By Jeff Capellini
For the first time in a long time, the Islanders might have some margin for error heading into a season.
That’s not to say embattled general manager Garth Snow has hit a home run so far this offseason, but he has done some things that have made the Islanders deeper and a little less reliant on the one true superstar they have. Snow still has one glaring hole to address, and I suspect it might take a bit longer to fill than most fans have patience for.
But other than the need for a top four defenseman, which by the way don’t exactly grow on trees, the Islanders are in a lot better shape than they were in April, when they were concluding a 34-37-11, non-playoff season.
If you look at players like Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Chad Johnson and Cory Conacher you won’t see household names, but what the Isles have acquired so far in free agency is competitors. While they are certainly not the best talent money can buy, they are solid additions considering Snow took big swings and missed on the first day of the signing period.
Training camp is going to be very interesting, because once the Islanders get their restricted free agents squared away they will likely have 16 forwards, the vast majority of which will be signed to one-way contracts, meaning there’s going to be some fierce competition for 12 slots to start the season. And this will happen for a team that was actually fairly good at scoring goals last season before and after the injury to top line stud John Tavares during the Olympics.
The Islanders simply are not used to having this kind of depth and what it means is kids don’t get a free pass anymore. Ask Josh Bailey about his job security right now. Ask the impressive-yet-inexperienced Anders Lee or NHL hits leader Matt Martin. You could even ask the ultra-talented Ryan Strome. I think he should be a lock, but he’s still on his entry level deal, giving the Isles flexibility. My point is you can count the no-brainers up front on one hand. And with the additions of center Grabovski and winger Kulemin, the rest of the forwards will be battling for every last second of ice time they get.
And considering this team has struggled in the accountability department of late, having a true sense of fear during camp should be welcomed.
The good vibrations on the Island started about five weeks ago, long before anyone had any idea who Snow would ultimately target in free agency to fill needs. You could make the argument that the signing of goaltender Jaroslav Halak was as good a move as this club has made in a very long time. He may not be someone who comes to mind when naming the best goalies in the sport, but his resume suggests he’s certainly in the top 10.
The best way to judge a goalie’s validity is his save percentage. A goals-against average can be influenced by a system because the number of shots can be controlled to some degree, but save percentage, as far as the individual is concerned, doesn’t lie. The Islanders know this better than any team. As far as team defense goes, taking into account the play of defensemen in their own end and forwards coming back to support, the Isles were among the least effective in the NHL last season, ranking 28th in goals allowed per game. One would think that would have created at least a little bit of an excuse for veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov and rookies Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson.
Not a chance. They were basically brutal.
Goalies are not a separate entity. They are part of the defense and when they can’t stop a beach ball there’s really no giving them a pass, even if they face a ton of shots on a nightly basis, which Nabokov, Poulin and Nilsson on average did not. One of the great truisms of the NHL is goalies who can steal games are more valuable than the greatest of goal scorers. That’s why a hot goalie is always a must in the playoffs, and like in any sport a good defense wins championships.
The Islanders haven’t had a goalie who can steal games since Glen Healy, and that was 20 years ago.
Everything about Halak suggests he can steal games and at the very least will consistently give his team a chance to win. He went 29-13-7 with a 2.25 GAA and .922 save percentage last season for St. Louis and Washington and is 59 games above .500 with a .918 save percentage for his career. The Islanders’ three goalies posted a collective (and league-worst) .894 save percentage in 2013-14, a frightening number in high school, let alone the NHL.
The job Snow did to revamp goaltender didn’t just end with Halak. Moments after free agency started on July 1, the Islanders signed Chad Johnson to a two-year deal, and I’m fairly certain they will be thankful they did.
Johnson saw limited action during his first three NHL seasons, but appeared in 27 games last season for the Boston Bruins as Tuukka Rask’s backup, going 17-4-3 with a 2.10 GAA and .925 save percentage. Like Halak, Johnson’s body control is exceptional and he has the ability to make the difficult look rather routine.
The signing should give Islanders fans peace of mind should something happen to Halak, who has never played in more than 57 games in a season. In a perfect world. with both being healthy, Johnson would see 20-25 starts for the Islanders and to have that kind of ability from both a starter and a backup just speaks volumes about the job Snow did addressing a need.
Incredibly, the Islanders lost 13 of 15 games they led by two goals (2-6-7), and blew 12 third-period leads last season. What’s worse, they finished with the equivalent of seven less wins than the final playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Halak and Johnson were brought here to make sure that doesn’t happen again — no matter who is playing in front of them.
The Islanders still have plenty of time to do their new goalies a favor or two.
As currently constituted, the team’s defensive top six needs some tweaks. Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey are locks, but there are more questions than answers with the remaining defensemen under contract.
Lubomir Visnovsky, who will turn 38 in August, may be one hit away from retirement. If fully recovered from all of his concussion problems he’s easily in the first two pairings and quarterbacking the power play, but as it stands now he’s a great unknown.
What remains is also open to debate. Kevin Czuczman was impressive after joining the Islanders straight out of Lake Superior State, but only has 13 games of NHL experience. Brian Strait has missed 64 games over the last two seasons due to injury. Matt Carkner is strictly a tough guy matchup at this point in his career, and T.J. Brennan is a mystery after washing out of two NHL organizations before lighting up the AHL with the Toronto Marlies last season.
As it stands now the Isles look like they are preparing to give 20-year-old blue chip prospect Griffin Reinhart every opportunity to make the team in the fall. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 draft has spent the last four-plus seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL and is by all accounts capable of becoming a top pairing shutdown defenseman in the NHL.
In other words, the real deal.
But to ask Reinhart to step in and log 20 minutes a night next season would be unfair to him and yet another reason why Snow has to strongly consider biting the bullet and paying what will surely be a stiff asking price to get a reliable veteran into the mix, something he said recently on WFAN he would not do. That aside, the fact remains that the Islanders need someone to step in and bridge what will likely be a two-year gap before top prospects Reinhart, Ryan Pulock and Ville Pokka are collectively ready for an everyday NHL workload.
A lot can happen between now and the start of training camp. Overall, Snow has put the Islanders in a pretty good position compared to what they’re used to. But with another impact move or two the atmosphere around this club can quickly turn from cautious optimism to one of legitimate expectations.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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