Editor's Note: FanPost front-paged here. No further intro needed.
I know it's a little early to start eyeing up free agents, but hey, we're Islander fans -- we're used to thinking about the offseason while there's still snow on the ground. And while I'm excited to watch the rest of the season play out, I've also come to some conclusions based on what I've seen the past few months about what I hope the summer brings.
It's hard to say what kind of spending the Islanders will do this offseason. They should have somewhere between $13-$20 million coming off the books depending on who re-signs or retires. Right now their cap payroll for next season is around $32M. Hopefully, that will soon be somewhere around $38M, with P.A. Parenteau and Frans Nielsen safely resigned. Another $2M for Matt Martin and David Ullstrom and you get to $40M, or around $9M shy of where they are now, with several spots to fill in still, largely on defense.
I believe they will fill forward vacancies from within next year, but they are likely looking at three new defenders to line up with Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald. You hope a Calvin de Haan or Matt Donovan can grab one of those spots with strong play later this season, or in camp next year, but I wouldn't expect to see more than one rookie on the blue line in 12-13.
However, there are quite a few appealing free agents on defense this year, many more than I can remember in a while.
In essence, the Islanders should be looking to bolster all three pairings. They need to find a good partner for Streit, who can play in his own end and move the puck. I'd also look for someone who can really solidify the third pair, and give a rookie a chance to succeed. Additionally, you hope to add some size, and maybe more importantly physical play, and someone who can pair with Streit on the power play. I would hope to see two defensemen added, and possibly even a third, with an eye toward Streit's expiring contract.
With that in mind, here's a look at some of the free agents Garth & Co. will be looking over the next few months. I've limited the list to players 30 and under, hoping we can offer some multiyear deals to guys who can be expected to produce for the length of the contract.
I'm going to
pray assume we aren't going to see Mottau, Eaton, or Staios in orange and blue next year, but that still leaves two current Islanders who are pending UFAs.
Dylan Reese 6'1" 201lb Age:27 RH
We know what we have in Reese. He's generally played well and within himself. He's not a world-beater, but he's nota game-killer either. I wouldn't mind seeing him back for depth, especially if he's willing to take a two-way deal again.
Milan Jurcina 6'4" 253lb Age:28 RH
We all know the story on Jurcina. Big, not especially physical. Not bad, but not especially effective. I'd rather see him replaced, especially if he wants more than his current $1.6M.
First Pair-Cream of the Crop
Ryan Suter 6'1" 198lb Age:27 LH
Obviously the most coveted UFA this year. If Garth can somehow bring him to the Island it's the gamechanging signing we've looked for (but honestly hasn't been there) the past few years. This is the guy you break the bank for in my opinion. I'd love to see him paired with Hamonic, and watch them dominate games for years to come.
Next Best-Friends for Streit
One thing we've seen this year is Mark Streit struggle. His injury last year plays into this, as does his age, but more than anything I think it's been his partners. He's looked much better with Reese beside him lately, but I think he could get back to his prior game with a better player next to him. There's several guys that might fit the bill available this year.
Johnny Boychuk 6'2" 225lb Age:28 RH
A guy who has size and has progressed nicely with Boston the past few seasons. He seems to fly a little under the radar on a talented Bruins team, but he's done a lot of heavy lifting playing next to Chara this year. He might really cash in and earn a big boost from his current $2M salary, especially if he has a big playoff run, but may actually be worth what he gets.
Matt Carle 6'0" 205lb Age:27 LH
Carle is a very solid, if unexciting defenseman. He's the kind of guy you could park next to Streit on the second pair and expect the tandem to excel. However, he's having a very good year and is already making $3.4M, so he may go for upwards of $5M-will he be worth it?
Nicklas Grossman 6'4" 230lb Age:27 LH
A big body who plays tough minutes, though he doesn't necessarily excel in that role and doesn't play a physical game. He's having a down year, so he might come cheaper than usual. He's similar to Jurcina, but a better player. Might be worth exploring.
Dennis Wideman 6'0" 200lb Age:28 RH
He's a solid player, though I've always felt a touch overrated. Very offensively minded, he'd be a nice complement on the power play. Coming off a big All-Star season he's probably going to end up with a big contract (already at $4million).
Tim Gleason 6'0" 217lb Age:28 LH
Having his best season with Carolina, but it still isn't all that good. He's probably going to pull in more than his current $2.75 million, and I can see him disappointing at that price.
Carlo Colaiacovo 6'1" 200lb Age:29 LH
Perhaps our resident Blues fan can probably say more, but he seems like a good puck mover who has grown more comfortable in his own end. He does have a long injury history, though, and is already making $2.1M. Could pair well with Streit, but not the top choice.
Jason Garrisson 6'2" 214lb Age:27 LH
He's made a big jump this year, but it seems in no small part due to playing with the rejuvenated Brian Campbell. Moves the puck well, and fits in on the power play (8 goals there this year). Working well with Campbell indicates he might do well paired with Streit, and might give Streit the partner he's lacked on the first PP unit. Worth watching as the season progresses. Surely will get a raise, but is only pulling down $1.6M this year.
Third Pair-Easy Upgrade
After watching the Eaton/Mottau/Staios Parade this year, this should the where Garth can most easily improve the team. There's a number of guys here who I think could add a lot, and hopefully mesh with a young player.
Shane O'Brien 6'3" 230lb Age:28 LH
Advanced Numbers (unavailable)*
O'Brien isn't the best player, but he could provide what a lot of Islander fans feel has been lacking with size and physical play on the blueline, and TEH (ever-popular) GRITZ. He's not afraid to drop them, and might provide the protection some feel our stars need, while also contributing solid minutes. He's also only making $1.1M, but is having one of his better seasons to date.
Clayton Stoner 6'3" 225lb Age:26 LH
He's playing bottom pair minutes for MN, but doing it well. At 26 he seems to be coming along and would bring the size and physical play we've been lacking from the bottom pair. Seems willing to drop the gloves at times, and at $550K he could be a cheap upgrade. Another one worth keeping tabs on going forward.
Matt Gilroy 6'1" 201lb Age:27 RH
Probably saw enough of him as a Ranger to know he's not really the answer, but he might be a good option if the pool has thinned out and we still haven't filled out the roster. Plus he's another righty.
Derek Smith 6'1" 197lb Age:27 LH
He has some nice AHL seasons under his belt and appears to be figuring out the NHL this year. Seems more of a puck mover than banger.
Shaone Morrisonn 6'4" 210lb Age:29 LH
A casualty of Buffalo's cap madness stuck in Rochester this year, Morrisonn has never really met first round expectations. It's hard to peg what kind of contract he'll get (he's currently making $2 million to play in the AHL) given the loss of this season. If he somehow comes cheap, he could fill out a bottom pair, but he's not much of an upgrade.
Depth, Depth, and More Depth
If we end up missing out on a couple of the above, there should definitely be an effort to add some bottom depth-two seasons in a row have taught us that. Here's a few players that seem capable of giving that, with a little bit of upside.
Matt Smaby 6'6" 239lb Age:27 LH
A giant with a pedigree who's never really stuck despite being an early second round pick. Had a solid half-season last year with TB, but has missed all season with a thumb injury.
Tyson Strachan 6'2" 215lb Age:27 RH
Not a ton of data on the guy, so it's hard to say, but he has size and a right-handed shot. Again, maybe Dom can fill us in on whether he's a guy who just needs regular minutes, or is a two-way depth signing at best.
Alexander Sulzer 6'1" 204lb Age:27 LH
Another guy I don't know much about who has some very strong AHL numbers to go with some very underwhelming NHL ones.
Summer of Love?
Do we finally feel the love this summer as Islander fans? I think two dependable defensemen would go a long way to making next season a winning one. Of course there's 30 other teams vying for these players, but hopefully Garth is ready (and able) to be bold this offseason and can pull off some moves to help this team get to the next level.
*The apostrophe in O'Brien's name throws off the search query. I emailed Gabe Desjardins, and he wrote back that he would look into it, so if something comes of that, I'll update the link.