By Daniel Friedman
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The NHL’s 2013-14 season is winding down and, for the New York Islanders, it’s been an absolute disaster.
I don’t need to sit here and tell you about everything that’s gone wrong, but I will tell you this: By no means is this team completely lost. You might look at the standings and say otherwise, but the Isles really aren’t that far off from getting back into playoff contention. This is an entirely fixable situation.
Here are four steps that general manager Garth Snow must take this summer in order to steady the ship:
STEP 1: Acquire a Starting Goaltender
You don’t have to be a hockey genius to realize that the Islanders simply cannot afford to maintain the status quo between the pipes, though I do think that if Evgeni Nabokov is interested, he’ll return as a backup. Snow will have options this summer, via free agency or trades, though some will be more realistic possibilities than others.
Ryan Miller isn’t happening, whether he actually makes it to July 1 or not. I think he stays with the Blues. I don’t see Jonas Hiller choosing to become an Islander, nor do I see the Ducks throwing Frederik Andersen right into the fire next season and having him shoulder the load for a team that’s expected to be among the best in the league.
As for Jaroslav Halak, I think he’ll consider the Isles if the Capitals don’t re-sign him. That’s a relatively-big “if,” because there’s a very good chance he’ll still be in Washington next season.
So, who will be the Islanders’ starting goaltender next year? I’d bet on one of these five:
I suggested Reimer as an option before it was cool. In other words, before Randy Carlyle said he was “okay … just okay,” igniting a war of words and forcing TSN to hold emergency sessions (that part might be an exaggeration) to discuss the embattled goaltender’s future. The moment the Leafs traded for Jonathan Bernier, I realized it wouldn’t be long before Reimer was on his way out.
What I like about him is that, not only is he just 26 years old and talented, he’s also used to facing a ton of rubber. That’s a good thing, because Islander opponents tend to rack up scoring chances like they’re going out of style.
Last season, the Leafs surrendered an average of 32.3 shots per game (fourth highest in the NHL). His stats? A .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average. Oh, and he basically stole three playoff games for the Leafs during their first-round series against Boston.
Not too shabby.
Reimer’s also a restricted free agent, so there’s a better chance of ironing out a contract with him that works for both sides. It probably won’t cost all that much to trade for him either, because there are other available netminders and Toronto’s already lost much of its leverage by getting Bernier and then essentially relegating Reimer to the backup position.
He’s a very capable goaltender begging for a fresh start. Bring him over to the Islanders and watch him flourish again.
Holtby is another goalie who could be on the move, if the Capitals re-sign Halak. He’s battle-tested and has a good track record, though this season hasn’t been particularly good. I think he’d cost a bit more in a trade, but he turns 25 in September and still has a lot of upside.
This is definitely a riskier option, given Ward’s recent health issues and his expensive contract. His game hasn’t been at an elite level for quite some time, and it’s entirely fair to question whether or not it ever will be again. Do I think a change of scenery will help? Maybe. But you’ll be paying him an awful lot and investing in him instead of safer alternatives. He’s a high-risk with potentially outstanding reward.
His stats as a Blue are superb, but I’d be very concerned about bringing him to the Islanders. Why? Because while Elliott does his job in admirable fashion, he doesn’t face a lot of shots and he’s playing behind one of the NHL’s best defenses. It’d be a total culture shock, and I just don’t see him as the kind of goaltender that will stand on his head and steal games. I can’t remember the last time he’s ever had to do that.
You probably think I’m as crazy as he is for even mentioning him as an option, but Bryzgalov has been real solid for Edmonton and Minnesota this season. He’s an interesting character (to say the least), but as long as he’s not in Philly he’s less of a distraction and more of a solid addition. He’d be an upgrade for the Islanders.
STEP 2: Sign Top 6 Winger
All Sebastian Collberg jokes aside — the Islanders need to fill a hole in their first two forward lines, now that both Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek are gone. Neither of those players are coming back, barring a miraculous turn of events or divine intervention.
It’s not enough to just have one of the younger players take that spot; it’s all about adding to what you already have. That’s how you accumulate depth. Here are few options:
He’s productive and has been exposed to various types of hockey markets, having spent much of his career with teams like Phoenix, Carolina and Tampa Bay. I think he’d be flexible and at least consider coming to the Islanders. Did I mention that he’s productive?
Whether you like it or not, the Isles love reclamation projects. He’s a former All-Star coming off two of the worst seasons he’s ever had and he’d probably ride shotgun with John Tavares. He’s 33 and has very little leverage at this point to demand anything resembling the $7-plus million he got this season. You do the math.
Cammalleri is another player who’s value has likely gone down and who has perhaps lost a step or two, but he can still chip in with at least 20 goals. Put him with Tavares and you might see more production. He’s an option.
OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Jussi Jokinen, Ales Hemsky
STEP 3: Bring In a Veteran Defenseman
The Islanders need someone who can anchor their blueline, but that player is likely to come in the form of Griffin Reinhart. In the meantime, adding a second or third pairing defenseman who has significant experience and can help fellow veteran Lubomir Visnovsky guide the younger players through adverse situations would be a tremendous help. To name a few:
He’s an impending free agent, he’s 37 and he’s always been versatile and reliable. If the Isles can find a way to bring him aboard, it would be an outstanding move.
Sarich has had a negative plus/minus rating just once in the last seven years. At 35, the prime of his career is winding down but he’s still a very serviceable defenseman. He also has a pretty big frame — 6-foot-4, 207 pounds — and that’s something the Isles are somewhat lacking on their blue line.
He’ll turn 36 in August and will be coming off the best season he’s had in recent memory, so there’s definitely the possibility that signing him could end up backfiring. But Morris has tons of experience, including 37 playoff games, and is a good veteran presence, so, for me, he’s worth taking a chance on.
OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Mike Weaver, Willie Mitchell
STEP 4: Make a Coaching Change
Jack Capuano’s employment status has been the focus of rigorous debate in Islander Country over the last several months. Some people will tell you that he’s not the problem, while others will tell you that he is.
Personally, I think it’s time for a change of direction; not because Capuano is directly responsible for all that’s gone wrong, but because I’d argue that he simply isn’t helping anymore. He’s made several mind-boggling lineup and in-game decisions.
He’s also continued to mishandle his rookie players. We’ve seen Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome on the third and fourth lines at various points this season, and the former was inexplicably a healthy scratch for far too long during one particular stretch.
At this point, whether Capuano “deserves” to be fired or not is irrelevant. The Islanders are in need of a shakeup and not one that involves losing a locker room favorite who just happens to score 30 goals every season and is best friends with the captain and franchise superstar.
If you think my argument holds no water, I give you the Winnipeg Jets. Out goes Claude Noel, in comes Paul Maurice and a winning mentality. The Jets’ season was thought to be over when they fired Noel and hired Maurice on Jan. 12, but since that time they’ve gone 13-7-4 and have pulled to within striking distance of a playoff spot, sitting just four points out.
A similar story has unfolded in South Florida. Kevin Dineen was fired back on Nov. 9, 2013, and was replaced on an interim basis by Peter Horacek. The Panthers went 18-15-3 during his tenure and, even though they’ve fallen out of the race they have been significantly better since the coaching change was made.
Making a head coaching change is a crucial step in getting the Islanders back on track. It’ll serve as a wake-up call for the players and it should introduce (or re-introduce) more effective situation management. Here are three potential candidates:
I put Weight at the top of this list because I feel that, given the Islanders’ modus operandi, there’s a real good chance he’s the heir apparent. As I explained back in December, he’s not necessarily a bad choice.
If the Islanders decide to look for an external solution, Laviolette would appear to be the most logical choice. He’s familiar with the organization and has an excellent track record of success everywhere he’s been, including winning a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes back in 2005-06.
His teams often surpass expectations and he’s had a knack for getting the absolute most out of his players. That’s precisely the type of coach the Isles will need next season.
For the life of me, I cannot understand how Carbonneau hasn’t gotten another coaching gig in the NHL. I think he’d be an excellent fit for the Islanders because his defensive system has been effective even at times when he hasn’t had an outstanding group of defensemen to work with.
Six years ago, his Montreal Canadiens finished 13th in the league in both total goals against and power play goals against. His defensemen? Andrei Markov, Mark Streit, Roman Hamrlik, Mike Komisarek, Patrice Brisebois, Josh Gorges, Francis Bouillon and Ryan O’Byrne.
If you’re looking at a top-six forward group of Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Heatley, Frans Nielsen, Strome and Michael Grabner, and you’ve got Anders Lee and Nelson on your third line — that’s a playoff-caliber offense.
If your defense features Travis Hamonic, Visnovsky, a more mature Calvin de Haan, an emerging Reinhart, Sarich, Brian Strait, Thomas Hickey and Matt Donovan, that’s a playoff-caliber defense.
If your two goaltenders are Reimer and Nabokov, that’s a playoff-caliber tandem.
This is entirely feasible. It’s Snow’s job to make it happen.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI
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