By Daniel Friedman
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For the most part, it’s been a fantastic season for the New York Islanders.
Currently situated just one point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Isles have a potent offense, an improved blue line and a superstar goaltender in Jaroslav Halak.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about their success is that they’ve been able to achieve it without their first line being their primary weapon. That is both a testament to their improved depth and a cause for concern, because the Rangers, Blue Jackets and Capitals have awoken from their respective slumbers and are now hot on the Isles’ trail.
John Tavares and Kyle Okposo have played well this season, but not by their own standards. They, however, are not the real issue here.
What is of particular concern is that the third spot on their line has been a revolving door for much of the season. First, it was Cory Conacher. Then came Nikolay Kulemin, then Josh Bailey, and then Michael Grabner. Now, Mikhail Grabovski is being given a shot to revive himself.
You might say this is head coach Jack Capuano’s way of deducing that if Grabovski can’t get his act together with the Isles’ dynamic duo, he’s not going to at all.
There is another possible solution for Grabovski, and it works hand in hand with another possible solution for the top line he currently plays on.
What the Islanders could do is try out Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee on the top line and see where it goes. If Nelson is moved, it creates a vacancy at the center position and Grabovski has played well in that spot before.
But regardless of what happens with Grabovski, now is the time to test their in-house options and see if anything clicks. I think there’s a reasonable chance that one of the aforementioned youngsters could hit it off with Tavares and Okposo.
I’m torn, because I’d really like to see Strome on that wing, but at the same time, he’s really gelled with Frans Nielsen and Lee. Nelson is also a good choice and, at least on the power play, he’s shown chemistry with 91 and 21 — which definitely helps. Ultimately, I’d be fine with either player on Tavares’s wing.
If those experiments fail, that’s when you look outside the organization for help. And make no mistake, Garth Snow will have multiple leads to pursue.
They don’t have to be superstar wingers like Phil Kessel and Evander Kane, who, let’s face it, would cost so much that acquiring them wouldn’t be worthwhile. I’m thinking somewhere along the lines of a Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Shane Doan or Patrik Elias — veteran presences who can add scoring punch and invaluable experience and who would both fit quite nicely alongside Tavares.
Both play for teams that have really struggled this season, which means their respective organizations might consider dealing them away for future assets.
The kicker here is that, while Iginla or Jagr, and to a lesser extent Doan and Elias, would come at a cost, it would be significantly smaller than the price for a Kessel or Kane. Remember, the Isles have Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang in the pipeline, which means they really only need a stopgap right now – all the more reason to go after a grizzled vet instead.
Right now, the Islanders have the flexibility to evaluate their options and decide which way to go as the trade deadline approaches. They have the luxury of not having to break the bank and acquire a star in his prime. This situation is entirely solvable, and it might not even require a trade if Strome, Nelson or Lee can get the job done.
Of course, even after this issue is resolved, there are still other questions to answer. Can Chad Johnson be a reliable backup goalie, or will it be an automatic loss whenever he plays? Can the Isles regain their composure late in games that they showed during much of the first half of the season? Does Bailey fit anywhere on this roster anymore?
These are legitimate concerns that will addressed in due time, of that I’m certain. It’s quite clear from the manner and urgent nature in which this roster was improved that the Islanders are “going for it.” Now that the team is actually competing, the stakes have been raised even higher.
And you know what? That’s not a bad thing at all.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI
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