By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
We may not know much about Garth Snow’s thought process and it’s a given that this general manager protects the Islanders’ offseason game plans better than an NSA analyst does federal secrets, but we do know one thing that should lead us all to believe he will eventually address his team’s sorry situation in net.
He was a goalie, one that experienced some success in the NHL.
And from that I can extrapolate at least one guess:
He has to know the status quo will not be acceptable next season.
The Islanders have three main areas of concern, positions they really have no choice but to solidify if indeed they plan to take the next step forward following this past season’s transformation from perennial playoff observer to actual participant.
As I’ve stated several times over the last few months, the Isles have to find a way to get John Tavares some help on the top line, beyond cloning Brad Boyes for another season. They need a stay-at-home defenseman that can strike fear in the hearts of opposing forwards and alleviate some of the pressure on perhaps their most glaring need.
A starting goaltender.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people that know this franchise, have a very good understanding of what’s in the minors and the potential of the players currently on the big club. Most everyone is in agreement: the Islanders’ starting goaltender for 2013-14, considering this team’s expectations that are growing by the day, should be someone other than a re-signed Evgeni Nabokov or a very much unproven Kevin Poulin.
Those same people also believe Anders Nilsson could very well be the franchise goalie of the future, but since Nilsson is coming off a nightmarish season derailed by illness and has basically zero NHL experience, he won’t be counted on next season beyond perhaps getting a taste at the highest level.
That should leave the Isles seriously thinking about upgrading the position now, even if for just one season. Ideally, Snow needs to find a veteran fit, and if he then chooses to re-sign Nabokov anyway, there’s nothing wrong with him playing 25 games and following the Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun blueprint in Pittsburgh.
And while I understand Nabokov had moments in the second half and was a key figure in the Isles ending their six-year playoff drought, he was a day late and a dollar short in the first-round playoff loss to the Penguins, who when faced with Swiss cheese in net made the switch to another veteran and closed out the series.
The Isles had no such option readily available.
Considering the ferocity in which the Islanders played the Penguins, a better goalie probably springs the upset. However, a soon-to-be 38-year-old goalie that is coming off posting a horrifying 4.44 goals-against average and .842 save percentage in the playoffs, the time when goalie play matters more than at any other during a season, should in no way be the guy going forward.
Nabokov is still not signed. The Isles pulled back from talks with him as the season came to an end, and while they may be talking to him now, the odds are they are doing so with both eyes on the market. I cannot imagine a scenario where he gets another $2.75 million for a season from anyone, let alone the Islanders. So if you want to say Snow holds a hammer over him despite his impending unrestricted free agency, you are probably correct.
Now, of course, rumors have run rampant of late, what with the recent trade of Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Snow, being ever the cool customer and not someone who will ever tip his hand regardless of the scenario, was reportedly interested in the 24-year-old goalie most feel has All-Star potential. But what Snow may have offered will likely never be known, so people can continue to speculate. At the end of the day the only thing you need to know is what the Leafs eventually gave the Kings was too rich for Snow’s blood.
So be it, moving on.
Provided Snow feels as I and many like me do, it’s time to look at the options that remain, which are many and could end up being more if indeed the trade winds blow as violently as experts figure considering the number of teams that have serious maneuvering to do to get under next season’s cap of $64.3 million.
I’ll break them down by what I figure to be less likely to more likely, given the Islanders’ steadfast longing to stick to a budget, be it one at the cap floor or slightly above it next season.
THE LONG SHOTS
Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller and Ilya Bryzgalov.
It’s important to note that all three are currently someone else’s property. Luongo or Bryzgalov can be signed if first they are compliance buyouts by the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively. There had been crazy reports of the Isles possibly flipping maligned Rick DiPietro and a prospect to Vancouver so that the Canucks could buy DP out over fewer years and less money than it would cost them to buy Luongo out. The Isles would then assume Luongo’s remaining near-decade and $40 million-plus contract.
Now as much as a goalie of Luongo’s abilities is tantalizing, does Snow strike you as someone who will blow up his budget for a now-34-year-old netminder? The more I think about it, the more I just don’t see it. If they want to sign him to something reasonable after a buyout, I’ll gladly take Luongo for three or four years, but nine or 10? Um, no thank you.
Miller is largely considered in the elite class as far as goalies go, but next season is the final year of his deal with Buffalo and the Sabres have already publicly admitted that they are in rebuilding mode. GM Darcy Regier will want serious value for Miller, who will make $6.25 million next season and at soon-to-be 33 will also want the mega extension. Again, he doesn’t fit the Snow blueprint of not giving up big assets only to have to also pay the freight to the player, too.
And that’s regardless of how good that player is and can still be.
Mike Smith and Jonas Hiller.
Smith, 31, struggled with injuries last season in Phoenix, but is still largely believed to be the best unrestricted free agent on the market. I don’t see how the Islanders sign him unless it’s a very short-term deal, which likely will be a waste of an offer considering Smith will figure to have more suitors willing to give him multiple years at at least $4 million per season. The Isles could go longer term as well, but we know they won’t get into a bidding war for any free agent, regardless of the position he plays and the needs they have.
Hiller is an interesting case in that Anaheim reportedly has money issues, having signed Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to monster extensions. This is why you keep hearing the name Bobby Ryan popping up in trade talks.
Hiller, who is 31, is scheduled to make $4.5 million in 2013-14 and emerging Viktor Fasth is under lock and key for the next two seasons at $2.9 million per. Hiller played in 26 games during the lockout-shortened regular season, posting a 2.36 GAA and .913 save percentage and then started all seven games in the Ducks’ opening-round loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Fasth will soon be 31 and posted a 2.18 GAA and .921 save percentage in 23 starts. Maybe the Ducks go with the cheaper, but seemingly as good option and look to move Hiller. If so, the Isles could call. Hiller is still young enough to warrant a multi-year extension.
THE GUYS I WOULD TARGET
Jaroslav Halak, Ray Emery and Anton Khudobin.
Halak recently turned 28 and though he struggled to stay healthy last season he’s shown throughout his seven-year career he can certainly play at this level, especially in part of a tandem, which brings the idea of re-upping Nabokov back into the mix. Halak will make $3.75 million next season, which is in the ballpark of what the Isles likely see as affordable.
Brian Elliott, despite all his struggles, emerged as the starter for the Blues and posted a 1.90 GAA in the opening-round playoff loss to Los Angeles. Plus Elliott is 28 and making just $1.8 million next season.
Again, if the Blues want to move Halak, Snow should be on the phone.
Emery is a journeyman, for sure, but he has proven time and again he can get hot for long stretches and, like Halak, works well in a tandem. He won’t be 31 until Sept. 28, and made $1.15 million this past season and would only command a modest raise. I doubt the market will be hot for him, but he fits the bill if a two-headed monster in net is the Isles’ plan, with Nilsson waiting in the wings.
Khudobin is an extremely interesting case in that he reminds me of Bernier. Maybe not so much in overall ability, but he’s just 27, and, unlike Bernier where the term “assets” kept coming into play, an unrestricted free agent. He shined when on the ice with the Boston Bruins during the regular season, posting a 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage in 14 starts. Like Emery and Halak, you team Khudobin with Nabokov and you might have something, and if Khudobin shows he’s got the skills, then you have the perfect mentor backing him up.
The bottom line is it’s hard to know what the Islanders will do, but it’s imperative they do something. Nabokov and Poulin as the tandem next season is not what a team ripe to ascend to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference should trot out there. It would be an irresponsible decision on Snow’s part and one that would be greatly unfair to the masses of loyalists who just recently felt the urge to believe again.
Snow is a smarter hockey man than he’s often given credit for, but the fact remains he will continue to be known as the bargain hunter until he pulls off the type of overly aggressive move his fan base has been thirsting for.
The Islanders have more prospects than they need. The draft, while still important, should be viewed more as a way to keep the cupboard stocked, not as the only way to improve the team when waiver wire magic runs out. There’s nothing dramatic about that, and the Isles are now in a position to be dramatic, within reason.
It’s time for the “Cool Hand” to pull the trigger on something that fixes the most important position on the ice. Then we can all move on to scoring more goals and acquiring intimidation in the defensive end, two things that will make the life of whoever the starting goalie is a hell of a lot easier.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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