By Jeff Capellini
View this as a cautionary tale.
As we begin a season that will feature the Islanders for once as a team to reckon with, they have troubling questions at the one position that they really need to have most if not all of the answers.
The Islanders should be very competitive in the Eastern Conference. They are going to roll four skilled lines and will play an extremely up-tempo style with enough grit to make Butch Goring proud. Their prowess at putting the puck in the net, both at even strength and on the power play, should be plenty to mask their overall youth on defense.
The rest is on goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and whomever plays when Nabokov’s 38-year-old body needs a break.
And that’s where the fear factor gets jacked up quite a bit.
When last we saw Nabokov he was getting shelled in the first round of the playoffs. He didn’t make very many, if any, big saves, and the eighth-seeded Islanders, though valiant, couldn’t run and gun enough to overcome the top-seeded Penguins, losing in six games.
The second that final game ended in overtime I called for a new starting goalie, not because I was blind to the fact that the Isles’ defense totally left Nabokov out to dry on numerous occasions, but because I expect a No. 1 goalie to make big saves regardless of the situation, both during the regular season and the playoffs.
It’s the key to everything. If you don’t agree, you know very little about this game.
Just to be clear, don’t misunderstand my desire for another goalie as also meaning not wanting Nabokov on the roster. I just felt he would be much more efficient as part of a veteran tandem this season, something that’s becoming a trend of sorts around the league.
General manager Garth Snow didn’t see it that way.
Now whether Snow secretly longed for an upgrade in net but was hamstrung by finances we’ll likely never know. It’s not like the Islanders are above such mundane things. He sure did end up giving enough of his own players serious cash to solidify the core and maintain team chemistry, which is why I was a bit perplexed when I saw Ray Emery, for example, sign with Philadelphia for basically nothing. To me, a Nabokov-Emery tandem would have made a lot of sense.
As far as acquiring talent through trades, Snow would be more inclined to ship his children away before he’d give up an asset in the Islanders’ system for someone else’s property. Case in point: the hot target leading up to free agency was then-Los Angeles backup Jonathan Bernier, a player with the game to fit right in with the Isles’ army of baby-faced-yet-talented players. Now just how extensive Snow’s talks were with the Kings is not known, but Bernier was eventually traded to Toronto for forward Matt Frattin, goalie Ben Scrivens and a second-round pick.
Considering what we know about the talent the Islanders have stockpiled in their system, don’t you think they could have easily topped that package?
So, yes, for the fans this type of wheeling and not dealing is frustrating. But regardless of how annoyed you get in the moment, Snow’s steadfast devotion to building from within is the main reason why he’s the executive in charge of a team that is universally thought of as among the most promising in the entire NHL. The days of backup goalie jokes have long since left Snow alone.
When the Islanders committed to the youth movement back in 2008, they didn’t just wade into the shallow end of the pool; they did a cannonball from the top of the cliff. They got into the rebuilding game as a one-way street that was either going to pay off handsomely or end up as a gamble that failed miserably and proved to the beleaguered fan base once and for all that this franchise would never get back to being what it once was.
Why? Because, the experts said, professional sports teams simply are not built exclusively through the draft anymore. Some semblance of spending has to take place. Well, for years the Isles spent the bare minimum, and only slowly improved. But last season was a game-changer for this franchise, proving it can indeed be done without someone’s checkbook. You just have to be shrewd and be willing to take a few risks, like off-the-radar trades and snatching other teams’ trash in the hope of turning it into your treasure — something the Isles have done repeatedly over the last few years.
The Islanders are now in a position to pay their own a lot more and are doing so, but only a chosen few outsiders have been allowed to pass through the velvet ropes.
Nabokov is one such special guest.
Snow kept his faith in the veteran netminder, the same player who once wanted nothing to do with Long Island, but now just can’t seem to live without it. Snow signed Nabokov to a one-year, $3.25 million contract literally the first second free agency opened back in July.
Nabokov played in 41 of the Isles’ 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and was gassed by the time the playoffs rolled around. However, his 2.50 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, while by no means elite, were plenty good enough to help the Islanders end their six-year drought without a postseason appearance.
It’s hard to say how many games Nabokov will be asked to start this season, but keep in mind he has not been asked to play in more than 42 since 2009-10, when he appeared in 71 for San Jose. You could make the case that his lack of work over the last four years could mean less wear and tear on his body, but his 4.44 GAA and .842 save percentage in the playoffs last season suggests something else, regardless of just how badly his teammates in front of him played.
It’s not a crime to get old. A lot of NHL goalies continue to perform at a high level into their 40s, but there is nothing in Nabokov’s case to suggest he will pull a Dominik Hasek.
This is why Snow’s legacy could be threatened. We’re not talking about a team that’s still a year away from relevance anymore. We’re talking about a club ready to ascend up the top eight. Are the Islanders as good as the Penguins? Boston Bruins? Possibly the Detroit Red Wings? No. But of all the teams that are left do you really see any of them being head and shoulders better than Jack Capuano’s bunch? I don’t.
Nabokov will start the season teamed with 23-year-old Kevin Poulin, who has appeared in 21 NHL games over the past three seasons and held off Anders Nilsson for the backup job during the preseason.
I don’t feel much better. Do you?
In a perfect world, Snow and Capuano will get 55-60 starts out of Nabokov, and with the usual off days between games and far fewer back-to-backs maybe that number can be stretched a bit more. He’s only made more than 60 starts five times in 12 NHL seasons, so, aside from many other reasons I’ve already touched on, Nabokov will not be confused with Martin Brodeur as far as durability goes any time soon.
So how Poulin or Nilsson do in those 20 or so starts will speak volumes about where the Isles end up in what will be a very tightly packed Eastern Conference.
What if Nabokov gets hurt? Does Snow go with a pair of rookies? I mean, there’s all kinds of crazy, but you have to think he won’t go there. Will he finally defy his own mantra when it comes to trading assets? Would he swoop in and snag a Ryan Miller from a rebuilding Buffalo, or any other goalie that would figure to be available?
It’s an intriguing scenario, one Isles fans hope they don’t have to live through.
Snow is going to have to monitor the situation between the pipes all season, because he simply doesn’t have a given for a team that should have one, given how much the overall roster has improved. The true test of Snow’s value as an executive to take the Islanders to the next level will be how he handles things if Nabokov shows his age and Poulin and Nilsson prove they are not ready.
The last thing you’d want is for goaltending during the 2013-14 season to end up being a referendum on Snow’s tenure, but considering the expectations he’d have a lot to answer for if the players he currently has at the position fail to get the job done.
And I like the guy, but at the end of the day the Islanders likely won’t be judged on how many pucks they put in the net, but rather on how many they keep out.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
You May Also Be Interested In These Stories