State of the Islanders: What’s Happened and What’s Going On
In terms of the first year coming out of the rebuild, this year was a very successful one for the Islanders, but it doesn’t mean changes aren’t needed. To keep moving forward and surpassing the success of this season, Garth Snow and company have to take a long, hard look at the roster and the management for next season and what they are going to do with it.
Question 1: Who makes up the forward group next season?
The Islanders are a four line team. They had incredible depth over the season, and survived through major injuries, such as Mikhail Grabovski and Kyle Okposo, by it. With that depth comes major choices. The Islanders will have up to seventeen NHL ready forwards next season, although two haven’t played in an NHL game yet. There are around ten locks when it comes to the roster next season. John Tavares, Nikolay Kulemin, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Mikhail Grabovski will all be there. That leaves seven players fighting for two spots, but there are two pretty obvious choices.
The seven ready players that will be fighting going into next season are Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Colin McDonald, Eric Boulton, Michael Grabner, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang. Eric Boulton will not be an everyday player, and neither will Colin McDonald, and Michael Grabner hasn’t been able to find his groove since scoring 30 in his first season with the Islanders. That leaves the last two spots on the roster for Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. Both players struggled during the later portion of the season and the playoffs, but that’s expected with most young players. They were a part of the core all year and will continue to be a part of the core moving forward.
Lee and Nelson are RFAs this offseason, Boulton and McDonald are UFAs.
Unfortunately for Dal Colle and Ho-Sang, they will have to wait their turn, much like Strome, Lee, Cizikas, and many others had to do. Both players could step into the NHL next season and make an impact, but the roster is too crowded as is, and their chance will come, most likely before the 2016-2017 season. I wouldn’t rule out either making the team, but it would take an outstanding camp, seeing that neither would be able to report to the AHL either.
The tricky name of the group is Michael Grabner. Unlike Colin McDonald and Eric Boulton who know their roles if they return, Grabner’s is still undefined. Grabner has faced a plethora of injures over the past few seasons, and his offensive production has rapidly declined. Either he is going to be the odd man out next year and will walk to free agency in July 2016, or Garth Snow will work to trade him over this offseason. Grabner is still an effective penalty killer and player when healthy, but that’s the problem — staying healthy. Grabner has unfortunately fallen out of favor with the coaching staff, and is going to have a tough time cracking a fully-healthy roster if that’s the case when September comes around, if he’s even here to see that.
Question 2: How will the defense look next season?
When it comes to defense, about two-thirds of the core is locked. Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Travis Hamonic are your big names, and Thomas Hickey will be there too. Hickey played great during the playoffs, and matched a career high in points during the regular season. The first three are guarantees, and Hickey has been a part of the core for three years now, and it doesn’t look like anything is changing.
Lubomir Visnovsky appears to be done as an Islander, and maybe for his career. He suffered a concussion after a rough hit by Tom Wilson in Game 4 of their series against Washington, just adding to the list of injuries, ranging from back spasms to other concussions that Visnovsky has had to deal with over the past few seasons. Even if he is healthy, unless he wants to take a significantly lowered role, Visnovsky will not be back as a regular on the defense. Visnovsky is loved in the locker room, and the best case scenario for the club would be for him to retire and come back as a coach or in the organization is some way.
Now, the tough part. Two spots on defense remain and four guys could take the spot: Scott Mayfield, Ryan Pulock, Calvin de Haan, and Brian Strait. Griffin Reinhart is another name there, but he has fallen down the depth chart behind those four and his future on the team is uncertain, especially after a brutal playoff performance.
Speaking of brutal playoff performances, Calvin de Haan struggled through a major sophomore slump this season. de Haan is a smooth skating, reliable defenseman, but just couldn’t find his game all year, and eventually Brian Strait took his spot on the team. After being, well, not good at all at the start of the year, Strait steadied out at the end of the season and became a reliable defenseman for the most part, and that was essential when half of the Islanders’ main defense was hurt during the first round of the playoffs.
If Visnovsky does retire, Ryan Pulock will be essential, especially on the powerplay. Drafted 15th overall in 2013, he had 17 goals in 54 games for the Sound Tigers (AHL) this year. The Islanders powerplay was great at the start of the year, but trailed off majorly during the later stages of the season.
As previously mentioned, Scott Mayfield will also be fighting for a spot next year and has some leverage in doing it. Mayfield played well when briefly called upon during the 2013-2014 season, and impressed again when asked to fill in for Calvin de Haan during the playoffs. Mayfield didn’t only weather the storm, but he held his own, played the body, and showed why he could be a top-six defenseman in this league. Jack Capuano and his group will have a lot to contemplate going into next season, especially seeing the risk that icing two rookie defensemen will present.
Matt Donovan is another defenseman that suited up for the Isles this season, but will most likely hold out or not come back due to consistently being in the coaches doghouse.
Lubomir Visnovsky is a UFA at the end of the season, and Thomas Hickey and Matt Donovan are RFAs.
Overall, the roster next season could look like this: (doesn’t include trades / free agency)
Forwards: Tavares, Kulemin, Okposo, Strome, Nelson, Lee, Martin, Cizikas, Clutterbuck, Grabovski, Nielsen, Bailey
Extra: Boulton, Grabner, McDonald
On the cusp: Dal Colle, Ho-Sang
Defense: Hamonic, Boychuk, Leddy, Hickey, de Haan/Mayfield, Pulock
On the cusp: Reinhart
Question 3: Backup goalie?
After the Chad Johnson experiment failed, Garth Snow brought in pending-UFA Michal Neuvirth at the trade deadline to fill in the void. Kevin Poulin won’t, or shouldn’t, be an option moving forward, leaving a gap behind Jaroslav Halak. As Islanders fans and the team has learned, Halak needs his rest. He plays light years better when he has the rest, and some of his blunders this season came from having unreliable Chad Johnson backing him up.
Michal Neuvirth will most likely go to free agency on July 1st seeking a starting job, or at least somewhere he can challenge for one (like San Jose). Garth Snow will certainly try his hardest to keep Neuvirth, but it seems unlikely at this point. Some other options include Thomas Greiss, Martin Jones, Viktor Fasth, and Jonas Enroth.
Question 4: What is Doug Weight’s future?
Despite being hot at the start of the year, the Islanders powerplay struggled down the stretch, capped off by an abysmal 0-for-13 in the playoffs. Doug Weight is currently running that powerplay, and has fallen out of the favor of many fans, but it’s the organization’s call on what they want to do. One of the major faults was not using Johnny Boychuk on the first unit, a unit that needed to shoot the puck a lot more. There’s was too much perimeter passing and not enough getting pucks to the net, and having their best shooter from the point not on the first unit didn’t help.
Weight does bring a fire to the bench that Cronin and Capuano don’t show which is useful, and I think you’ll see him back next year, but beyond that is unknown. It would be interesting to possibly see if Lubomir Visnovsky would take a job running it, but his fate is still undecided as well. Even if he were to relinquish his job as assistant coach, he would still stay with the organization.
Overall, there are a lot of questions looming in the air for the Islanders this offseason, but a lot of things to be excited about going along with that. This is only the surface, as there are many nooks to sort out before the season begins, including possibly trading for a top left wing to play with John Tavares.
There’s good things coming for the Islanders next year….. in Brooklyn.