NHL Free Agency: Islanders have money to burn

"It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses."
>>Elwood Blues

Now that we're past the qualifying offer deadline yesterday and the draft last weekend, the NHL's truly silly season beckons: Thursday, July 1, the NHL's annual inflation bonanza begins. Lucky for Islanders fans, the club has money to burn -- money it has to burn to reach the cap floor, with money coming off the books this summer while the league sees another increase in the cap.

Last year the SBN team hockey blogs did an overview for their respective teams, with a summary of all 30 at From the Rink. This year we'll be doing the same thing; I'll share the central link when all of them are up.

My overview for the Isles last summer at this time is funny in retrospect, in that some answers were obvious (the Isles needed a goalie; they got two) and some I would contradict one year later ("$4 - $6 million for a stay-at-home defenseman? Uh, pass. I bet [Komisarek]'s lucky to get $4 million. This era does not afford such silly money for a blueliner who is not part of the offense.")

I'm still glad the Isles didn't pay Leaf-level money and term for Komisarek last year -- in part because I thought he was overrated and flattered by his Habs D partner -- but I am ready for the Isles to overpay for a minute-munching defensive blueliner this year. A year later, a year closer to turning things around, a year further into seeing how things stack up, it's time to give the on-ice product a boost from the outside.

Without further ado, here's a look at where the Isles stand going into free agency. As I view this site as a collaborative exercise, all your additional suggestions, rebuttals and corrections are encouraged.

Pending Islanders UFAs

Almost too many to count, but here we go:

Doug Weight (C/LW) Expected to be signed
Jon Sim (LW) Likely gone
Richard Park (C/LW) Likely gone
Trevor Smith (C) AHLer
Greg Mauldin (F) AHLer
Jeremy Reich (W) AHLer foiled by injuries
Tim Jackman (W) Time well served, but no longer room
Mark Flood (d) AHLer made NHL debut in 09-10
Brett Westgarth (d) AHLer
Freddy Meyer IV (d) Late surge, would be welcomed back
Martin Biron (g) Good as gone
Scott Munroe (g) AHL vet, squeezed out by prospects

As noted, Weight is reported to be close to re-signing, while there has been zero news on the rest. It's likely that none of them join Weight, although many fans have come to appreciate Meyer's service in a depth and fill-in role. The Islanders have always praised versatile utility guy Richard Park, but his age combined with a bad season (counting-stats-wise) means the Islanders will probably look to upgrade there.

 

Pending Islanders RFAs

As detailed yesterday, the Islanders extended qualifying offers to forward revelations Rob Schremp and Matt Moulson, goalie Nathan Lawson, and defensemen Dustin Kohn and Dylan Reese (each of whom made their NHL debuts last season). Sean Bergenheim and Jeff Tambellini did not receive offers. None of the Islanders RFAs made even $1 million last season, although Moulson and Schremp can now expect to exceed that.

 

Islanders Cap Space (based on $59.4 million estimated cap)

An unbelievable $32 million or so, excluding possible promoted players like Jesse Joensuu and Matt Martin (roughly $850k each) and the outside chance Calvin De Haan or Travis Hamonic make the club on their entry level contracts. Of course for the Islanders, cap space is about as important as the price of tea in China. The real issue is getting to the cap floor.

Room to cap floor: Theoretically around $15 million, excluding those same players who may be promoted from the AHL or juniors, as well as Doug Weight who is expected to re-sign for an incentive-heavy veteran deal. Schremp's and particularly Moulson's raises should nibble into that too, but no matter how those deals unfold the Isles could be looking at a mandatory $10 million to spend on guys who were not with the club in 2009-10, just to get to the cap floor.

 

Key Needs: Defense, Defense

Try as some fans might, the Isles aren't likely to be rid of Bruno Gervais -- at least not until training camp, where free agents and a potential promotion from within could force him to the waiver wire. With Radek "Injury Caveat" Martinek coming back, that gives the Isles five NHL defensemen including Mark Streit, Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald. Ideally Garth Snow adds two defensemen with size and above-average ability to dramatically improve the group's depth 1 to 7. One big free agent score could transform the blueline and prepare it to be a position of strength in the future.

Two years into Sreit's five-year deal and with the touted de Haan and Hamonic (and later, Matt Donovan) in the pipeline, there is room for Snow to make a major financial commitment to another free agent defenseman without it messing up the looming extensions that will come due for the Islanders young forward core.

Speaking of forwards: Snow and Scott Gordon have each acknowledged the team's need for size upgrades. That can happen in a lot of ways -- and it's always a bit of a nebulous topic (you know it when you see it, but finding the balance is tough...) -- but checking forwards is certainly one area where you can add guys who, for lack of a better term, physically punish opponents and create space for their teammates. The question is how many come from within (Martin? Joensuu? Trevor Gillies?) and how many are added via the market.

 

Potential Targets: A Big D. A Russian forward? Nystrom the Younger?

Well, at the forward checking position, I'm far from the only one to say why not Eric Nystrom? He'd simply be a low-risk, fan-friendly, good-in-the-room move -- and anyone who placed higher expectations on him would be fitted for a strait jacket. But other solid bottom-six targets would come from a pool of players depending on circumstances. (Just to pick one, Manny Malhotra would be a wonderful addition -- especially if the Isles do part with faceoff ace Richard Park -- but he'd need a healthy overpayment to leave San Jose for the Island.)

Another scoring forward would always be nice, but the Isles have so many young forward prospects ready for evaluation (Joensuu, Martin) or ready to take the next step (Tavares, Bailey, Okposo), it's hard to picture a top-six free agent coming in. Not that I'd complain, no sir, but the free agent pickings are slim. But yes, Alex Frolov sure would be a great catch, paving the way for the Russian Kirils of tomorrow.

Defense, of course, is another matter. Never rule out the low-cost AHLers waiting for their shot -- guys that Snow is good at finding -- but this corps needs more than that. If Snow isn't speed-dialing the agent(s) for two of Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Pavel Kubina, Zbynek Michalek and/or Dan Hamhuis on Thursday morning, then my name ain't Nathan Arizona. With the money Snow has to spend just to get to the floor, he really should have one of those guys in that nice new Isles white uni by the end of next week.

In the second-tier of UFAs, a mildly physical puck-mover like Carlo Colaiacovo would be a good fit in Scott Gordon's system, though he carries with him a Martinek-esque injury history. They could always re-flirt with Andy Sutton, but I'd rather not bet on his health, age and looming decline when there are other younger, more mobile options out there.

Finally, in goal Rick DiPietro's shaky knee looms over proceedings once again. Dwayne Roloson showed last year he can still carry the load -- and in fact performs better with the #1's regular work -- so the only question is whether Snow wants to rely on the emergency fill-in ability of Nathan Lawson and Mikko Koskinen (a potential future #1 who missed most of last season with hip surgery), or whether he brings in another veteran to awkwardly share the load. Regardless, the goalie market is flooded, so Snow can afford to wait a bit. Unfortunately, if DiPietro can somehow rebound with health, the Isles won't know until well into the season.

 

Rivals Have Needs Too, You Know

Around the Atlantic, the Flyers have dabbled in the pre-market with upgrades like Dan Hamhuis and Evgeni Nabakov, the Penguins have done likewise with Hamhuis while preparing their annual "Bargain Wingers for Sid" search. The Devils still act like they could re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk, but as significant they risk losing Paul Martin (hopefully to us). The Rangers are the Rangers, so they're already fighting with Marc Staal over his post-entry level extension, and they'll surely do one smart thing and several stupid things to keep us laughing and almost -- almost -- make us empathize with their abused fans.

That's the round-up as we sit here before the market opens. We can get into more specific targets in the coming days, but who is on your wish list? If you're Garth Snow, who gets your first phone call Thursday?

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