By Jeff Capellini
The Islanders are in a pretty weird position right now. They spent a bunch of money over the summer and are right up against the salary cap ceiling, but are not all that much better on paper than they were last season.
At least offensively.
It appears the same general questions are going to continue following this club around as it embarks on the 2016-17 season Thursday night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
The most obvious concerns have to do with superstar center John Tavares and his linemates. Throughout the captain’s first seven seasons, he had a revolving door of guys on his wings, an issue that you could argue contributed to the Isles not taking that next step from pretty good to a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.
Tavares had a rough 2015-16 regular season by his lofty standards before coming alive in the first round of the playoffs. He had 70 points, 16 fewer than his career high established the season before. I have often said I look at Tavares and see a 100-point talent, and while that may not be feasible today due to the way the game is played, there’s no excuse why he shouldn’t be at least a point-per-game player. Or more often be the guy who decimated the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers during the Isles’ six-game triumph last spring, New York’s first postseason series win since 1993. Tavares showed over that two-week stretch that he is, indeed, on the short list of the best players in the NHL. It’s not even a debate.
So should his linemates really matter? Some would argue that Tavares should make everyone with requisite skill around him better. But, a hot goaltender aside, I think relying on any one player to carry a team at any given time is dangerous. Just look at the second round of the postseason last spring. Tavares was bottled up by a better team in the Tampa Bay Lightning, and nobody stepped up.
The Islanders like to roll four lines with impunity. They did it each of the last two seasons with varying degrees of success, but often had secondary figures playing out of position in an attempt to make up for the lack of overall production from the top line.
The signing of Andrew Ladd during the offseason gives Tavares a legitimate 30-goal talent to play alongside. But it appears there will be a running tryout on the other wing, now that PA Parenteau has been put on waivers.
I have no issue with the Isles deciding to move on from Parenteau, who may have had real good chemistry with Tavares during an earlier stint with the team but didn’t show much of anything during the preseason to warrant one of the coveted 23 spots on this roster.
I give general manager Garth Snow a hard time sometimes because, though I know he has the best of intentions, the Isles are still not where they should be personnel-wise up front considering the rebuild began in earnest back in 2008.
Snow, however, did do one very smart thing this time around in training camp.
He made it battle central.
The message was sent a while back: No passengers this time around. Anyone can make this team, literally, if they show the work ethic and produce.
The Isles went into camp with a slew of one-way contracts, featuring young and old alike, along with a handful of next-generation talents that are, let’s face it, qualified to play in the NHL right now. The fact that the Isles felt it necessary to part ways with Parenteau, a player projected to play on the top line with Tavares, because the youngsters in the pipeline have given the club a moment of pause is a positive development for the overall health of the franchise.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Isles, as currently constituted, are a better offensive club than they were last season. I think they are fast and skilled, but they still lack another serious goal-scoring threat. Tavares and Ladd are a good start, but Snow simply has to get someone else. That was something I wrote back in July after they had inked Parenteau to a one-year deal, and, really, nothing has changed. And considering how smashed the Isles are up against the $73 million cap (around $71 million with Parenteau’s deal removed), I expected more bang for the buck.
Now, with Parenteau currently out of the equation and with the potential for three rookies to be among the top 12 forwards early during the regular season, the Isles could end up being very dynamic or simply too inexperienced to live up to expectations.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great having talented young forwards like Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Ho-Sang trying to kick the door down. It’s just hard to say with any certainty that trusting Barzal and Beauvillier for perhaps more than the nine games the Isles are allowed to play them in before they must be sent back to their junior clubs (or else have the first year of their NHL contracts kick in) is the smart thing to do.
Especially with the Isles already having to worry about the development of Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, three kids Snow & Co. hitched their wagons to last offseason only to produce disappointing seasons.
Teams that roll out the type of youth the Islanders may showcase this season generally are not expected to get another 100 points and advance past the second round of the playoffs, two things you better believe these Islanders are supposedly built to do.
Those six young players could all be with the big club at the same time, and the older veterans not named Tavares and Ladd, guys like Jason Chimera, Cal Clutterbuck, Nikolay Kulemin, Josh Bailey and Casey Cizikas, are all as gritty as you’ll find, but are not consistent goal scorers. The Islanders simply need another sniper.
So short of hoping, wishing and praying once again that a kid or two blossoms on the big stage or Snow pulls off a serious trade sooner rather than later, the Isles may find themselves in the throes of an extended adjustment period on offense. And there are no guarantees that consistent production will be the end result.
While I am not a big believer in the theory that Kyle Okposo was this unreal talent that the Isles will miss desperately, he did put up 64 points last season. Frans Nielsen was often looked at more for his intangibles and two-way play, but he still produced 52 points. How are the Isles going to make up for that deficit and at the same time be a more dangerous offensive club?
Tavares and Ladd will provide some of the answers, but after those two, it’s hard to say where the rest of the offense will come from.
Luckily for the Isles, their defense and goaltending situations are quite good. But that’s a story for another time, like later this week.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet