State of the Islanders II: Change
The Islanders season ended on Sunday afternoon with a matinee loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the first time in over two decades, the loss came in the second round as the Islanders had previously broken their 23 year playoff drought against the Florida Panthers.
The season was a rollercoaster ride for the team and their fans, riddle by inconsistent play and lineup struggles. However, you could call it a success. The Islanders did not play bad on their tour of America’s most southern state. They lost two back-breakers at home against Tampa Bay in overtime which turned the tide of the series and season.
The playoffs are in the past now, regardless of how far in the past they actually are in. The offseason brings upon a lot of questions for Garth Snow and the new management group set to take over on July 1st. The work that needs to be done this year exceeds anything Snow has had to deal with in the past. Travis Hamonic’s trade request will potentially be fulfilled, three long-tenured Islanders in Martin, Okposo, and Nielsen need to be re-signed, and Jaroslav Halak’s future in New York is all but certain.
Travis Hamonic has long been the heart and soul of the Islanders defense since he was drafted in 2008. The Manitoba native asked for a trade earlier in the season due to “personal reasons”, but the request was not able to be granted by Snow during the year. The offseason brings more opportunity. The list is limited for Hamonic — somewhere in western Canada or certain places in the middle of America.
The Oilers or Jets seem like the most likely options. Edmonton holds the fourth overall pick this year and Winnipeg holds the second. No chance the Jets give up their pick, but what would it take to get the fourth from Edmonton? Obviously there would be a lot of pushing and pulling between general managers on who needs to add and who doesn’t. The Oilers are running on a decade of now playoff appearances and need a solid defenseman on a good contract like Hamonic.
Jaroslav Halak can also be on the move this summer. After an impressive 2014-2015 campaign, Halak was average at best before being injured late in the season. Will the Islanders go with Greiss and Berube or Greiss and Halak? Only time will tell. It could go either way.
Free agency wise, the decisions are no easier. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, and Matt Martin all need contracts.
Nielsen seems like an almost lock to come back. The Denmark native has been one of, if not the, most consistent player for the Islanders since he arrived. He slots in nicely behind John Tavares and is a veteran presence in the locker room.
On the flip side, Kyle Okposo’s return is uncertain. Currently on a contract worth less than three million of cap space, Okposo is due for a big raise. While showing flashes of brilliance at times, Okposo is often inconsistent and a turnover machine. Can the Islanders afford to give him upwards of seven million per year? I believe the answer is no.
There will be plenty of teams with interest in Okposo and he will in the end be given what he wants. Okposo has given his all to the Islanders since being a first round pick in 2006. It’ll be tough for the organization to see him go, but in respect to cap space and the future of the team it may be the right choice.
The other tricky situation is Matt Martin, who has lead the league in hits for the past five years in a row. Martin is also set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He makes up one-third of the Isles’ pivotal fourth line and his physical presence would be missed. However, the best interest of the club must be kept in mind while dealing with Martin. Fighting is being slowly phased out of the NHL and Martin has been in less and less fights over the past few years. He also has not scored a playoff goal since Game 2 of the 2013 Pittsburgh series. The fourth line was also obsolete against the big, bruising Panthers team, showing they do have weakness and can be improved. Cizikas and Clutterbuck can both provide offense, so a more skilled player next to them, who can also check, could work wonders.
Matt Martin, much like Kyle Okposo, will be getting a lot of attention from other teams around the league. Martin needs to decide between his heart and his wallet this upcoming offseason. It’ll be an interesting scenario worth keeping track of.
There are a few names to keep an eye on for the Isles this offseason. Snow needs to be aggressive and add a supporting cast for John Tavares. One player that would be nice, and long rumored, is Jordan Eberle. It’s possible a deal with him in it for Hamonic could happen.
Teddy Purcell could be a nice addition to the middle six via free agency. Troy Brouwer and Jamie McGinn are potential candidates to fill in on the fourth line if Matt Martin leaves and Nikolay Kulemin does not take his role.
The lines for next year could shake out in a few ways. First, let’s set the defense aside.
Nick Leddy & Ryan Pulock
Adam Pelech/X & Thomas Hickey
Calvin de Haan & Johnny Boychuk
Five of six are a given to be here. Thomas Hickey was the best defenseman for the Islanders all postseason and has earned his keep. Leddy, Boychuk, de Haan, and Pulock aren’t going anywhere.
Adam Pelech did not see much time after his scary injury, but was a solid stay-at-home defender when called upon. His calmness on the blueline would be a nice asset. However, that leaves the Isles without a big physical presence on the back end. Whether or not the Isles go with Adam Pelech as the sixth defenseman or someone else, it should not be hard to predict what next year’s defense corps will look like.
The forward lines are not as easy to formulate. There amount of factors playing into it are absurd. Instead of trying to predict lines, I’ll leave a few sets of twelve men that could make up the team up front next year.
A: Tavares, Nielsen, Nelson, Strome, Quine, Lee, Cizikas, Martin, Clutterbuck, Kulemin, Prince, Bailey
B: Tavares, Nielsen, Okposo, Nelson, Strome, Lee, Cizikas, Martin, Clutterbuck, Kulemin, Prince, Bailey
C: Tavares, Nielsen, Nelson, Strome, Quine, Lee, Cizikas, Eberle, Clutterbuck, Kulemin, Prince, Bailey
D: Tavares, Nielsen, Nelson, Strome, Brouwer/McGinn, Lee, Cizikas, Eberle, Clutterbuck, Kulemin, Prince, Bailey
E: Tavares, Nielsen, Nelson, Strome, Purcell, Lee, Cizikas, Eberle, Clutterbuck, Kulemin, Prince, Bailey
As you can see, there are endless combinations and routes the Islanders can take. Mathew Barzal could also make the team, but he is considered a long shot and will likely return to juniors.
Mikhail Grabovski is excluded from these lists due to health reasons. It is unclear if he will ever play another NHL game, and even if he does, he should be slotted in a role as the thirteenth forward to be brought in from time to time.
Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome are on each list, but both can be gone in an instant. Nelson struggles with severe inconsistency and Ryan Strome is perpetually in Jack Capuano’s dog house. Both had below average playoff runs this year. In my opinion, Nelson would be the better option to trade if you had to ax anyone, but Ryan Strome is more likely. It’s a complicated situation that may never even come to fruition.
Looking past trades and lineup possibilities, the draft looms as well. The general consensus seems to be taking a small, skilled played like Alex DeBrincat or Vitali Abramov, but personally I would lean towards a big forward like Riley Tufte or Max Jones.
This offseason will define who the Islanders are for years to come. Being a professional sports team means making hard decisions and instituting change, and change is exactly what will happen in Brooklyn over the course of the next few months. It will be a guessing game for fans, but in the end no one will know how it will shake out until the puck drops in October.
Until then, we wait.