By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
You don’t have to be in love with what the Islanders have done so far this offseason to at least acknowledge things are somewhat different. While it’s true they haven’t yet made that headline-grabbing move that could go a long way toward pushing them into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, they are being proactive.
You just have to get over your disappointment that they are not behaving as radically as everyone else.
The fans often get upset because this front office — from an owner who has lost untold millions upon millions of dollars down to a general manager who has never really known what it’s like to work with a budget surplus — never really appears active in the true sense come free agency. Garth Snow doesn’t raid the market. He doesn’t grab the league’s stars.
He’s too interested in developing his own and then, when the time is right, rewarding his own.
Now maybe that interest is more tied to Charles Wang’s marching orders to keep the team’s payroll at the salary cap floor, or maybe Snow has some leeway to go above the floor, as could be the case as this summer progresses. The truth will likely never be known until it’s known, mostly because if there’s one thing the Islanders’ brass doesn’t do it’s set mandates or make definitive statements. Nobody really knows what the front office’s true intentions are, and that makes it all the more frustrating when fans see Rick DiPietro receive a compliance buyout with no adverse ramifications on the team’s salary cap.
The DiPietro deal, which will pay the one-time franchise goaltender $1.5 million per season over the next 16 years, was thought to be the final indicator that money wouldn’t be as big of a factor as it has been in the past. Yet, when the NHL’s casino doors opened this past Friday and the Monopoly money started flying around at an obscene pace, the Isles were once again looked at more as observers.
But they really were anything but. They just didn’t bring in the types of sexy names many fans spent countless hours on social media debating in the hope that this would finally be the offseason no longer spent with their collective noses pushed up against the glass while everyone else went ballistic with the old credit card.
But, like I said, the Islanders have spent some money, regardless if they are forced to just to get to the cap floor. They went above and beyond in one case, making the type of commitment to defenseman Travis Hamonic that should speak volumes about this team’s intentions. Snow is just going to do it his way, and if that means pumping the cash into his own draft picks and keeping continuity and chemistry in place, all the complaining in the world is really going to do nothing to change this front office’s plan, one that’s clearly been put in motion.
A few years ago the Isles gave franchise center John Tavares a six-year, $33 million extension, a per season contract that already looks like a relative bargain and will almost certainly look like a flat-out steal as it continues. When you analyze the sheer quality of many of the players that got in excess of $5 million per when free agency started on Friday, you have to look at Tavares’ deal, which will pay him $5.5 million per season for the next five years, as some pretty nifty work by Snow.
Then there’s the Hamonic deal, a seven-year, $27 million contract that locks up arguably one of the best young defensemen in the game until he’s 29, two years after he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency. Hamonic will get roughly $3.9 million per each season, which makes him really the only other big ticket item on the entire roster, if you don’t count the $9 million that soon-to-be 37-year-old defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky will receive over the next two seasons.
The Hamonic deal was quite the accomplishment for both sides, if you believe he will continue his upward trajectory toward one day challenging for the Norris Trophy, given to the NHL’s top defenseman. Hamonic is a true stay-at-home defender, but is not a liability offensively. I believe you will see him jump into the play more at even strength and get more opportunities at the point on the power play as he gets older and treats his responsibilities in his own end as second nature.
Heading into the offseason the Isles needed to address three main issues — a starting goaltender, a right wing to play alongside Tavares, and another defenseman, preferably of the top two pairing variety. The summer is still young, yes, but what you see now might very well be what you’ll see come training camp in September. And if so, well, it’s still an improvement.
The signing of Evgeni Nabokov for one year is what it is. Snow inquired around the league for an upgrade in goal, but, as is always the case, demands were too rich for his blood. The Isles are not the team that will trade away assets for established stars and then pay those stars big money deals, at least not yet. If you add to it the fact that Nabokov, regardless of his faults, was considered the best free agent at his position on the market and wanted to return, it’s easy to see why the Isles went the direction they went, giving a player who will turn 38 in three weeks a one-year, $3.25 million deal.
As for Tavares’ wing upgrade, the Isles made two moves that at this point are not slam dunks, but were responsible acquisitions when you consider the team’s budget and the relative age and ability of the targets. The signing of 29-year-old Pierre-Marc Bouchard to a one-year, $2 million “prove it” deal should be a production upgrade over Brad Boyes. Bouchard, who has 347 points in 565 career games, is a playmaker, not a guy who will bury the puck, but with Tavares and Matt Moulson he could very well get plenty of opportunities to do both.
The trade that sent disgruntled former No. 5 overall pick Nino Niederreiter to Minnesota for hard-hitting Cal Clutterbuck and a pick was met with mixed reaction, but the truth is both Bouchard and Clutterbuck add serious versatility to the top three lines. These two can play multiple positions on any line and each offers intangibles money often cannot buy. Just wait until Clutterbuck, who is all of 25 and plays with a nasty edge and can score goals, lays someone out at the coliseum. You’ll see.
That said, though, I still think the Isles would be best suited getting an established veteran to play with Tavares, though it’s entirely possible either of Bouchard, Kyle Okposo, as-of-yet unsigned restricted free agent Josh Bailey, or expected phenom Ryan Strome will at some point get the gig on a trial basis.
As for the other defenseman, it’s hard to say if the Isles will add another piece, because I know for a fact they are high on prospect Matt Donovan, are working to bring back talented restricted free agent Thomas Hickey and could, in a pinch, re-sign Radek Martinek, who played very well in limited action last season, as a depth stopgap.
Then again, with so many teams facing the prospect of shedding salary to get under the lowered cap of $64.3 million, Snow could be just biding his time. He certainly has the type of young and inexpensive assets most cap-burdened teams would want. So, to rule everything else out at this point might be foolish.
Snow has said he’ll do what needs to be done to make the team better. I think he’s been true to his word so far this offseason because the Isles are better, maybe not by leaps and bounds but they are deeper, quicker and more versatile up front. I believe if faced with an opportunity to upgrade both the top two lines and the blue line further, Snow will pull the trigger, but the man has the patience of a saint and there’s no timetable for when — or even if — this could happen.
The bottom line is the Islanders have a plan and they’re sticking to it. And while the rebuild as we knew it may be over, the finished product is still a serious work in progress.
The best thing the fans can do right now is remain optimistic because there are no absolutes in the Islanders’ universe, regardless of the perceived financial shortcomings. The door is always open to add more. Snow just needs things to be on his terms, and often that means him waiting things out.
September is light years from now, even for the Islanders.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet