By Jeff Capellini
If the first few days of free agency were any indication, Garth Snow appears to be determined to turn the Islanders into a better team on paper than they were at the end of last season.
The veteran general manager hasn’t quite done it yet, but he’s close.
Though the addition of free agent forwards Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and PA Parenteau may not please the masses who swear by the since-departed Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, the reality is the Islanders had operated over the better part of the last decade with the same core players. And they had just one playoff series win to show for it.
The situation on offense had gotten stale. With the exception of the great John Tavares, it was hard to trust anyone. Goal scoring has been a shot in the dark for years. As likable and revered as Okposo and Nielsen were during their time here, their offensive production wasn’t off the charts, nor was it even all that consistent. They had many wonderful moments, but they also disappeared for games at a time. The Isles simply could not afford to keep trotting out the same guys, hoping for different results.
As much as most fans wanted to see Snow hook a big fish and add to what appeared to be a talented group of forwards, changes still needed to be made to the existing personnel. That’s because, with the exception of Tavares, the Islanders did not have another must-keep or can’t-miss offensive player. That’s a fact, as painful as it is for many to accept.
That’s not to say they do at this very moment, either, but they brought in three guys who have had success elsewhere and, as their stats indicate, are better goal scorers. That may not necessarily translate to instant gratification with the Islanders, but their resumes suggest a seamless transition is possible.
Ladd is a two-time Stanley Cup winner who could pot 30 goals in his sleep playing with Tavares. Chimera is a supposedly old guy at 37 but can still skate and grind better than guys 10 years his junior. Playmaking Parenteau once had 67 points playing on a line with Tavares and knows his way around the boards and dirty areas. Take all three and add them to a team that also boasts coaching stability, young offensive players with upside, a deep defense corps and, currently, two solid starting goalies, and the odds of increased production are a lot better now than if the Isles had just simply brought back their “safe” players.
As is often the case with teams that don’t win anything significant over a long period of time, fans tend to fall in love with players that are drafted and come up through the system. Okposo, Nielsen and, to a lesser extent, Martin became secondary faces of the franchise behind Tavares. When those kinds of special relationships are severed, it takes a long time for acceptance. Islanders fans will remain skeptical of what Snow has done since July 1 for many months to come.
It’s completely understandable.
But like I hinted earlier, and others who are a lot smarter than me have intimated over the last few days, Snow likely has another significant move up his sleeve. My guess is it may take some time, but don’t be surprised if he goes after an offensive piece that is potentially better than the three he has already signed.
While it is difficult to predict who that player could be, one has to assume Snow is not satisfied with this roster. If he is, there’s a problem. The time has come for this GM to assess the young players/prospects he can and cannot live without and then make some kind of impact move that puts the Islanders in the conversation among the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
One targeted move could do that, but it likely will cost the type of young talent that fans have been socialized to believe the Isles must retain if they are to survive. Personally, I think blue chip center Mathew Barzal should be untouchable. He has passed every kind of eye test and analytics test there is at the lower levels to make you feel confident that he’ll be something special in the not-too-distant future.
The same may be said about this year’s first-round pick, Kieffer Bellows. But after those two, if the right deal to bring back an impact offensive player is there and the cost includes a Michael Dal Colle or perhaps even a young forward currently on the NHL roster, Snow would be wrong not to at the very least strongly consider shaking things up even further.
Remember, no matter how much you love all the kids the Isles have stockpiled over the years, they are not going to be on the big club all at the same time. The idea is to keep winning now and challenge for the Stanley Cup in the foreseeable future, and that likely won’t be done if this team continues to trot out on the ice players with limited experience.
As for who is potentially out there for Snow to acquire, again, it’s hard to say. I would have loved Taylor Hall, but that didn’t work out. The reported asking price was too steep for Snow, but that doesn’t mean every asking price going forward will be prohibitive. Odds are good, what with the salary cap crunch and next year’s expansion draft, that teams will be looking to move the types of players that can help elevate the Islanders to the next level. Snow just has to let go a bit on some of his younger guys and continue to commit himself to the here and now.
Yes, the Tavares factor plays a role in all of this. He will be a free agent in two years. The Isles cannot sign him to an extension until July 1, 2017, at the earliest. But you better believe the moves being made now are a precursor to not only bettering the on-ice product for the upcoming season but also to insure that Tavares sees the plan in place and will as a result not be swayed by big dollars elsewhere. He’ll get his money from the Islanders. Of this I am convinced. But money and term mean nothing if the supporting cast is not where it needs to be.
Loyalty only goes so far, as we found out with Nielsen, who opted for a change of scenery over more total cash and years from the Islanders, the only team he had ever played for and one that was coming off back-to-back 100-point seasons. The idea of the hometown discount is folly. The sooner folks come to grips with that, the better.
According to the popular website GeneralFanager.com, the Isles are currently a little less than $6 million below the $73 million cap, and still have to come to terms with Ryan Strome and a handful of other restricted free agents. While inking the likes of Alan Quine and Scott Mayfield should not be difficult or have ramifications down the road, the Isles will still need to trade some salary away to get that final piece they crave.
Perhaps goalie Jaroslav Halak gets moved or Snow gets lucky and finds a taker for oft-injured Mikhail Grabovski or intangible-inclined Nikolay Kulemin. Those kinds of deals likely will be more difficult to pull off than simply biting the bullet and parting ways with a younger forward or defenseman and a high draft pick. The Islanders simply cannot take on a bigger-salaried player right now without subtracting something of substance. Snow will want a cushion under the cap for emergency purposes. To do that and get another scorer, more of the “old” needs to be jettisoned.
It may take some time for all the pieces to fall into place, but I believe that remains Snow’s ultimate goal — to have a better team on the ice come the opener in October, not just replace what was lost July 1. He just needs to identify the assets he can live without.
One more big move will go a long way toward erasing the sting of losing three lifelong Islanders, and could at the same time launch this team into the upper echelon in the East.
It’s all doable. Snow just has to find a way.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet