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In the Puck Daddy roundtable before the draft, I had to chirp my belief that Garth Snow's rebuild process -- while painful and necessary -- also included lots of "easy" decisions. Granted, fan relations-wise, it's not exactly easy to let free agent wingers like Ruslan Fedotenko walk when your team lacks scoring and size. It's not exactly easy to tell the fans to wait, be patient, let the kids develop and stop clamoring for the short fix.
But roster management-wise, those are the easy decisions because it's so obviously what the Islanders needed to do. The really tough, legacy-defining decisions don't come until you're on the cusp of contention, you've accumulated a lot of prospects, and you have to decide which ones to trade for short-term help, and which ones to commit years and sizable cap money to. Those are the decisions that have no clear right answer -- until 20/20 hindsight and fan vitriol (or coronation) kicks in.
(Example: Penguins acquire Bill Guerin, lose in first round, as Guerin has his "second San Jose" playoff rental experience. Inevitable fan reaction: "Why did Shero think that washed-up Islander would make a difference?!" Contrast with what really happened: Pens get Guerin, win Cup. "Genius! I knew he'd fit on Crosby's wing!" It's a fine line sometimes. [Update: Incidentally, the Penguins have re-signed Guerin.)
The Islanders won't be in that "really tough decision" position for a while, which is why -- like last summer -- I am again relaxed at the approach of free agency Wednesday. Snow has one must-have: an NHL goalie capable of sharing the load for the recovering Rick DiPietro, and carrying the load if DiPietro gets hurt again. But even that won't make or break next season, which is still about development, patience, and stocking the system -- with the bonus of some exciting kids and winning some games we shouldn't. Snow can lie in the weeds for a Mark Streit-coup, but the Boewmeester's and Heatley-sales of the world are the wrong price at the wrong time for the Islanders.
That said, here's a quick look after the jump [below the poll if you're on the front page] at where the Islanders stand. Weigh in with comments on who you'd like (or stay away from) and vote in the poll.
Pending UFAs: F Andy Hilbert, C Mike Sillinger, F Dean McAmmond, enforcer Mitch Fritz, C Mike Iggulden, F Kurtis McLean (already signed in Europe), C Ben Walter, D Thomas Pock (already signed in Switzerland), D Joe Callahan, D Chris Lee. G Yann Danis, G Joey MacDonald.
Hilbert was useful but should likely be let go. Sillinger wants to come back from hip surgery somewhere, but it's hard to see it happening here. Fritz wants to return, but will Gordon want an enforcer he only uses a couple minutes a game? Will Snow-Gordon go with an enforcer shuttle from Bridgeport again, to protect against the Philadelphia Flu? On defense, Callahan was well-received last season. It appears the Islanders will look elsewhere in goal.
No news yet on qualifying offers, but Comeau and Hillen are in the long-term plans, Smith -- who I will eventually forgive for wearing Turgeon's #77 -- and Fraser could be, too. Chris Botta said Mannino will not receive a qualifying offer. (We'll always have Chicago, Peter.) Colliton has already gone to Sweden.
Salary Cap Space - committed: Just under $33 million committed. They'd need around $7.8 - $8 million to get to the cap floor, which shouldn't be hard. As always, a huge credit to NHLnumbers for these numbers.
Key Needs: It sounds like Islanders followers are in agreement on the need for a 1A goalie via free agency. As James Mirtle has already pointed out, the market for goalies is flooded. The Islanders could also use another winger with size, or one capable of fighting and playing a regular shift. Although I think this need is a little overstated; John Tavares isn't made of glass.
Potential Targets: Craig Anderson, Scott Clemmensen, Ty Conklin, Antero Niittymaki ... Yann Danis? Please don't ask about Nikolai Khabibulin, or suggest taking Miikka Kiprusoff's giant contract off of Calgary's hands. Wrong guy, wrong price, wrong time.
Physical forwards: Free agent wingers are either out of our league or not that impressive. I'm fine with the Islanders developing their own power forward (although, that would require actually drafting one) or waiting to get one later. Do they need some enforcers so that Tim Jackman isn't always forced into the police role? Sure, I guess -- but I'd rather not devote ice time to an outside enforcer. Candidates for wingers with grit I'd pull out of a hat would include Brad Winchester [edit: Winchester's been re-signed] or Dan Hinote from the Blues, Colton Orr just to fire a shot at the Rangers, Mike Rupp just to ... meh. But not Chris Neil, not David Koci, not anyone else who either fights but can't play, or plays but fights less than you'd like.
On defense, Garth Snow has hinted he is settled -- which doesn't make me happy. But the Islanders do already have six NHL contracts on the blueline -- nd that's before Hillen is re-signed. I guess Rumsfeld would say you go in with the blueline you have, not the blueline you want.
That said, some will still covet a flirtation with local boy Mike Komisarek. I myself was intrigued by that notion a few times earlier this season -- then I heard his rumored asking price. $4 - $6 million for a stay-at-home defenseman? Uh, pass. I bet he's lucky to get $4 million. This era does not afford such silly money for a blueliner who is not part of the offense. That salary slot absolutely must be reserved for an elite two-way blueliner.
The Rest of the Atlantic: The Flyers have their Chris Pronger, but as ever the question will be between the pipes. The Devils need a coach, and may lose John Madden or Brian Gionta. The Penguins won the freaking Cup, but they have decisions to make on their ex-Islanders and blueline. The Rangers have Nik Antropov to sign, and/or giant contracts to shed if possible.
Bottom Line: I never expected the Streit signing last summer, and I sure don't expect another steal this year. The Islanders need to be patient, develop the kids -- and strike if a great opportunity comes available.
But I've made assumptions you may dispute. Let me know in comments. Am I being too forgiving about next year? Are there smart pieces out there Snow could add that help the long-run? Are you of the belief a better enforcer is needed, pronto? And I know many of you weighed in at the end of the season or in recent weeks, but what do you want the goaltending to look like?
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