By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — The Islanders have a problem, and, no, it really has nothing to do with what usually follows this team around. This one actually has to do with the here and now, not something that may or may not happen in a few years.
Evgeni Nabokov, the man who wanted no part of the Islanders when they boldly put in a waiver claim for his services during the second half of last season, may now be as important a piece of their short-term future as any other player on their roster.
And that includes one John Tavares, arguably the hottest player in the NHL at this very moment.
The Islanders have a choice to make, a decision that seemed easy back in October and November when it appeared this would be another lost season. But a funny thing happened on the way to another spring of watching everyone else grow playoff beards. The Islanders, at least temporarily, have decided to get serious about being the ones to eventually discard their razors.
And though they still sit very much on the outside and looking in at the top eight in the Eastern Conference, they have given their fans reason to remain optimistic that the once-ridiculous notion of ending a long postseason drought may not be all that absurd an idea after all.
As of Tuesday morning they still sit 9 points out of a playoff spot. As evidenced by their 3-0 loss in Toronto on Monday night, the Islanders still have big problems generating secondary scoring. Their top line, Tavares, his sidekick Matt Moulson and the improving Kyle Okposo, was choked out by the rugged Leafs and nobody else stepped up.
Another recurring theme this season has featured the Isles turning the puck over a ton in their own end, further illustrating their need for a few more reliable defenseman to play with the seemingly very reliable Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald and team captain Mark Streit, who has been much better of late following a prolonged case of the giveaways.
Nobody is pretending the Islanders are more than they are. This team is not even close to being a finished product, but it is becoming … something.
What that will ultimately end up being may hinge in large part on Nabokov, a goaltender currently playing like the always very good but not quite elite player he’s been for the better part of 11 seasons, including the first 10 with San Jose, a team that perennially fell short of expectations in many ways because of goaltending.
But Nabokov of late has been nothing short of scintillating for the Islanders. He’s right there with Tavares and Moulson as the reasons why this team has won five of eight and has begun to look very much like a group that understands the urgency of what is and what will come to be over the regular season’s final few months.
For his part, Nabokov, who was thrust into full-time duty due to Al Montoya’s concussion issues and, to a lesser extent, Rick DiPietro’s usual issues, has started seven of the last eight games, posting a stellar 1.56 goals-against average and equally sexy .945 save percentage.
He’s on top of his game in a manner in which no Isles goaltender has been on top of his game in quite some time. In a day and age of the NHL’s top goalies posting GAA’s less than 2 and save percentages hovering near .940, Nabokov’s seasonal numbers as of Monday — 2.35 and .920, respectively — more than show he’s very much still that starter a team can rely on.
But soon the Islanders will have to come face-to-face with reality. Nabokov will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, meaning conventional wisdom suggests no matter how well he’s playing now there’s no way a soon-to-be 37-year-old goaltender will fit into the Islanders’ future plans. Those thinking with their heads instead of their hearts will undoubtedly scream “sell high now!” Get what you can and move on, because, after all, if there is one thing the Isles have in abundance throughout their system, it’s goaltending. That’s part of the reason they dealt Dwayne Roloson away last season.
And while it’s true Kevin Poulin will likely one day be this team’s franchise goalie, it will not be this day, nor should it be any other this season. He deserves to start fresh in an October, rather than being thrust into a March. Anders Nilsson and Mikko Koskinen are still works in progress, but certainly have plenty of upside. They just may never be a solution for the Islanders other than being trade chips.
The decision to deal Nabokov is not as cut and dry as it appears. Yes, if the Isles, due to Montoya’s cloudy future, decide to hold on to Nabokov for the duration, they will almost certainly lose him to some team’s large wallet during free agency. It is a risk that a betting man would almost certainly tell General Manager Garth Snow not to take.
Most NHL experts will also tell you it’s the right thing to do in the grand scheme of things.
But then there is the minority argument, one that could gain momentum if Nabokov and the Islanders actually turn this season into something more than the usual and not just pretend that a run of solid play in January is more than it really is.
Let’s assume the most the Isles could get for Nabokov is a third-round pick, which a lot of people I trust have told me would be the reasonable expectation. Do you know how many Isles third-round picks over the last decade have become regulars on their current roster?
One. Frans Nielsen.
Unless the Islanders come across a team absolutely in dire need of a No. 1 goalie and willing to perhaps roll the dice and give away something that will actually hasten this team’s run toward a playoff spot, like that aforementioned secondary scorer or second-pairing defenseman, a third-round pick is worth losing in my opinion. Even last season when the Islanders listened to offers for Roloson I heard fans expecting the grandiose or completely unrealistic. In the end the Lightning traded disappointing minor league defenseman Ty Wishart to the Islanders and guess what? Wishart is still in the minors.
The question need no longer revolve around how many draft picks the Islanders can amass, especially when the picks accrued are not going to be in the first round. I mean how many draft picks is too many draft picks for this franchise? When do you say enough about the future already?
And while we all understand that the Islanders will never be a team that spends its way to glory, Snow does have an eye for talent and has pulled off good trades in the past. Not the blockbusters the fans crave, but he has done better than expected at times considering his financial restraints. If they are going to trade Nabokov, will Snow kick the tires on getting what will actually help this team now rather than possibly three years from now? Will shell-shocked owner Charles Wang even let him add payroll? I mean these second-pairing defensemen will cost a heck of a lot more than the $570,000 the Isles are paying Nabokov this season.
Why not just spit in the face of what’s expected and logical and not trade Nabokov at all?
It is largely believed the Islanders have as good a farm system as any in the NHL. And though there is no guarantee a kid will ever become a man, the Isles have more to run through the maturation process than most. But, again, what will become of their kids is a discussion for another time, not for the here and now.
If the Islanders can at the very least continue to show signs they are coming rather than going heading into the All-Star break and beyond, the idea of trading Nabokov simply because everyone says they should will be harder to rationalize in my eyes.
The fans want and deserve some kind of reasonable run toward the playoffs, and the dedication from the organization that should come with it. Assuming Montoya will come back at full strength and perform even close to how Nabokov is currently playing is a big assumption.
Again, the time is now to worry about now. I say, to hell with the draft lottery for once. If the Isles make a run and fall short, they will draft where they draft. Worry about that then, not before. They still have center Ryan Strome, among others, waiting in the wings.
The trade deadline is Feb. 27, so the Isles have roughly five weeks to prove what we’ve seen of late isn’t an aberration. If they are within a handful of wins of the eighth spot by that date — and Nabokov continues to be the No. 1 guy, be it because Montoya hasn’t returned or simply returned but was unable to win back the starting spot — they will really need to consider if trading Nabokov is worth the likely limited return he would bring, because the odds are whatever they would get would be a waste of time.
It has to be about the playoffs and Nabokov, along with some roster tweaks, can help give the Islanders a reasonable shot. It has to be about making this team attractive enough for someone, anyone, to make the investment to keep them on the Island or nearby. And all of this has to be decided well before the Nassau Coliseum lease runs out at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Of course, I’m presenting you with hypotheticals and “what ifs.” But isn’t it nice for once to be talking about the Islanders as if they are indeed relevant? I just don’t see a massive collapse coming. I see a team with needs for sure, but one that also has the foundation and mindset to overcome the types of obstacles that past teams were ill-equipped or healthy enough to handle.
It’s time to go for broke, because the future is a concept this franchise and fan base knows all too well but at the same time is not just this unlimited collection of time and space.
Trading Nabokov sends the same old message: Get a pick and shut up. Well, no. I don’t want to this time.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
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