By Jeff Capellini
Someone had to be the pioneer.
Regardless if Jaroslav Halak knows it or not, his signing with the Islanders on Thursday was a really big deal.
Long considered a franchise with little to no shot of acquiring veteran impact players, the Islanders have a legitimate right to feel good about themselves for the first time in a while. Halak may not be the greatest goaltender in the NHL, but he is very good and highly respected.
Which probably has a lot of people wondering why on God’s green Earth he chose — willingly, mind you — to sign with the Islanders, a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993 and has appeared in the postseason just six times since.
“I’m thrilled,” Halak said. “It’s a big opportunity for me. It’s a young team. There are some really good hockey players on the team and that was the biggest factor.”
Oddly, money wasn’t a very big factor. Beleaguered general manager Garth Snow had to be the happiest person on Long Island when he got the news that Halak had agreed to a four-year, $18 million offer, which actually represents a relatively modest raise over the four-year, $15 million deal he signed with St. Louis prior to the 2010-11 season.
Snow ended up getting the goalie target he said he wanted from the start and signed him to, let’s be honest, an incredibly cost-efficient deal when you consider the player’s statistics and reputation as a goalie who can steal games. While I won’t necessarily call the contract a steal, 14 goalies will have a higher salary-cap hit in 2014-15 than Halak, and, trust me, all 14 are not better than Halak.
I think Halak chose to sign with the Islanders not just because he likely would have had limited options in a buyer’s market during free agency, but also because he wants someone to believe in him.
Other teams he’s played for during his eight-year career have not, which is curious when you look at his numbers.
Halak went 29-13-7 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 52 games for the Blues and Capitals last season. He certainly was worthy of the starting role in St. Louis, but a few days before the deadline was traded to Buffalo in the megadeal that involved goalie Ryan Miller. Halak was quickly flipped from Buffalo to Washington, where he went 5-4-3 with a 2.31 GAA and stellar .930 save percentage.
And that’s the one thing more than any other that stands out about Halak, regardless of the teams he’s played for. He stops a lot of shots and seems to get better the more rubber he sees.
For his career, Halak is 144-85-29 with a 2.38 GAA, a .918 save percentage and 30 shutouts. He appeared in 23 playoff games with Montreal and St. Louis, going 10-11 with a 2.42 GAA and a .923 save percentage.
Halak, who was drafted in the ninth round — 271st overall — by Montreal back in 2003, led the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010 and won the Jennings Trophy in 2011-12 after backstopping St. Louis to the fewest goals allowed in the league.
Halak has also represented Slovakia at two Winter Olympic Games, three World Championships and two Junior World Championships.
I think the sample size is large enough to say with confidence that Halak does his job consistently. Yet despite all that, teams keep abandoning him, trading up for something they view as better. It’s clearly not lost on him.
“I’m 29 years old and I know what it takes to be a number one,” Halak said. “I want to prove myself to everyone that I can be a number one.”
Talk about precisely the attitude a team like the Islanders needs.
Halak has never played more than 57 games in a season, but it’s not like he’ll enter his first season with the Isles required to play 70-plus games. Upon trading for Halak’s rights back on May 1, Snow said he planned on signing two goalies this offseason. So it’s possible the Islanders go to war with Halak and another veteran; perhaps Evgeni Nabokov, provided he’s accepted the reality that at this point in his career he’s better suited to be a backup.
If Nabokov ends up not being interested, the Islanders should have plenty of backup-type options on the open market — including guys like Thomas Greiss and Jonas Gustavsson — that could work well with Halak as a tandem.
From an emotional standpoint, the signing of Halak allows the Islanders fan a moment of pause, a brief second or two to feel like a real NHL fan again — one that actually doesn’t feel guilty or like a fool for having a shred of optimism.
Will Halak be the signing that opens the door to many others? Will it be the one that convinces other veterans that Long Island, even for one year before the exodus to Brooklyn, is not this third-world nation as depicted by countless in the media and trumpeted by the legions of the misinformed on social media?
The Islanders probably need to somehow acquire, either through free agency or trade, a top-four defenseman, a winger to play alongside John Tavares and another goalie. Assuming the latter will be easier to accomplish with Nabokov coming back at a reduced rate, the first two will become immediate priorities. Might a Mike Cammalleri or a Jussi Jokinen be interested in making Tavares’ acquaintance, now that with Halak in net the Isles probably have a better chance of winning?
Might a Dan Boyle, Matt Niskanen or Brooks Orpik, as examples, be interested in signing a short-term deal with the Isles while the club waits for youngsters Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock, among others, to realize their potential? Well, I can tell you this much: They probably wouldn’t be if Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson were still in net.
Normally, the answers to those hypotheticals would be no regardless of their personnel, because there has been a stigma associated with the Islanders.
But now? Knowing they’ve addressed their most glaring of needs before free agency and appear willing to explore any and all options to fix the others? Do free agents now look at the Isles and see 34-37-11 and out of the playoffs — as was the case this past season — or do they see the bigger picture, one filled with very talented young players who might have taken a step back collectively just to rocket forward next season?
The better question may be, “Do veterans in need of a new home see just how much urgency the Islanders appear to have?”
The Halak signing shows that the Islanders’ money is just as green as everyone else’s. As long as they are willing to spend it, long a bone of contention among the loyalists, who’s to say they won’t get the pieces they need? At this point I think you’d be crazy to rule out the Islanders trying to move their No. 5 overall pick in the upcoming draft for immediate help.
This offseason may very well end up in no way as predictable as you are accustomed.
Contrary to popular belief, the Islanders’ failure in free agency over the last few years was never about a lack of effort. It was about not having the complete conviction to do what needed to be done. Much of that had to do with being a slave to the rebuild and never deviating from “the plan,” whatever the hell the plan was.
I think this past season was humbling, and it changed some of the thinking. I think it, at the very least, put to bed the idea of the open-ended rebuild once and for all.
This summer is going to be interesting, folks. If nothing else, the Halak signing guaranteed that you will pay attention.
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