Is Jaroslav Halak the Answer in Goal for the New York Islanders?

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIMay 25, 2014

New York Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak.
New York Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

It may be a bit of a bad omen, but for the first time since Rick DiPietro was healthy nearly a decade ago, the New York Islanders have a legitimate starting goalie in Jaroslav Halak.

That’s not meant as a sign of disrespect toward Evgeni Nabokov, who has spent the last three seasons admirably trying his best to man New York’s crease. However, when you’re initially claimed off waivers, it similarly shouldn’t be considered all that good a sign in regard to future performance.

In those three seasons, starting in 2011-12 when Nabokov was 36, his save percentage has dwindled from an almost-respectable .913 for a No. 1 goaltender in 2011-12 to an almost-embarrassing .905 this past year.

New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

It really should have been clear from the get-go for Islanders general manager Garth Snow that Nabokov was nothing more than a stopgap measure, if that. After all, Nabokov was only available on waivers to begin with after the Detroit Red Wings signed him from out of the Kontinental Hockey League to be their backup. And that’s about the quality of goaltending the Islanders got out of him.

Thankfully, with New York signing Halak to a four-year, $18 million deal after acquiring his rights from the Washington Capitals at the start of the month, the Islanders look poised to finally turn the page on an ugly chapter in their history.

Really, all things considered—including DiPietro’s many injuries—the Islanders haven’t had stable, year-to-year goaltending since this guy played five seasons for them in the mid-1990s. So, yeah, there you have it. If Halak can somehow manage to be more reliable than Tommy Salo in net, the Islanders are in better shape than they have been at least since a now-32-year-old Britney Spears burst onto the music scene as a teenager.

In a way, the Islanders have been playing a bad game of blackjack ever since Salo left. It’s as if they’ve asked the dealer to hit them, baby, one more time, a total of 22 times in regard to the goaltending position since the 1998-99 season. Needless to say, none of those 22 (22!) goaltenders since Salo have worked out.

While Halak has been branded a bit of a choker himself—so much so that the St. Louis Blues traded him to get their hands on Ryan Miller and his .897 save percentage through six playoff games this year—his stats say otherwise. In 23 career playoff appearances, including 18 in 2009-10, when he carried the Montreal Canadiens on his back to the third round, he has a sparkling .923 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average.

Of course, for the Islanders to get there, Halak is going to have to work some magic during the regular season. And, while his regular-season performance hasn’t been nearly as noteworthy, it’s still well above average with a 144-85-29 record, a 2.38 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. Seeing as Nabokov helped to lead the Islanders to the postseason last year with just a .910 save percentage, it’s safe to say New York is in a good position to get back there sooner rather than later.

Of course, New York has problems other than goaltending. While the Islanders gave up the third-most goals in the league last season (261), they also gave up 30 shots even per game, pointing to a lackluster defense as well. They meanwhile placed 17th overall in goals scored (216).

In regard to special teams, their power play also placed 17th (17.8 percent), while their penalty kill could only aspire to reach that same level of mediocrity, having to settle instead for the second-worst mark in the league (78.1 percent).

The upgrade in net will undoubtedly help improve that latter figure, but it’s key for Snow to realize that Halak can’t do it himself. The signing is no doubt a start in the right direction, as the Islanders have just gotten their hands on a competent starting goalie who knows how to win in high-pressure situations and is under 30 years of age.

Looking at the free-agent goalies that will become available July 1, Halak, up until signing his new deal, was the only one who met all of those criteria. As such, Snow did as well as he could have upgrading his goaltending, while reportedly still hoping to bring back Nabokov as his backup, according to TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun.

That’s how it should have been from the start. Hopefully this time around, unlike with DiPietro, Halak works out like he should.