By Daniel Friedman
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We’re near the halfway point of the Stanley Cup Final, which means the offseason is right around the corner.
For the New York Islanders, it will be a time to recalibrate and plug up some holes. I’m going to list and expound upon the things that should be priorities this summer, though not necessarily in order of importance.
Last year, the Islanders had more drastic changes to make. They got an early head start by trading for and then signing goaltender Jaroslav Halak less than two months before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent.
This year, they head into the offseason with most of their key positions already filled, and most of the changes you’ll see will be smaller tweaks rather than seismic blockbusters.
They will also head into the Entry Draft without any first- or second-round picks, which is not ideal considering just how deep this year’s prospect pool is. I think it would certainly be in the organization’s best interests to try and find a way to at least get back into the second round of the draft by moving expendable assets.
Traditionally, a pair of thirds will get you back into the second round, while a pair of second rounders will get you back into the first. Linden Vey fetched a second-round pick during last year’s draft. It would require a fair amount of creativity, but it’s not an impossible feat.
In the event that general manager Garth Snow is unable to do this, he still has that pair of third-round choices and the Isles’ amateur scouts have generally done a good job of finding value prospects on Day 2. The system is also flush with young talent, so this shouldn’t have any lasting negative impact.
Of course, the trick is to know which assets are expendable going in, and I’m sure the Islanders have a thorough understanding of their inventory, especially since many of their younger players have now either graduated to the NHL level or are at a point in their development where their likely trajectories are more identifiable.
And that brings us to our next topic: sorting through and clearing up the team’s forward group.
It goes without saying that Anders Lee and Brock Nelson need to be re-signed (both will be restricted free agents this summer), which I suspect will get done without much complication.
New York’s offense currently resembles a game of musical chairs. There are simply too many players and not enough spots.
This issue was masked at times by the various injuries suffered by forwards over the course of this past regular season. But even during the playoffs, when the Isles were permitted to carry as many extras as they wanted, the situation was still pretty cloudy.
Colin McDonald was the first victim of those circumstances, getting waived just a few weeks into the season. Lee was called up, and quickly proved he belonged, etching himself into the lineup as a regular and hijacking a slot that previously would’ve gone to someone like McDonald.
McDonald will be an unrestricted free agent in July, and I’d be very surprised if he was brought back. Assuming he isn’t, that takes him out of the picture, but a logjam still exists.
Consider the forwards who are virtual locks: John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Lee, Nelson, Ryan Strome, Frans Nielsen, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. That leaves one more spot open, and we’re left with Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner as the two main contenders.
Both players bring something to the table, and neither is someone you really want sitting out as a healthy scratch.
I think Bailey’s found his niche as an effective two-way winger, but if an opportunity to add a scorer to the roster (we’ll get to that in a moment) presents itself, I’m not sure who else I’d take out of the lineup. He’s also coming off a 41-point season, so his value might be on the rise.
Similarly, Grabner does a lot of things right, even if he has trouble finishing. The problem is, he’s constantly injured, and I think that’s a major reason why he struggles to find the back of the net. It’s very tough to get into a rhythm when you’re sidelined as often as he is.
A top-six scoring winger (preferably a veteran), who can slot in on one of the top two lines, would probably be a good idea.
There are options on the free agent market, but given the current crowd on offense, I think the Isles would need to do it via trade to open up a spot. Getting that top-six winger would mean either packaging current forwards in a trade or moving them in separate deals to make room on the roster for a free agent acquisition.
A guy like Tyler Kennedy (an impending UFA) would be an ideal 13th forward. You don’t need someone like Bailey or Grabner sitting around.
I don’t think another star winger for Tavares is a “must-get.” It’s more of an added bonus and, if they can pull it off for the right price, that’s great. If not, they’ll be fine.
Tavares already has a star winger in Okposo, and Lee could score 30 goals riding the opposite wing. Strome is also a good option, and the Isles have Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang in the pipeline.
It’s also worth noting that most star centers of Tavares’s stature generally have one star winger, not two. Ryan Getzlaf has Corey Perry, Tyler Seguin has Jamie Benn and Jonathan Toews has Marian Hossa.
A veteran scorer who can play on one of those top-two lines should be a priority for Snow.
Perhaps you trade Bailey and Grabner for draft picks or other assets to clear up space and then go after a free agent like Justin Williams on July 1, but keep in mind that the Islanders have had more success in recent history acquiring missing pieces via trades than they have banking on free agency.
Having a reliable backup goaltender that can give Halak ample rest would also be a good idea. Michal Neuvirth would fill that role quite nicely, but if he decides not to re-sign, there are some other options (Viktor Fasth, Jonas Gustavsson, etc.).
A depth defenseman would also be nice, especially if the Isles are losing Lubomir Visnovsky and aren’t sold on either of the youngsters Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock being ready to graduate.
It’s going to be an intriguing offseason for the Islanders. Whether or not it’s successful remains to be seen. But of this we’re certain: if it’s not, and if they aren’t proactive, they will find themselves behind the eight ball.
The Metropolitan Division is already tight, and teams will be looking to make their own improvements this summer. If the Isles are to keep pace, they will have to do the same.
Let the fun begin.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI