By Jeff Capellini
Anyone who messes with the Islanders’ goaltending situation this season needs to be put on the first bus out of town.
In no way can there be front-office meddling again.
As everyone knows, the Isles missed the playoffs by a single point last spring, in part because of one of the most ridiculous personnel decisions this team has ever made. For whatever reason, general manager Garth Snow and whoever influences him decided that having three goalies on the big club roster was a good thing.
In fact, it turned out to be the polar opposite of good. It was an unmitigated disaster, a thought process that likely would have cost another executive on another team his job.
Only Snow really knows why he chose to alienate the best goalie on the team, Jaroslav Halak, by carrying an absolutely inexperienced netminder in Jean-Francois Berube, in addition to solid veteran Thomas Greiss. And Snow’s decision to keep Berube around wasn’t just for a few weeks. The veteran GM stuck with the calamitous arrangement for the entire season.
It resulted in Halak and Greiss each not getting as much work in practice as they needed, or, for sake of a better term, it prevented them from really developing any type of rhythm. Halak and his agent refused to be silenced on the issue, and that led to Snow putting the veteran goalie on waivers and eventually demoting him to AHL Bridgeport for weeks. During Halak’s banishment, it appeared the Isles tried to trade him, but his $5 million salary for this season apparently scared off a handful of suitors.
For his part, Greiss seized the opportunity once Halak was sent down on Dec. 30, playing out of his mind for the next month. The big German went 7-2-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and two shutouts as the Isles continued to climb out of the massive hole they had dug for themselves over the season’s first two months.
However, Greiss wasn’t quite himself after signing a three-year, $10 million extension on Jan. 30, and much of it had to do with the powers that be suddenly having no faith in Berube. Greiss got overworked during that scintillating 30-day stretch. Berube appeared just twice, with one of the games being a brief mop-up role against Carolina in mid-January.
It was clear that no matter how much the Isles initially feared potentially losing Berube through waivers had they decided to send him down, keeping him around was a bad call. And while Berube did appear later in the season, it became evident he was no longer part of the future of the franchise. That fact was cemented when he signed a two-year, $1.5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks during the offseason.
Halak returned from exile on March 24, with the Islanders still fighting for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, and immediately supplanted Greiss as the starter, finishing the season 6-1 with a 1.59 GAA and .949 save percentage.
Imagine what Snow’s team could have accomplished had the GM swallowed his pride and recalled Halak earlier. It wasn’t like Halak stunk up the joint during his time in the minors, either. He went 17-7-1 with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage in 27 appearances for Bridgeport, a run that carried the Sound Tigers to a 92-point finish.
The moral of this ugly story is to not mess with a good thing. The Islanders had that with Halak and Greiss as co-No. 1 goalies, but they screwed it up by getting cute and paranoid.
Now, months later and with a team that appears more well-rounded than it was a season ago, the Isles look like they have serious stability in net. This idea that they could still trade Halak should be a nonstarter for now, even though he will be a free agent at season’s end. Why? Because Snow has chosen to hold on to integral pieces before in the face of impending free agency. He did it during the 2015-16 season, when he refused to trade forwards Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen prior to the trade deadline in an attempt to make and then succeed in the playoffs, even though both had made it clear they would likely at least test the waters during the signing period.
Though the Islanders did end up winning a playoff series for the first time since 1993, they lost both Okposo and Nielsen for nothing, and as a result it set the team back considerably. While replacements were found in the form of Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera, it took both of them months to get acclimated to their new surroundings, and that played a big role in the Isles’ slow start to the 2016-17 season.
A start that, when mixed with the three-goalie situation, contributed to one of the most disappointing seasons this franchise has had in its star-crossed history.
No, trading Halak should not be entertained this season unless the Isles are so far out of the playoff race at the deadline they have no choice but to free up some cap space in order to reload a bit next summer. And while a lot of people seem to really like Kristers Gudlevskis, whom they signed back in July, there’s really no reason to go upsetting the Isles’ goalie apple cart again.
But that’s a topic for later discussion. Right now, with the season opener just 10 days away, the Islanders appear to have a very solid situation in net. Both Halak and Greiss have looked in midseason form so far during the preseason schedule. They’ve each made two appearances, with Halak posting a 0.60 GAA and .982 save percentage and Greiss a 0.61 GAA and .975 save percentage.
And while it’s true they have put up those gaudy stats mostly against opponents’ rookies and guys fighting for roster spots, it’s better to look good against opponents you should beat than pedestrian.
Need I remind everyone that the Islanders are playing in the toughest division in the NHL? They need their goalies to be a productive and calming presence for 82 games if they are to get back into the postseason.
The only way to really do that is to leave Halak and Greiss alone and let them do their thing.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN