"For Islanders fans, this story has played out like an annoying soap opera, twisting and turning just enough to keep their hopes alive but never giving them the final answer they crave. They're the real losers here because they're the ones who have been emotionally invested. And they've got nothing to show for it, except for concern about their team's uncertain future."
It's not often that a Newsday columnist captures how I feel, but I dare say Jim Baumbach [$5 please] nails it right there.
Not that I've ever much worried that the Isles would leave the New York area. But where their venue will be and when it will be ready and how it will finally be settled so that it's not the dark x-factor in the team's on-ice planning -- yes, that whole saga has put me through the emotional ringer. On this issue, I'm spent. As long as I've followed the Isles the building (or at minimum, its lease) has hung over our heads, that feeling intensifying each year. It's amazing we're about to enter the fourth calendar decade in which this is the main issue. And yet it took 10 months for Kate Murray's predictable counterproposal, which a monkey could have written last October.
Aside from all that, I feel for the friends I've met for whom this is about more than their favorite hockey team, how it's tied up in messy local politics and incompetent civic planning right at home. To think the latest dream forwarded for an Isles venue (How many pipe dreams is that in 20 years?) by the County ties it to the devil's bargain of a casino development -- well, I'll spare you my thoughts on casino hail mary's beyond the word choice just used. (Hey, at least it's a brand-new building -- not a refurbishing -- in that one.)
It's July, there are still free agents out there, Kyle Okposo is working out at home, Scott Gordon has a Juice project on his hands, and NHL Network is showing the Islanders Cup clinching games this week. That's where my head is. So I've got a hockey question for you: As we sit here in mid-July and the whole market stalls as if waiting for Ilya to fall, which remaining UFA do you figure is most likely to land with the Isles?
As I see it, this question -- not who you want, but who you expect will be added -- is tied up in three factors:
1. How Much Belief in Unproven Youth?
It's a dangerous game to go into a season banking on young players making the roster who haven't played an NHL game yet, but you figure the Islanders are going to do that with at least one position, if not two. So whether they think a Nino or a Petrov (if there's some magical KHL contract laxative), or a Hamonic or De Haan is in the opening night picture complicates things, to say nothing of Matt Martin or Jesse Joensuu who I consider ready to be tested.
Those factors dictate whether they need depth at wing and/or defense, and of what caliber. You could even throw the goalie position into this question, since Rick DiPietro is ... you know, and the next in line have zero NHL experience.
2. How Close to the Floor Do Raises for Moulson and Schremp Move Them?
Since the lockout, we've seen the Isles spend to get to the cap floor before. We'll probably see it again. But how much that is a factor again depends on how many new entry-level contracts -- the pricey first-round pick kind -- they expect will be on the roster, as well as how much of a raise Matt Moulson and Rob Schremp receive.
I've said this before, but I figure this is one reason we have heard Doug Weight is staying, but we haven't heard of the contract actually being signed: The bonuses may depend in part on how much the Islanders need to even the numbers.
These factors dictate the caliber of addition they make: Do they go all in for an Alex Frolov? Do they give a nice retirement package to an older vet -- a trade of money in exchange for locker room leadership and reaching the cap floor? Or will they be comfortably up near the floor, and thus feel they can get by with another depth signing that allows the kids room and ice time to make a mark?
3. Who do the Islanders Like? And Who Likes Them?
Throwing names on the wall then ... do you think Bill Guerin would come back if rejected by others and offered another wad of cash by Garth Snow? What about Denis Grebeshkov, said to want more than $3 million per year? Or the recently departed Andy Sutton? And ol' Freddy Meyer?
And do you suppose Snow has any interest in Alexei Ponikarovsky or Lee Stempniak? What about Maxim Afinogenov -- the Isles are taking on a bit of a Russian flavor lately. Or what about more help on the bottom six -- Dominic [sic] Moore or Glen Metropolit, for example, who the Habs are letting walk?
I can construct any number of scenarios -- "We're glad to have Billy/Andy back to help our young players" -- though none of them strike me as particularly likely. My gut says the Isles have one more significant free agent signing in them, likely at forward. But since we're in the aftermarket, unless there's a target they like who's not returning calls, they might wait until they know how much they have to spend.
So many unknowns, it's hard to construct a prediction scenario Vegas could believe in. But for my money, it beats talking about Kate Murray or casinos.