By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders haven’t exactly made the biggest waves so far this offseason, nor have they been the most active team within the Metropolitan Division.
Still, the first day of NHL free agency was a productive one for general manager Garth Snow. He filled the backup goaltending void left by Michal Neuvirth, signing Thomas Greiss to a two-year contract, locked up Thomas Hickey to a very reasonable three-year pact and added forward depth for the Isles’ AHL squad in Bridgeport.
Prior to the start of the signing period, Anders Lee was re-upped, to the tune of four years and $15 million, and the Isles extended qualifying offers to Kevin Czuczman, Mike Halmo, Brock Nelson, Kevin Poulin and Johan Sundstrom. Kirill Petrov’s one-year entry-level contract was made official on Wednesday and on Thursday they signed six players to two-way, one-year contracts.
Meanwhile, as the Islanders took care of business, their divisional rivals made some moves of their own. The Blue Jackets added Brandon Saad, the Capitals signed Justin Williams and, of course, the Penguins traded for Phil Kessel.
Naturally, those developments didn’t sit too well with Islander fans, but you don’t always make roster decisions solely based on what your opponents are doing.
Sometimes, you do. If you’re at a point where your team is as good as it’s going to get and you’re one or two pieces away – then, you might gear up for an arms race if you see your foes doing the same. However, in this particular case, I don’t believe it’s an absolute necessity.
Certainly not on offense, an area the Islanders flourished in for the vast majority of the 2014-15 season.
Call it faith, call it sticking to the game plan, call it whatever you want: I think there’s a lot to be said for the fact that the Isles finished fourth in the league in goals last year, and that several of their key contributors are still maturing as players.
Ryan Strome (50 points) will be 22 on July 11; Nelson (42) turns 24 in October and Lee (25 goals) will turn 25 on Friday.
Younger skaters who are the real deal tend to increase their output as they near or enter the prime of their careers. I wouldn’t call it an assumption; “expectation” is probably the word I would use.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Mikhail Grabovski missed significant time with injuries and when healthy generally produces more than the measly 19 points he collected last season.
And you’ll see it on defense as well. Nick Leddy is just 24. I think that, given his increased ice time from his days in Chicago, he’ll continue to improve upon his 37-point total from 2014-15. Ryan Pulock has a real shot to make the team as well, and though expectations for him should be tempered, there’s no reason to believe he can’t make a dent.
If Pulock ends up being ready, he will be an upgrade on the blueline, even if he’s still developing. You have to break him in sooner or later if he’s going to be a big part of the team going forward; he has to be in the lineup and play on most nights.
Another thought for your consideration: I think the addition of Greiss will make a bigger impact than you might assume, more because of the flexibility and ample rest time he’ll provide Jaroslav Halak with than his actual performance, though one does lead to the other.
There were definitely certain instances throughout the season where Halak was being overworked and tired out and, as a result, you saw some stretches (more than usual for him) where he was far from his best.
Why? The coaching staff simply couldn’t trust Chad Johnson to get the job done, and so they had to rely almost exclusively on Halak for quality goaltending. Greiss will change that, as he’s a backup you can play without severely decreasing your chances of winning.
Also, if he can stop pucks more effectively than Johnson was able to, the Isles will win more contests. Whether it was Greiss or Neuvirth, the Isles would’ve been in good shape between the pipes. I don’t think they could’ve gone wrong with either one.
Factor in these criteria, and you have the makings of a team that should be better than last season’s, even despite the lack of a Kessel-esque addition.
Now, that’s not to say that if the right deal came along and the Isles could land a top-six scoring winger, they shouldn’t pounce. I think a veteran who can slot into the left or right side on the first or second line wouldn’t be the worst idea. This way, if any of their younger players hit a wall at some point, they would have someone to pick up the slack and even perhaps guide those kids through those rough patches.
That said, though, you still have to let your star apprentices be just that.
If Lee is going to be viewed as a potential linemate for Tavares — and I think he’s certainly worthy of such consideration — then let him play with Tavares. If Strome is truly expected to be second-in-command to JT on that offense, then let him play big minutes. Don’t shelter or shuttle him back and forth between all four lines.
Let your kids get those opportunities; it’ll pay off in the long run and probably in the short run, too.
As for how much better the Islanders’ division has gotten, I honestly don’t think the landscape has changed to the extent that people are suggesting.
The Capitals were already better than the Islanders, but that had little to do with the acquisition of Williams. They’re coached better and are more responsible defensively. The Isles can match their offensive firepower, however. The only reason they struggled to score against the Caps in the playoffs was because of the tight-checking that became increasingly prevalent as the series wore on.
The Blue Jackets nabbed Saad, but let’s not mistake him for Brett Hull. The Islanders have a couple of forwards who are probably just as good as (or, in some cases, better than) Saad (Kyle Okposo, Strome) and one who’s certainly superior (Tavares). Also, keep in mind that Columbus had to give up Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano (21 points in 35 games) in that deal, so it might’ve gotten better, but not in a monumental way.
The Penguins, even with Kessel on the roster, are still pretty thin as far as their bottom-six forwards are concerned. They’re also very shallow on defense as of right now — there’s just not much there beyond Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. So while Kessel might add more goals, there’s more to being a winning team. They’ve still got plenty of holes to fill.
As for the rest of the division, the Rangers are still at the head of the class, and that’s probably not going to change this season. They haven’t made any particularly major moves, either, and they don’t really need to. The Devils are still terrible, the Flyers are still pretty mediocre, though slightly improved, and the Hurricanes are still a few years away from competing for a playoff spot.
In short, the Metropolitan Division race appears to be headed for more-or-less the same photo finish as last season.
Most of those teams, including the Islanders, believe it or not, will have improved, and I don’t think any particular franchise has really jumped anybody else by leaps and bounds.
Besides, the notion that the Isles haven’t done anything to improve is pure nonsense.
Remember, Johnny Boychuk was not a slam dunk to re-sign with the organization when he was initially acquired. He would’ve been the best defenseman – perhaps even the most coveted player at any position – on the free agent market.
The 2015-16 Islanders were not at all guaranteed to have Boychuk in their lineup, but they are now, thanks to Snow’s proactivity in getting him inked before it became a bidding war for his services. That does count for something. The fact that it happened in March is inconsequential to that reality. Had the Isles waited until July 1 and then convinced him to stick around, would you think of it any differently?
Lastly, if there’s anything we’ve learned from recent years (particularly from last year), it’s that the offseason is long. There is plenty of time to make moves and improve the roster, and quite often, the most sensible decisions at the start of the rush are the ones you don’t make.
Did you really want to give up Matthew Barzal or Josh Ho-Sang, Scott Mayfield and Casey Cizikas to obtain Kessel and his sizeable cap hit when you’ve got Michael Dal Colle and Co. right around the corner and plenty of scoring depth already on the roster?
The Penguins needed him. For the Islanders, it would’ve been an unnecessary and very expensive luxury.
A new head coach might’ve been a major get for this franchise. I’d put that way ahead of getting someone like Kessel on the to-do-list.
Give it time. Let’s see how the roster looks come October. Even now, however, it looks pretty good. Don’t let the lack of a blockbuster move throw you off. Personally, I think Snow will try to move Michael Grabner and get a top-six scoring winger, like I mentioned earlier.
For now, the Islanders will keep chugging along with the players they have. And you know what? That’s totally fine.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI