The New York Islanders are having a wonderful offseason—a persuasive case can be made that no team has done more to improve itself this summer via trade and free agency—but it hasn’t been perfect.
On June 5, general manager Garth Snow made the proactive move of acquiring the rights to unrestricted free-agent defenseman Dan Boyle from the San Jose Sharks for a conditional fifth-round pick. The move gave the Islanders an exclusive three-week negotiating window with Boyle, a soon-to-be 38-year-old defenseman who would be highly coveted on the open market.
Two weeks later, when it became clear that Boyle preferred to sign with a contender, the Islanders tried to deal his rights to another team to no avail. With the Lightning, Red Wings and Maple Leafs among his suitors, Boyle chose to sign a two-year, $9 million contract with the rival Rangers, yet another indignity for an Islanders team that hasn’t reached the playoffs following an 82-game season since 2007.
Snow attempted a similar maneuver in 2011 with Christian Ehrhoff, who preferred to hitch his wagon to the Buffalo Sabres after having his rights sent from Vancouver to the Islanders.
Elite free agents, recent history has shown, would prefer to play almost anywhere else except Long Island.
Yet Snow may have assembled a playoff-caliber team.
While the trade-and-hope-to-sign didn’t work with Boyle, the same move gave the Islanders their first bona fide No. 1 goaltender in nearly a decade. Jaroslav Halak signed a four-year, $18 million contract not long after the Islanders acquired his negotiating rights from the Capitals, a deal that looks downright frugal compared to the three-year, $18 million deal Ryan Miller was given by the Vancouver Canucks a few weeks later.
If Halak can match his career .918 save percentage this year (.921 last season), he will be a substantial upgrade over the Islanders’ recent goaltenders: Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin, Anders Nilsson, Al Montoya and the perennially injured Rick DiPietro.
Along with Chad Johnson, the Islanders might have their best one-two punch in net since Billy Smith and Roland Melanson in 1982-83.
Halak and Johnson combined for a .926 save percentage last season; as a team the Islanders had an .899 save percentage. If Halak/Johnson drop to .920 next season and face the same number of shots (2,453) the Islanders allowed last season, the Islanders will allow about 53 fewer goals this season.
That difference would push the Islanders from 28th in goals allowed (267) to 11th (214)—only one team (New Jersey) in the top 14 in goals allowed last season failed to make the postseason.
All those numbers ignore the fact that possession sinkhole Andrew MacDonald was shipped to Philadelphia at last year’s trade deadline, an addition-by-subtraction move if there ever was one. The defenseman’s Corsi relatives the past three seasons were minus-0.5 percent, minus-5.5 percent and minus-8.1 percent, and all it cost the Flyers to retain his services for the next six seasons was $30 million.
|2013-14 goaltending statistics|
It makes the Islanders re-signing defenseman Calvin de Haan for three years at a shade under $2 million per season appear even better; the 23-year-old had 16 points in 51 games and had a plus-5.2 percent Corsi relative last year.
On the second day of free agency, the Islanders made another splash.
By adding center Mikhail Grabovski (four years, $20 million) and left wing Nikolai Kulemin (four years, $16.75 million) in what are clearly overpayments, but understandable ones, the Islanders strengthened an offense that finished 16th in goals scored last season.
Kulemin has scored 23 total goals the past three seasons, which makes it a fishy signing on the surface. But when he scored 30 goals with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010-11, he did so with Grabovski as his regular center. Meanwhile, Grabovski has been a possession star on possession-challenged teams the past few seasons, something that bodes well for Kulemin and the Islanders this season.
|New York Islanders top-nine forwards ('13-14 stats)|
|Left wing||Center||Right wing|
|Josh Bailey (8-30-38)||John Tavares (24-42-66)||Kyle Okposo (27-42-69)|
|Nikolai Kulemin (9-11-20)||Mikhail Grabovski (13-22-35)||Ryan Strome (7-11-18)|
|Michael Grabner (12-14-26)||Frans Nielsen (25-33-58)||Brock Nelson (14-12-26)|
The Islanders have a group of top-nine forwards that includes John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, Grabovski and Kulemin. That’s legitimately good, not just relatively good for Islanders’ teams past.
So how can it all go wrong next season? There are several flaws waiting to be exposed.
Halak has been vexed by groin problems in recent years, and if they crop up again, the Islanders will be right back to where they’ve been with their goaltending. If Grabovski isn’t the answer to Kulemin’s scoring woes and the Islanders find themselves with a $4 million winger with five goals in January, that’s a problem.
How will an Islanders team that has never dealt with great expectations handle that pressure? How will coach Jack Capuano handle that pressure? After all, he’s failed to bring the Islanders to the playoffs in this three 82-game seasons (the Islanders got there in 2013), so is he equipped to guide this team to the postseason?
Things can, and usually do, go sideways on the Islanders, but no one has done more to better themselves in the Metropolitan Division. They finished 14 points out of a playoff spot last season, which seems like a steep mountain to climb, but it’s perhaps not so daunting.
If the Islanders find seven more wins with the Halak, Johnson, Grabovski and Kulemin in the fold, which seems realistic, the gap is closed. If the Islanders only find four more victories and the Detroit Red Wings shed four points or the Philadelphia Flyers shed five points, the difference is covered. Considering how stagnant the Flyers and Red Wings have been this summer, that's well within the realm of possibility.
Even the Rangers’ 17-point edge on the Islanders can be overcome, considering they’ve lost Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle and replaced them with Dan Boyle, Lee Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi and Tanner Glass. The Eastern Conference champions thrived on depth last season, and much of it has been blowtorched by free agency.
It makes you wonder—if Dan Boyle knew in early June what he knows now, would he have agreed to stay with the Islanders?
Maybe the Islanders can acquire him from the Rangers at the deadline during their push to the 2015 playoffs.