By Jeff Capellini
The Islanders are a good team, but are they good enough?
As they scramble for playoff position, it’s a question that for the second year in a row will be determined without the help of reinforcements. General manager Garth Snow did not make an impact move prior to Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, a decision that has left a lot of fans and pundits just a tiny bit bewildered.
Especially because the teams the Isles could potentially see in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers and Washington Capitals, made moves and got better. And let’s not forget the Pittsburgh Penguins have shaken things up so well following a slow start they are now just a point behind the Isles for third in the Metropolitan Division.
The explanation as to why the Islanders stood pat on Monday may not be all that difficult to understand, depending on just how much an organization values its draft picks and prospects. The Isles clearly do.
The asking price for a rental player, i.e. someone in the final year of his contract, was even more abnormally high than usual this time around. The going rate in many cases was a first rounder plus a good prospect. In others it was a second rounder and multiple prospects.
The Islanders seemed hell-bent on not relinquishing their first rounder this year under any circumstances, and were hamstrung by the fact that their 2016 second rounder belongs to the Boston Bruins, thanks to the October 2014 trade that landed them defenseman Johnny Boychuk.
The one move Snow did make that impacts the big club was sending the team’s third-round pick this year to the Ottawa Senators for depth forward Shane Prince and a seventh-round pick. The move was typical of what Snow has done in the past, as he’s often taken on young talents that have fallen out of favor with other teams. Think of players like Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Thomas Hickey.
Prince is only 23 and is said to have excellent hockey sense. He could turn out to be a steal, some believe, but likely won’t upgrade the Islanders’ inconsistent offense all that much the rest of the way this season, if at all.
Last season, the Islanders enjoyed their best regular season since 1983-84, but fell off dramatically after the All-Star break. Though they did finish with 101 points, they bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, due mostly to the fact that they scored just 15 goals in their seven-game loss to the Capitals, including just six goals after Game 3.
They could have used an upgrade or two at the trade deadline, but were in a similar position to their current situation. They didn’t have a first- or second-round pick in the 2015 draft. Snow eventually rectified that by trading into the first round twice and coming away with highly touted youngsters in Mathew Barzal (16th overall) and Anthony Beauvillier (28th).
But then, inexplicably, the Isles did little to actually improve themselves over the summer. Yes, they did sign goaltender Thomas Greiss and he has proven to be a godsend this season, and the defense in front of both Greiss and starter Jaroslav Halak has tuned a corner to the point now where it’s actually a lot better than many predicted.
But the Isles’ offense remains troubling. While it’s true they currently are tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference in scoring, the production has been feast or famine. Head coach Jack Capuano’s team has scored two goals or less in 50 percent of its games (30 of 60), and one goal or less 27 percent of the time (16 of 60). The Isles have scored one goal in regulation in three of their four games on their current seven-game road trip.
Since last season’s trade deadline the Isles have not added a single impact offensive player. And in that time franchise player John Tavares endured a dreadful slump and two of the three younger players that were touted as the rationale for Snow’s inactivity on the personnel front have not matured nearly enough. Ryan Strome has just 23 points with 22 games to play after having 50 in 81 a season ago. Anders Lee’s regression has been even more frustrating as he has just nine goals in 60 games after scoring 25 last season. That production, by the way, landed him a fat new four-year contract at an average annual value of $3.75 million.
Only Brock Nelson (career-high 21 goals) has truly matured, but he’s also in the midst of an ill-timed slump, with just one goal and two assists over his last 12 games.
Most people in the know agree that the Islanders have one of the best farm systems in the NHL. They have talented young players coming out of their ears. And in the absence of draft picks, it would have behooved Snow to actually move a few of them to get the kind of proven talent that could have given the Isles their best chance to make their first deep playoff run since 1992-93, coincidentally the last time they actually won a postseason series.
And in my opinion that philosophy shouldn’t just be reserved for the frantic days leading up to the deadline. The Isles have chips to make significant moves regardless of the time of the year. And unless you actually believe that everyone in the system will be on the NHL club at the same time — an extremely unlikely scenario if the idea is to be more than simply a team that makes the playoffs — it has been high time for Snow to part with some of the future to win now for a while.
His next real chance will be at the draft when teams faced with salary cap realities (the cap could go down next year, if you believe what you read) should be ripe for the picking. I don’t expect the Islanders to be big players in free agency, but they are going to have to potentially replace unrestricted free agents Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. Simply sticking in a developing kid or two to play in the top six would be another example of running in place.
Tavares needs help. He has needed it since Thomas Vanek left. You may have hated that trade, but those 47 games he played with the Isles brought out the best in Tavares the scorer. If his current supporting cast is really all that good, why is he going to finish well behind the career-high 86 points he put up last season?
Tavares is the constant. His linemates are the variables. They haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain this season, regardless if No. 91 has, himself, struggled at times.
At some point Snow needs to view some of his prospects as actual assets that can bring back something significant in trades, not just as players we might see years from now.
Putting an end to that vicious cycle might very well help the Islanders ascend to the next level sooner rather than later.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet