By Jeff Capellini
Remember the World Cup of Hockey? Jaroslav Halak probably thinks about it a lot, especially now that he has all this time on his hands.
Halak was a huge story for much of September’s high-profile international tournament. He basically carried nondescript Team Europe to within inches of a championship. His team ran out of gas during the best-of-three final against Canada, but Halak certainly did his part throughout the star-studded gathering, posting a 2.15 goals-against average and scintillating .941 save percentage in six games.
If nothing else, the veteran goaltender seemed to have served notice to the NHL that his injury-riddled 2015-16 season with the Islanders was going to be a thing of the past.
Yet, during the first 35 games of the new season he ended up being nothing more than a high-priced distraction.
And now he’s a glorified minor leaguer, languishing in Bridgeport of the AHL.
How did this happen? I think several factors contributed to his demise, but not all of them were his doing.
Throughout his 11-year career, Halak has proven to be dependable but really hasn’t displayed the “wow” factor needed to be considered an elite NHL goaltender. His game has certainly been representative enough to warrant being put in a position that requires a lot of responsibility. It has just lacked that night-in, night-out consistency one would expect from a starter.
That lack of star power, coupled with durability issues, played a big role in why he bounced around a lot. Since breaking into the league with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2006-07 season, Halak has suited up for four different organizations (not counting his brief stay in Buffalo, which acquired him from St. Louis in March 2014, only to quickly flip him to Washington) and never really solidified himself as a franchise guy.
The Islanders acquired his rights in May 2014 and quickly signed him to a four-year, $18 million contract, a move that seemed to end their search for a goalie that could give them at the very least a better chance to win on a nightly basis. Halak rewarded his new team during his first season, setting a franchise single-season record with 38 wins before putting on an exceptional showing in the Isles’ seven-game loss to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
But the warm, fuzzy feelings were short-lived. Halak was limited to just 36 appearances in 2015-16 due to injury. A recurring groin problem ended his season long before backup Thomas Greiss stepped in and helped the Islanders to their first playoff series victory since 1993.
Then came the World Cup of Hockey. Even the most pessimistic of Islanders fans had to come away from Halak’s performance in Toronto thinking the 31-year-old Slovakian would be a major positive, even if the season was to be filled with question marks due to general manager Garth Snow’s highly disappointing offseason.
Yet, once the season started Halak never really got on track.
And here’s where the Islanders are to blame.
Back in October, Halak’s agent, Allan Walsh, took issue with the team’s decision to go with a three-goalie system, which included playoff hero Greiss and a talented-yet-unknown quantity in youngster J.F. Berube. Walsh took to Twitter and said the types of things most fans and players would agree with, given the fickle nature of goaltenders.
It’s hard enough for a starter to get in a rhythm in games and have quality practice time when there is a more-than-capable backup breathing down his neck, let alone another goalie who the organization seems to adore or fears losing due to the nature of his contract. The Isles never wanted to expose Berube to waivers because they believed his talent is such that another team would’ve pick him up in seconds. While I have no doubt that Berube could help another team, the Islanders still had two better and not exactly ancient goalies in front of him. It was an ill-advised approach from the start.
Another reason why the Isles went with three goalies on the active roster had to do with Halak’s injury history, which to me was a bit of an overreaction. Berube was to be insurance, but, like I mentioned earlier, his contract made the entire arrangement tricky. The nontraditional goaltending controversy ended up alienating Halak, whom they paid the big bucks to be the guy.
That said though, Halak should have been able to rise above the situation given his talent. It has long been known that he plays better with the more pucks he sees, and I’ve always felt that, when at the top of his game, he’s a better option than Greiss. Yet, Halak’s 6-8-5 record, ghastly 3.23 GAA and pedestrian .904 save percentage in 21 appearances this season behind a defense that, while not spectacular, isn’t exactly lacking in veteran leadership or continuity kind of shows he doesn’t have the mental game needed to take this team to the next level.
And the Islanders desperately need someone who can remain composed, given their deficiencies. This is a .500 hockey club that more or less operates with little margin for error each night. The last thing head coach Jack Capuano needs is a lack of focus in net.
Halak is owed around $7 million for the rest of this season and next season, so the odds of him being released outright are slim. But it’s hard to imagine the Islanders using this demotion to Bridgeport as simply a motivational tool. Barring injury to either Greiss or Berube, we probably won’t see Halak again. And I’m fairly certain Snow will keep trying to trade him well into the offseason and beyond.
In the interim, the Islanders should be working hard on a contract extension for Greiss, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Even though it appears Russian wunderkind Ilya Sorokin has all the tools and then some to be the franchise’s No. 1 goalie down the road, he still has another year left on his contract in the KHL.
Greiss is in a win-win situation here. He has played well all season, no longer has Halak to worry about, and Berube has no significant body of work to threaten for the starting job. At the very least, the Isles should be thinking about a future that includes the 30-year-old German, because there’s no guarantee Sorokin pans out.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN