Putting All Eggs In Player Maturation Basket In Brutal Metro Is Asking For Problems

By Jeff Capellini
WFAN.com

The Islanders bowed out in the first round of last season’s playoffs following a 101-point regular season in which they limped to the finish line.

Their solution so far this offseason has been to do basically nothing.

I’ve been told I’m overreacting. I’ve been told it’s only the middle of July and there is still plenty of time for general manager Garth Snow to makes moves that will make this team better.

But assuming Snow doesn’t add an impact piece on offense or defense — or both — between now and October, the Islanders, at least on paper anyway, will have blown a major opportunity to put some distance between themselves and several teams in the talent department in what is a very tight Metropolitan Division. It seems odd to me that a team entering a new arena in the world’s most demanding market would have so little urgency, especially when it has to convince its new audience that it is worth spending money on.

There are two prevailing thoughts that some fans and media members are using to justify the Islanders’ inactivity. Both have their merits to a degree, but neither is a strong enough argument against being proactive.

First, some simply believe that the team’s younger players will all mature at the same time and take their games to the next level, thus justifying Snow not parting with assets in trades and/or money in free agency on supposedly over-priced veterans.

The other thought is the offseason is long and Snow will eventually pull more rabbits out of his hat, like he did last year with the stunning trades for Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk a week before the beginning of the season.

I have serious problems with the former and my doubts about the latter.

As for player maturation, the Islanders were one of the best teams in the NHL during last season’s first four or so months, but contrary to popular belief it wasn’t primarily due to young players leading the way. As it turns out, they were in most cases complementary parts to the impact veterans traded for or signed outright by Snow the summer before.

The list is significant. There was goaltender Jaroslav Halak. There were the aforementioned Leddy and Boychuk. There was veteran forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. They were predominantly the reasons why, in concert with superstar John Tavares, the Islanders improved 22 points in the standings from the season before.

Don’t get me wrong, with 50 points and a plus-23 rating, 22-year-old Ryan Strome showed all the signs of greatness. He may one day be a 40-goal, point-per-game player in the NHL. The same can be said for 25-year-old power forward Anders Lee, who finished second on the team with 25 goals and has 35 goals and 57 points in his first 100 NHL games. The Isles rightfully rewarded Lee with a four-year contract and it stands to reason that he can be the big winger the Isles have lacked forever for a very long time.

But even they went through their growing pains at times. The production drop-off after Strome and Lee was apparent.

Take Brock Nelson for instance. Sure, most everyone agrees he has all the skills, but after scoring 15 goals in his first 32 games last season he scored just five in his next 50. That’s not a typo. He then scored twice in Game 1 of the Isles’ seven-game loss to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, only to promptly disappear over the next six games, including being a healthy scratch for one.

And what’s more, as much as Lee showed incredible potential during the regular season, he didn’t score in the playoffs. In fact, he had but one measly assist before being scratched in both Games 6 and 7.

So I’m supposed to now believe a few summer months of maturity are going to make both of these key pieces of the future, and thus the Islanders, significantly better next season? The assumption of their positive development should take precedent over going out and acquiring a proven veteran? It sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like more pressure being put on Lee and Nelson than either really deserves at this young stage of their careers.

After those three, the Islanders have a ton of question marks on offense, primarily due to the fact that three players they absolutely have to get a lot from are in the final year of their contracts, with no guarantees of returning next season.

Kyle Okposo is coming off a scary eye injury that contributed to him missing 22 games, and while his point production was very good — 51 in 60 games — he had just seven in 14 games after returning from the injury and all of three points in the series loss to Washington. And he reportedly wants his next contract to pay him in the neighborhood of $7 million to $7.5 million per season. Really? For someone who has never had more than 69 points in a season and is an injury risk?

I can’t imagine Snow caving to that demand, so the Isles could find themselves in the throes of a playoff push next March with the huge distraction of Okposo’s contract on their minds at the trade deadline.

Then there’s Frans Nielsen, who many Islanders fans overrate to a nauseating degree. For all the talk of how good a two-way player the 31-year-old Dane is, he’s coming off his lowest point total in a season not impacted in some way by a work stoppage since 2009-10. He’s finished in 11th, 17th and 29th place, respectively, in voting for the Selke Trophy — given to the league’s best defensive forward — over the last three seasons.

Nielsen will make a seemingly paltry $3.5 million in 2015-16. I find it hard to believe he’ll give the Isles a hometown discount either, since next summer is potentially the last time he’ll see a significant paycheck, and we all know NHL general managers overpay for everything. Loyalty? I’ll believe it when I see it.

I’d get into Michael Grabner, but it’s really a waste of time. He scored 34 goals five seasons ago and has just 56 since. At first he was healthy and not scoring, and that was frustrating enough, but over the last two seasons he’s missed 66 games due to a variety of injuries and now has a seemingly immovable $3 million cap hit for 2015-16.

Theoretically, Snow should have traded at least one of these players since the end of last season, but yet here the Isles are with not one, but three veterans who could walk for nothing at season’s end. What’s the solution? Promoting more kids with less experience next offseason?

As for the rationale that Snow will somehow pull off more miracle moves later this summer or in the fall, I have a hard time believing lightning can strike twice, mostly because the vibe the GM is giving off this time around feels different.

If nothing else, we know Snow rarely shows his cards. Nobody knows what he’s thinking. But his recent comments, for whatever reason, sound more like he’s resigned to start next season with this roster.

“Barring injury, I think we’ll be better,” Snow said prior to last week’s Blue-White scrimmage. “We feel that we’ve built a team through the draft now that can compete with any team on any given night. … We have a lot of young players that, year to year, will be bigger, stronger, faster. And with that experience, we’re looking to build off last season.”

I have to hope this is just a reaction to being unable, to this point, to free up needed cap space to make the acquisition of a veteran winger or puck-moving defenseman feasible. If that ever happens, Snow has proven in the past he will move out prospects and picks for what’s necessary.

Some fans simply have a hard time accepting the fact that every single prospect in a very good system will not make the NHL roster. There’s just not enough room. This notion that “the rebuild will be destroyed” or “the minors will be depleted” by trades is utter nonsense, because you know this GM’s track record of thinking things through and believe in his ability to find picks.

What’s the point of a great farm system if you don’t use some of your assets to help win now? Even during the dynasty years, with all that homegrown talent, the Islanders still traded for the pieces that ultimately turned them into champions.

Why is it okay for Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist in two of the last three seasons, to have just 86 points? I look at this man and see a 100-point talent of the ilk of a Sidney Crosby or any other superstar in the league. Yet, it’s acceptable to some for him to be just above a point-per-game player?

What if Tavares had a proven veteran wing on his line, instead of the revolving door of linemates for basically his entire career? Don’t you think some of the pressure would be taken off the defense and the Isles would put more teams away instead of sweating out these low-scoring games? And while we’re at it, wouldn’t a proven sniper take some of the pressure off Tavares to have to be the primary goal-scorer?

I hear all the time about how the Isles scored the fourth-most goals during the 2014-15 regular season and that should be proof enough that this team as currently constituted should not have to make a significant addition on offense. Then I counter with that stretch of eight miserable games in March — where the Isles managed just 12 goals — or how they won just 10 of their final 26 games (10-10-6), which cost them the division and a better playoff seeding, and nobody wants to acknowledge it.

Of course, these are many of the same people who wanted head coach Jack Capuano out after last season but now have no problem with him coaching the same team that failed last spring. It’s insanity.

You can say what you want about the Islanders’ offense being impressive at times last season, but it wasn’t a battle-tested offense. That, not the cop out that is injuries, is what cost them when it mattered.

The hope here is Garth Snow is smarter than the people who have apologized for his offseason to date. In a perfect world, hopefully he’s just biding his time, formulating a plan to take advantage of a salary-cap strapped team or two.

Because if he’s not, the Islanders could easily regress. It’s just as farfetched as assuming everyone and their mother will turn into a proven vet overnight.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet