By Daniel Friedman
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For most teams, the offseason begins when the Stanley Cup Final ends.
The trade market opens during the few weeks leading up to the entry draft, as rumors about players “on the block” intensify. After that, the focus shifts to July 1, when general managers jostle with one another, trying to convince unrestricted free agents to sign on the dotted line.
The New York Islanders, however, are not like most teams. For better or for worse, their situation is unique, something general manager Garth Snow is fully aware of.
That’s why he began his offseason on May 1, sending a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft to the Washington Capitals for Jaroslav Halak’s negotiating rights.
Snow needed a goalie; the team simply could not go into next season without one and hope to contend. He knew that the best talent would be available in free agency, and understood that the Islanders were going to have a lot of trouble fighting with other teams for the services of someone like Halak if he waited until July 1. They’re not the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks, and they’re not the Rangers.
He knew that, in order to give the Isles a shot at obtaining the Slovakian puck-stopper, he needed an exclusive window. The move paid off. Just three weeks later, the Isles signed Halak to a four-year, $18 million contract.
This is a ginormous step forward. It’s been several years since the Islanders have had a bona fide netminder — you’d have to go back to when Rick DiPietro was in his prime and healthy — and now they do.
It was the first order of business for Snow, though one could certainly argue it should have been taken care of a year or two ago. Nonetheless, the Isles have finally found their goaltender.
Snow followed up the Halak move with another gamble, acquiring defenseman Dan Boyle’s rights from the San Jose Sharks on June 5.
While Boyle is not expected to sign, the fact that he was even traded for speaks volumes of the Islanders’ intentions this summer: be aggressive and plug up the holes so that they can return to the playoffs.
Last season was horrendous. There’s no way to rationalize it or search for silver linings. But when the pieces in place are performing up to their capabilities and the holes aren’t as glaring, as was the case just a year ago when the Isles took the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the opening round of the playoffs, this team shows a lot of promise.
The Islanders have already made a few tweaks to the coaching staff as well. Brent Thompson will take over the reigns behind the bench of the team’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, while Greg Cronin has returned as an assistant coach and will take Thompson’s place.
Lastly, Bob Corkum was officially named an assistant coach and Doug Weight was promoted to assistant general manager, though he’ll also retain his assistant coaching duties.
The addition of Cronin is notable, because he’s significantly more experienced than Weight, Thompson or Corkum. His presence almost screams “interim head coach” and tells me everything I need to know about Jack Capuano: he’s being brought back, but on a short leash. Should the Isles falter early, he’s unlikely to survive the way he did this past season.
And so, the Islanders will press on towards the draft, with their new goaltender in tow and plenty of trade chips. Their machine needs two significant moving parts: a winger for John Tavares and a first- or second-pairing defenseman who is sound and responsible within his own zone.
Snow has decided to retain his first round pick in this year’s draft (No. 5 overalll), and if he’s smart, he won’t use it to pick anyone; he’ll trade it.
He’s better off using his tradable assets to acquire the defenseman he needs, because there will be very few players who are worth the cash on July 1. Conversely, there are enough quality wingers in this summer’s crop of UFAs for the Islanders to walk away with their man, whether it’s Mike Cammalleri, Radim Vrbata, Jussi Jokinen or, dare I say it, one of Matt Moulson or Thomas Vanek.
Vanek is an intriguing possibility, because he spurned the Isles but his status is now in a bit of limbo. I wouldn’t say there’s no chance he’ll return, but my belief is that if he truly wanted to be an Islander, he’d still be here.
As for Moulson, though it would make a lot of sense to bring him back, I think that ship has sailed. He was dealt because he wasn’t part of the team’s future plans, and I’m not sure that Snow feels any different about it now than he did in October.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the franchise’s ownership situation. All we know is that Charles Wang and Andrew Barroway have an understanding of the sale price, and Barroway has the financial backing lined up.
When this change might occur (or if it will even occur at all) is anyone’s guess. Personally, I think it’s coming, but perhaps not as quickly as many fans have hoped.
Either way, the Islanders have a lot of work to do in order to get back into playoff form. That remains the focus, at least for the time being.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI
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