded early. A year later – on paper – the Islanders are not assured at all of a playoff spot in the 2011-12 season…or the one after that.

Of the top six defensemen on the Islanders’ roster – all but Hamonic are on one-way contracts – half are returning from major surgeries: Streit, Mark Eaton and Mike Mottau. Milan Jurcina played just 46 games, Andrew McDonald missed 22. None of the Islanders’ D prospects are ready for prime time. If Calvin de Haan or Matt Donovan are utilized as anything more than emergency recalls, they would be rushed without a full season of development in the AHL. Unless Ty Wishart takes a step forward, he’s also not ready for big, steady minutes in the NHL.

You can count up all the 20 and 30-goal scorers from last season like it was some sort of major accomplishment. But while other teams made the playoffs without one 30-goal scorer, the Islanders were out of playoff contention well before Christmas. You can rave about the club’s second half, but their winning pace even then does not get you anything except being in the race for eighth place in March.

The Islanders will get off to a good start next season. Without any major changes, they should be at least five games over .500 by Thanksgiving. The buzz around the team will be stronger than it has since the start of the rebuild.

But with buzz comes expectations. Opponents will be ready for them. The pressure of meaningful games in the second half will be new to many of the Islanders’ players and new to the head coach. They’ll find it’s a completely different game than the ones they played last February.

As currently constituted, are the Islanders one of the top eight teams in the East? As the roster sits right now, are the Islanders a bonafide playoff team?

Of course not. They are merely a team possibly capable of hanging around the 7-13 group in March – if they don’t set another record for man-games lost. If the injuries pile up this time, no one will be sympathetic. They will be rightly blamed for not learning from the past.

This is why the Islanders are not done upgrading the lineup this summer. This is why they cannot be.