By Jeff Capellini
Many Islanders fans are in love with Thomas Greiss. It’s understandable considering the incredible job he did throughout the 2015-16 season.
But he’s not the answer in net, at least as far as the lead horse in a two-goalie rotation goes.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Greiss a lot. He was arguably the Islanders’ MVP last season. That is, until John Tavares turned back into a superstar late during the regular season before taking his game into the stratosphere during the first round of the playoffs.
Greiss, who finished with a 2.36 goals-against average and .925 save percentage during the regular season and then put up similar numbers during the postseason, deserves a medal of some kind for all he did. The Isles would be smart to keep him in the fold beyond this season, his last under contract, because he has been part of the solution at a position that has been a problem area for this franchise for a very long time.
But all that said, it still doesn’t change the fact that Jaroslav Halak is the Isles’ best option going forward. He’s showing everyone why right now at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
The 31-year-old Slovakian has played a massive role in Team Europe, an unheralded squad consisting of players from eight nations, winning its first two preliminary round games.
While it’s true that Team Europe is comprised of many names the NHL fan will easily recognize, including Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Mats Zuccarello and superstar-in-waiting Leon Draisaitl, this group was in no way expected to finish ahead of Canada or the United States in Group A.
Yet, the Europeans very well could. The Americans found out the hard way, and the Canadians will get their turn against the surprise team of this tournament on Thursday night.
Halak has been tremendous so far, posting a 0.98 GAA and .969 save percentage, including stopping 35 shots in a 3-0 win over Team USA on Saturday.
Greiss is also on the team, but prior to the U.S. getting eliminated with Tuesday’s loss to Canada, he had no chance to see the ice unless Halak somehow got lost on the way to the Air Canada Centre. That may not be the case now because Europe may choose to rest Halak against Canada in preparation for the semifinals.
Let’s not forget that Halak is playing seriously competitive hockey for the first time since early March. He missed the last 17 games of the NHL regular season and the entire playoffs due to a groin injury. When he did suit up, his 2.30 GAA and .919 save percentage in 36 games were representative of what has been a solid decade-long career. In fact, those numbers are actually slightly better than his career averages (2.38, .917).
Yet, Islanders fans have not bestowed upon him the same kind of praise as Greiss has received. The reasons are straightforward enough, but ignore the bigger picture. Halak does suffer the annoying injury from time to time and has not yet enjoyed a solid postseason since signing with the club prior to the 2014-15 season.
But when he’s healthy and on his game, he’s the best goalie on the Islanders’ roster, bar none. He’s also the perfect bridge to Ilya Sorokin, the 21-year-old wunderkind who has been nothing short of an impenetrable wall over the last season-plus in the KHL. How good is he? Well, he posted a 1.06 GAA and .953 save percentage in 28 games last season, and is already 5-0 with a 1.08 GAA and .944 save percentage in six games this season.
So, yeah, Sorokin figures to eventually get a shot at being the Isles’ long-term solution. But as is often the case with KHL players whose rights are owned by NHL teams, there’s no telling when, or if, he will actually get to Brooklyn. Since there is currently no formal transfer agreement between the two leagues and Sorokin is under contract with his Russian club for another two years, it appears the earliest he could join the Islanders is right before the 2018-19 season.
Assuming he must stay in Russia for the duration of his contract, the intriguing part is it expires at around the same time that Halak’s contract with the Islanders runs out. That could end up being the type of unreal good fortune this franchise rarely experiences.
In the interim, however, Halak’s past play and his current heroics up in Toronto more than justify his standing as the Islanders’ No. 1, or at least the guy who should get the lion’s share of starts.
Which is why I kind of found it a bit disturbing that so many stated as fact that he would be traded during the offseason. Sure, it could still happen, but the way I saw it then and continue to see it now is unless the Isles plan to package Halak in a deal with a young, promising player or two for an established offensive player, there is no point moving him.
Luckily for the Islanders and general manager Garth Snow, the demand for an established goalie throughout the NHL is surprisingly low. In this instance, I truly believe the best move the Isles can make here is to not make one at all.
The Halak-Greiss tandem is tantamount to having a clear-cut No. 1 that plays 70 games a season. And while I’m not saying the two netminders equal a healthy Carey Price or Braden Holtby or Jonathan Quick, they are more than capable of feeding off of each other and solidifying the back end of what has quietly become a very good Islanders defense.
I don’t think even the most astute hockey maven would choose to say the same about Greiss and J.F. Berube, the pairing the Isles would likely use if Halak is somehow moved between the end of the World Cup and the start of the NHL’s regular season.
The fact remains the Islanders, as currently constituted, are not that much better on paper than they were at the conclusion of last season’s playoffs, which ended with a five-game loss in the second round to Tampa Bay. That’s not to say that they won’t again reach 100 points, make the playoffs and win a round. But they still need a substantial piece on offense if they want to be more, in my opinion. And until they get it, the last thing in the world they should do is weaken their defense, which is what would happen if Halak is moved for, say, a draft pick just to save some money.
And while I understand the cap space created by jettisoning Halak’s $4.75 million for this season could do wonders should the Isles want to add a piece prior to the trade deadline, they have to get to that point as an Eastern Conference playoff contender first. You don’t do that by handing the reins to Greiss, who has never been a No. 1 goalie, his very good showing last season notwithstanding. Not that he can’t do the job to some degree, but we have no way of knowing if he can handle more than the 41 games he played during the 2015-16 regular season.
And as for Berube, I don’t care what anyone says, there’s simply no way to say with any accuracy what he’ll be, given that the 25-year-old has played in exactly seven NHL games. Further down the depth chart, youngster Christopher Gibson provides even less assurance.
Removing Halak from the equation is just begging for trouble.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet