By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
In the coming days, weeks and months media insiders closest to the Islanders will slowly begin to temper fans’ hopes of an about-face from the team’s usual offseason modus operandi.
I’m not saying they will be wrong, but I’m ready to imply that they should be.
That’s because cold, hard reality shouldn’t always be truth. Despite this season’s revelation on the ice, it’s tough for a lot of fans to accept the fact that the Islanders have stuck to a blueprint, one that has often been grilled over the last five-plus years. And even though this franchise has begun to get the last laugh, the ante has been upped. There’s no guarantee that the same old same old will continue to work, because the margin for error — let’s face it, the Isles had for some time nowhere to go but up — is now officially a lot less than it used to be.
Now, some of you might be saying that a first-round playoff loss is no reason to start the chest beating and howling at the moon and you’d be somewhat correct. But considering where the Islanders came from and how they didn’t bat an eye toward the criticism they received for going with a traditional youth-infused rebuild, the team’s hierarchy deserves all the credit in the world for sticking to its convictions.
But my question is, when is enough enough? How many kids can one team draft? How many waiver-wire pickups can it hope to turn into something more? How many cheap depth signings can the Islanders make in the hope that the same old process continues to keep the team on an upward trajectory?
Sooner or later, owner Charles Wang has to green-light at least some significant spending, and I don’t mean doling out contracts on the basis of offsetting buy-out deals that are either done away with through the NHL’s new amnesty clause or have simply run their courses on the Isles’ books.
The Islanders need to accelerate their process and the only way to do that is to get with the 21st century way of thinking. Sure, they could continue to rely exclusively on youth maturing and turning NHL-caliber water into wine, but those types of decisions will likely only result in baby-step advancement. Maybe the Isles stay their course and get out of the first round next season. Maybe they suffer somewhat of a sophomore slump now that they have graduated to high school. There are simply no guarantees that sticking to an only recently proven mindset will continue this franchise’s rebirth.
Why not go for it in a sense? I’m not saying go from the cap floor to the cap ceiling all in one summer, but why not add some payroll? It’s a win-win proposition if you really think about it because the Isles’ core is intact. They potentially won’t be losing anyone significant under the age of 35. They have a new arena to begin to think about selling out. They have a man running the Barclays Center’s marketing strategies in Brett Yormack who is likely chomping at the bit to see this team hit the ground running once it gets to Brooklyn in 2015, or perhaps earlier, provided the Isles parlay their 2013 success into some well-deserved hammer wielding.
Though I think the time to get aggressive is now, I’ll probably be told by the beat writers of the world that while my desires are logical, they simply are not part of reality. I’ll be reminded that Wang still operates a franchise that loses money. I’ll be given a refresher course on the hundreds of millions of dollars this owner has lost since taking over full control back in 2000. I’m sure a scribe or two will reiterate that “Cool Hand” Garth Snow has that reputation for a reason.
My answer to all that is I don’t care. I’d like to think I speak on behalf of the fans somewhat, and I’m pretty sure the majority of them agree with me on this issue. I know this because when the Isles qualified for the postseason there were fears that Nassau Coliseum wouldn’t get filled or that opposing fans would be the only reason it would get filled. Well, we all know what the Islanders’ fans think of a winner. The 16,000-plus that packed the building for all three home games against Pittsburgh impressed everyone. Nassau County made millions of dollars off three measly games.
So why not have the county and team make mega millions more off at least 41 more next season? The formula is there and it’s as rudimentary as you’ll find. Give people a reason to come and they will. The Isles are on the road to doing just that, but time constraints are what they are. This team really needs to be a Stanley Cup contender by the time it gets to Brooklyn and I say the quickest way to get there is to get aggressive on both the free agent and trade front. Again, I’m not saying blow up Wang’s already bloody wallet, but I am saying he should allow his general manager, a man that has proven himself working with peanuts, to have a chance to show everyone what he can do with a little more than a minimum wage allowance.
From where I am sitting, the Islanders need to address three areas, and because the NHL salary cap is dropping by reportedly $6 million there will be an overwhelming number of teams facing significant cost-cutting decisions, opening the door to Snow to do what he really should do.
The Islanders, along with maybe two or three others teams, won’t be one of those teams faced with agonizing choices. It’s time to turn Snow loose. Maybe not give him complete autonomy, but at least let him go out and make a significant splash or two.
And I don’t necessarily think the high-impact moves need to be made on offense, because that was actually the strength of the 2013 team.
The Isles need a top line right-handed shot to upgrade Brad Boyes. I don’t dislike Boyes, but is he the guy you want scoring maybe 20 goals over an 82-game season alongside Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares? The Isles could easily promote expected phenom Ryan Strome from Bridgeport and let him play with Tavares, while at the same time moving Matt Moulson back up to the first line where he belongs. I’d be fine with that considering that Strome is about as close to a can’t-miss prospect the Islanders have had since they drafted the guy who’d be his center.
If Boyes can be brought back on a fair short-term deal, you can play him on any of the other three lines and he’d be at worst a wash from what they already have.
Where Snow needs to get locked in is on defense and in net. The Islanders desperately need a big banging stay-at-home defenseman and that’s regardless if unrestricted free agent captain Mark Streit leaves or not. Streit wants more years and money than Lubomir Visnovsky got, but the truth is the Isles do not need another offensive defenseman and Streit is not anything resembling the defensive force they lack.
Who is? Well, before you begin asking for names, just know whatever the Isles potentially do will all be hinged on how all the other teams that appear to be faced with cap issues handle their finances. Free agency is not going to be loaded with huge names, so it will be up to Snow to start dealing from strength. Most experts believe the Isles have more ready-made NHL prospects than the majority of teams in the league. But they can’t all play for the big club. It’s time to transform some of that hard work and scouting over the years into more immediate assets on the ice.
The Islanders can do this to get the defenseman and goaltender they need, And, yes, they do need a goaltender.
I know everyone likes Evgeni Nabokov and he’s been a good Islander, but you saw with your own eyes against Pittsburgh that he’s no longer a viable No. 1 goalie. I realize the Islanders defense, sans the big stay-at-home I spoke of earlier, often left him out to dry, but there were many times it didn’t and Nabokov, who will be 38 soon, did not make nearly enough big stops when it mattered. It doesn’t concern me that the Isles were playing the prolific Penguins. You have to make some saves in key spots regardless of the opponent. Nabokov didn’t do that nearly enough.
The Isles also cannot afford under any circumstances to hand the starting reins over to Kevin Poulin. He actually might not even be their best goaltending prospect. Anders Nilsson lost basically a full season to illness and has played less in the NHL than Poulin has. If you want to start either of them 20-25 games next season, have at it, but ideally the Isles would be smart to go out and get a proven veteran goalie on a short-term deal. Then they could re-sign Nabokov to be the backup or go with a kid.
There are goalies to be had out there. Not to get too deep into it, but there are realistic options, regardless of what you have been told. If you believe the many reports, Roberto Luongo will almost certainly be bought out by Vancouver. Jaroslav Halak has many an issue in St. Louis. Ryan Miller will probably be dealt by Buffalo, though he would easily be the most expensive of the three and perhaps too rich for Snow’s blood, even if he’s given some latitude by Wang.
There’s even the curious case of one Tim Thomas, the former Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup winner whom the Islanders actually own the rights to. Tell me even at 40-whatever if he wants to play and his contract gets tolled that he wouldn’t be an upgrade over Nabokov or any kid in the system you care to name.
The point is, the Isles just have to choose to be active. There are no constraints, or at least there shouldn’t be considering the potential that this team has to be really good soon and that Brooklyn offers down the road.
I’m fully prepared to be told by the experts that I’m wrong and that the Isles will not meet the fans’ requirements this offseason, but, again, I don’t care. The Islanders have a choice: be potentially nasty by training camp or simply stay the course and hope that next season is more of a quantum leap than this season was.
But sooner or later they will have to spend, and for once the Islanders are actually in re-tooling mode. Now’s the time to get serious bang for your hidden bucks.
Wang has to know this. Right?
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
What would you like to see the Islanders do this summer? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …