By Jeff Capellini
The sports-centric saying “it’s getting late early” is a mantra the Islanders operate under, mostly because they always seem to put themselves in perilous situations before seasons really begin.
The long November losing streak has become commonplace. Fans keep hoping the Isles will avoid such a swoon, but more often than not the paying public is left feeling it is cursed or hexed or just not meant to know what playing from in front feels like.
As if on cue, the Islanders screwed up this past November as well, going 3-10-2, only to follow it up by going 1-5-2 through the first 17 days of December. For those struggling with their NHL math right now, that’s head coach Jack Capuano’s bunch registering 12 out of a possible 46 points. The Isles took up residence in the basement of the newly formed Metropolitan Division and the fan base was pretty much ready to riot nightly.
It was for all intents and purposes the absolute worst start to a season of promise imaginable, especially when you consider the Islanders had their faithful believing that they’d pick up where they left off last spring, when they pretty much shocked the entire league by not only qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in six years but also giving Sidney Crosby and the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins all they could handle in a six-game opening round loss.
To me, this season went off the rails over the summer when Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow failed to upgrade in net and on defense. The apparent trade-off was the fact that the Isles did, indeed, spend more money than they are accustomed, signing young players like defenseman Travis Hamonic and forward Josh Bailey to long-term lucrative deals. The moves appeared necessary due the expiring nature of the players’ contracts and the Isles’ steadfast desire to do things their way — to build from within no matter how long it takes. But it wasn’t nearly enough to warrant the arrogant “A Shift In Power” tagline the team imported to its website.
Though many fans were upset Evgeni Nabokov remained the starting goalie and Lubomir Visnovsky continued to be the only real veteran along the blue line, Snow did do two things that made this team better for the here and now.
First, he went out and traded a problem in Nino Niederreiter for grinder Cal Clutterbuck and then signed the antagonistic forward for four years. The deal was meant to give the Isles even more grit than they had previously. And when you consider they already had players like Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald, some wondered if it was overkill bringing Clutterbuck aboard.
But Clutterbuck has quietly been as advertised. He’s probably not going to score 20 goals, but has the skills to do so. His real value is the energy he brings, the penalties he draws and the hits he delivers. And since the Islanders have started to turn their season around, winning six of their last nine, including victories over the Rangers, Detroit, Chicago and Toronto, there’s been less talk about how Clutterbuck was an unnecessary move and more about how he fits the role he was brought here to fill.
But the move that will be debated from now until the trade deadline and perhaps beyond is the one that will ultimately determine just how much currency Wang and Snow have left with this exasperated fan base. And considering that there hasn’t been much over the last decade, the last thing this front office needs is for its great gamble to backfire.
I’m speaking of the trade that sent supremely popular and productive Matt Moulson in a package to Buffalo for elite winger Thomas Vanek.
The trade was met with anger from a lot of fans. I, myself, loved it. I had been touting Vanek as a player to target for two years, and since he was in the last year of a contract that the Sabres desperately wanted to get out of, it made a lot of sense for Snow to upgrade Moulson, a player who may not have fit in the team’s long-term plan, with Vanek, a 29-year-old world class talent who could play on John Tavares’ wing for the rest of his career if the Islanders played their cards right.
But, like I said to open this column, it’s getting late early.
The Islanders rolled the dice with Vanek. They needed to trade for him early to not only help them outscore the opposition, but also so that they could sell him on Long Island and eventually Brooklyn, something this team has been forced to do with other acquisitions over the last few years.
See, the common misconception is the Islanders won’t spend for top talent. It’s simply a false statement. They have all the intentions in the world to do whatever is necessary to improve the team, but their problem is they are rarely if ever operating from a position of strength in free agency, due mostly to their losing ways and less-than-ideal financial situation. They have generally been in on many players over the last few years, even once trading for Ryan Smyth back when he was very good and more recently acquiring defenseman Christian Ehrhoff’s rights.
They were unable to sign either player long term. Smyth walked after helping the Isles to the playoffs in 2007 and Ehrhoff was dealt to Buffalo prior to the 2011-12 season. In each case Snow threw considerably good offers out on the table, but was rebuffed.
So that brings us to Vanek, a player who has overcome a slow start to his Islander career to amass 28 points in 29 games. He’s helped turn Tavares into an even better player than the one that was a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season. Tavares currently has 54 points and is on pace for 100, which would shatter his previous career high of 81, set two seasons ago.
It’s no coincidence that Tavares took that next step with Vanek at his side. It’s also no coincidence that Kyle Okposo playing with those two has started to show all the promise the Isles envisioned when they took him No. 7 overall back in the 2006 draft.
The Islanders simply cannot afford to lose this line. These three guys playing together for years will hasten this team’s development from promising to feared. The Islanders were never going to sneak up on opponents this season like they did last season. They needed to up the ante, especially if they were unwilling or unable to upgrade goaltending and defense.
Now they have one of the best lines in all of hockey.
Vanek is the real deal. To say otherwise, or to hang on to the last vestiges of the Moulson era out of spite, is simply foolish.
But now Snow has to sign him and probably before the March 5 trade deadline. Compounding that apparent point of no return is the fact that the Olympic break, during which Vanek will be in Sochi representing his native Austria, is from Feb. 9-26. That likely leaves Snow with a lot less time to make something happen. If he doesn’t get a deal done by the trade deadline the Islanders will be in the most precarious of situations, forced to choose between trading Vanek for something potentially substantial or risk losing him during free agency.
Because if Vanek gets to free agency, the jig is up. While it’s true the NHL salary cap will likely jump next season, that will only matter to every other team. For we all know the Islanders operate at their own ceiling. A league-issued ceiling to Wang is just a nice thought. If a bunch of teams get into the Vanek derby, the Isles will be dead where they stand because they’re just not radical or extreme in their thinking money-wise.
Depending on where the Islanders are in the standings the choice they will have to make could be compounded even further. They are currently nine points out of third place in the division, which, under the new playoff seeding format, is the minimum position they’ll have to occupy at the end of the regular season to make the spring tournament.
Like I said, this was a massive gamble by Snow, but I believe it was one he made knowing full well what needs to be done. I see no way this general manager traded away Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second-round pick in 2015 for Vanek unless he was prepared to blow the Austrian winger away with an offer.
Anything less would show incompetence on such a massive scale I don’t think I’d be able to come up with the proper words to describe it.
Vanek was recently asked by NHL.com about his contract status and the prospect of being traded. His cryptic answers suggested that he likes playing for the Islanders, but at this point has not received an offer to his liking.
“Well, I’m not ignorant about it,” Vanek told the website, referring to the possibility of him being dealt. “I know the scenario and what could happen for me. But my thought process is I do like it here. This team to me is really a team. I think the potential is a lot more than we’ve shown. We’ve shown we can play with the best teams.”
Rumors have swirled non-stop that Vanek will eventually sign with Minnesota because he went to school out there and because his wife is from there. However, his answer to another NHL.com question suggested his mind is not made up about anything.
“Hopefully I can then stay here and finish off the year, but I do understand the business side of it,” Vanek said. “Am I worried if I get a phone call tomorrow about something? No, I’m really not. It’s the business side of it. So be it. This business is what I signed up for. We’re talking. I like it here. I do think there’s a ways to go, but you never know.”
It is believed Vanek, who is making a shade over $7.1 million this season, will command a contract in the neighborhood of $8 million per over at least five seasons. The Islanders can ill-afford to come off as inept here, or, God forbid, just go through the motions. A substantial offer must be made and made soon, or they will likely be forced to trade away the ideal complement to Tavares, their best player and someone who needs a superior sidekick. It’s hard to imagine the Isles holding on to Vanek regardless of their record at the deadline because they can’t possibly believe the fans will accept losing all the assets the team gave up in the trade just to be faced with another potential Smyth-type scenario.
So Snow better get cracking, for the clock is ticking. If nothing else, this GM has to make Vanek the bad guy here by making him the type of offer only an idiot would refuse.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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