The playoffs are over for us, but for the first time in years the Islanders are entering the offseason as a team that does not need to find a way to reinvent itself. There are certainly key questions that will need to be answered in the coming months – Who will play on Tavares’ wing? Will Mark Streit be back? Who will play goal next season? – but these are questions asked in the context of a broader trend in a positive direction. That’s pretty cool.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m feeling excited. So instead of working on my dissertation tonight, I decided to work through the Islanders roster to see what our team should be looking for in the offseason. I’ve broken the discussion down into rough units: top-six forwards, bottom-six forwards, top-four defensemen, depth defensemen, a starting goaltender, and a backup goaltender. For each category, I’ve listed the Islanders players who fit into that category, emerging prospects who might be able to step into the category next season, current Islanders free agents who would fit into the category if they were re-signed, and a few unrestricted free agents from other teams whom I think fill some needs that the Islanders may find themselves having this summer. I’ve also included some discussion of what those needs may be and how the team might go about filling them.
If anyone actually reads this, I hope you enjoy it!
The Islanders’ top six is establishing an identity for itself as a fast, creative, and dangerous unit. John Tavares is a dominant force on the ice, and in this year’s playoffs Matt Moulson demonstrated that he can be effective even without his Hart candidate linemate. Frans Nielsen continues to be one of the most reliable two-way forwards in the league, and Kyle Okposo has finally started to show the dominating physical dimension that fans have been waiting to see for half a decade. Restricted free-agent Josh Bailey has also finally begun to emerge as a dangerous player, with a midseason transformation into a confident, shifty playmaker that has been almost as bewildering as it has been exciting.
Though the Islanders certainly have good reason for optimism about this part of their lineup, they will also have some difficult choices to make during this offseason. First line winger Brad Boyes is an unrestricted free agent and will likely be looking to cash in after the one-year trial contract he signed last summer. If the Islanders repeat last summer’s P.A. Parenteau decision and choose not to meet Boyes’ contract demands, this will leave an important void in their line-up that they may be hard-pressed to fill solely from within their organization. Promising young forwards like Brock Nelson, Nino Niederreiter, and Ryan Strome all will be looking to step into roles with the big club in the fall, to be sure, but it would be a mistake to expect them to be able to replace Boyes’ 0.73 points per game right from the get-go.
If the Islanders let Boyes get away from them, they will have a number of options on the open market for his replacement. The Penguins’ Pascal Dupuis has proven himself to be an effective and defensively-sound complement to Sidney Crosby, and he may be a good choice for Tavares’ wing if he could be lured away from Pittsburgh. Michael Ryder is another dangerous right-winger who could potentially be signed to fill Boyes’ spot on Tavares’ line. Both players would bring a great deal of experience to the young team, though they would likely come with a substantial price tag as well. Alternatively, if the Islanders wanted to introduce more physicality to their first line, the Devils’ David Clarkson might be an attractive fit, with his 15 goals this season coming from a shooting percentage that was somewhat below his career average.
The Islanders’ bottom six has been an excellent source of secondary scoring, energy, and physicality for the Islanders on a nightly basis. Michael Grabner has thrived in his role as a two-way speedster and penalty killer since his demotion from the second line, and Matt Martin led the league in hits for the second year in a row. The thankfully-still-alive Casey Cizikas has solidified his spot on the roster with his high energy play, and Colin McDonald has proven himself as a gritty, defensively-responsible player who can be leaned upon in key situations. Restricted free-agent David Ullstrom also showed promise this year, and if the Islanders decide to bring him back he will hope to secure a more reliable place for himself in the upcoming season.
It seems likely that the Islanders will part ways with unrestricted free-agents Eric Boulton and Marty Reasoner this summer, and the same may be true of restricted free-agent Jesse Joensuu. A bigger question mark hangs over the status of 34-year-old Keith Aucoin, who was a very useful player all season long in spite of his advancing age and small size. If the Islanders decide to walk away from all of these players, they may look to emerging prospects like Anders Lee and Johan Sundstrom to fill in the gaps. But it seems somewhat more likely that they would at least seek out an established face-off man to replace Aucoin in the line-up. Fortunately, this summer’s crop of unrestricted free agents contains several attractive options for filling this role, including Boyd Gordon, Maxim Lapierre, and Kyle Wellwood, each of whom has proven to be effective in the faceoff circle over the course of his career while also playing a responsible game at both ends of the ice.
Established and under contract: Andrew MacDonald and Lubomir Visnovsky
Emerging prospects: none to fill this role in 2013-14
Key free agents: Travis Hamonic (RFA) and Mark Streit (UFA)
Defense has long been an issue for the Islanders, and this season seemed like the first time in recent memory where this weakness was at least tolerable for fans to bear. Another year will hopefully bring another step forward in the development of Andrew MacDonald and restricted free-agent Travis Hamonic, and Lubomir Visnovsky will also be back to provide a steady veteran presence along with his smooth skating and excellent puck-moving abilities.
The biggest remaining question for the Islanders on defense has to do with their aging captain, Mark Streit. Streit has been an effective minute-muncher and power-play quarterback for four of the last five seasons, though his defensive numbers have plummeted ever since his preseason shoulder injury in 2010. And although Visnovsky and Hamonic have both been regular contributors to the team’s power play, the Islanders do not currently have a defender who can match Streit’s offensive talent level in their organization. Thus losing him without replacement would be a considerable blow to the team’s already mercurial power play. However, Streit will likely be looking for a long-term commitment on what may be his last major contract, and the Islanders may be hesitant to make such a commitment to a player of Streit’s age.
Unfortunately, the only unrestricted free agents with a similar level of offensive talent to Streit are similarly old and/or defensively suspect. Sergei Gonchar is the most effective in the group, but at 39 years old he is unlikely to appeal to most Islanders fans. Joe Corvo and Marek Zidlicky are 35 and 36, respectively, and are certainly no better on defense than Streit. Another intriguing possibility would be to give Edmonton’s Ryan Whitney a chance to regain the offensive form he displayed with Pittsburgh earlier in his career – at 30 years old, Whitney certainly has more years left to play than Streit does. But all told, the Islanders will likely face a choice between re-signing their captain, giving up on having an effective power-play quarterback in 2013-14, and signing or promoting a power play specialist to the ranks of their depth defensemen.
If they choose the latter option, they may seek to fill Streit’s key role on the blueline with a defensively sound player like Andrew Ference, Ron Hainsey, or Rob Scuderi. All have played major minutes for their respective teams and all are at least marginally younger than Streit, though not by much. Any of them would likely be better for the Islanders than trying to force one of their less prominent defensemen into bigger even-strength roles next season.
The Islanders are in a pretty good position when it comes to depth defensemen. Over the course of this season, Brian Strait emerged as a very solid defensive player, while Matt Carkner added the valuable option of infusing toughness and size into the lineup when needed without being too much of a liability on the ice. The Islanders have the option of re-signing restricted free agent Thomas Hickey, who I think played well enough as the season wore on to potentially warrant another chance in an Islanders uniform. Matt Donovan is also coming off of an all-star season in the AHL and will compete for a job with the big club this fall, as will the smaller and fleeter Aaron Ness. Both have demonstrated good skill on the power play at the AHL level, so they may end up being relied upon in a similar role for the Islanders if Mark Streit is not retained in the off-season. Alas, I suspect that all of these names imply that Radek Martinek’s days as an Islander may finally be over, though I have certainly been wrong about that before.
Established and under contract: none
Emerging prospects: none to fill this role in 2013-14
Key free agents: Evgeni Nabokov (UFA)
Perhaps the most important question about the Islanders roster this summer will revolve around the goaltending position. Evgeni Nabokov has been solid during his tenure on the Island, but he is not getting any younger and the Islanders do not seem to be close to developing a solid replacement for him from within their organization. I would not be surprised to see the team give Nabokov one more shot for next year, but I also would not be surprised if they decided to go in another direction instead.
The unrestricted free-agent market in goaltenders contains some recognizable names this year, and the Islanders would be competing with only a few other teams for those players if they chose to make an offer. Chicago’s Ray Emery has played well alongside Carey Crawford and may be worth taking a chance on, and Phoenix’s Mike Smith has established himself as a solid number-one goaltender in past years, though he battled a groin injury all year and was only somewhat effective for the Coyotes this season. Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom has also had a good career, though at 37 that career appears to be winding down now. The Islanders’ main competitors for any of these players would appear to be Chicago and Edmonton, who might each want to bring on a second goaltender to complement their current starters, as well as the Phoenix Coyotes, who will presumably be seeking to sign or replace Mike Smith. I suspect that the opportunity to start for the Islanders would be relatively attractive by comparison to all of those jobs, so landing one of this year’s UFA goaltenders would seem possible if that were what the Islanders wanted to do.
Another option would be to test the trade market, with a number of excellent goaltenders appearing available for the right price. Jonathan Bernier is a restricted free agent this summer, and given that he appears to have taken up a secondary role to Jonathan Quick, it seems likely that the Kings will be open to moving him rather than trying to force him into a permanent backup position. Meanwhile, Buffalo may be interested in trading Ryan Miller for future assets as they begin to recover from what was a dismal season this year. Somewhat less likely would be an acquisition of Cory Schneider from Vancouver, who have been relatively unsuccessful in their efforts to move Roberto Luongo and may be willing to listen to offers for Schneider if the Islanders can put together an attractive offer. Each of these goaltenders would likely come with a substantial price tag, but they also strike me as much more appealing players than any of the names available through free agency.
Established and under contract: none
Emerging prospects: Anders Nilsson
Key free agents: Kevin Poulin (RFA)
With the long-anticipated demotion of Rick DiPietro to the AHL in February, the job of backing up Evgeni Nabokov fell to Kevin Poulin, who was not able to deliver a victory in that role this season. For his part, Poulin played relatively well in his few appearances, and I suspect that the Islanders will bring him back. If they do not (or if they re-sign him and demote him back to the minors), another option would be to give the job to Anders Nilsson, who has been developing slowly in the AHL. Neither Poulin nor Nilsson, however, has demonstrated an ability to steal games for their team after riding the bench for weeks at a time. Thus the Islanders may ultimately decide to recruit a veteran backup on the open market this summer. As usual, there are a number of serviceable options for accomplishing this, with a variety of players available this offseason for a team looking to fill a backup goaltending role. Jason LaBarbera and Thomas Greiss have distinguished themselves as solid candidates through several years of effective relief efforts, and Boston’s Anton Khudobin has emerged as another promising backup this year in Boston.
That about does it, doesn't it? Basically, I'm thinking that the Islanders need a productive top-six winger, a bottom-six center who can win faceoffs, a top-four defenseman who can eat a lot of minutes, a defenseman who can contribute on the power play, a starting goaltender, and a legitimate backup goaltender. The top-six winger can be Boyes if we re-sign him; the bottom-six center can be Aucoin; the top-four defenseman and power-play contributor can be Streit, the starting goaltender can be Nabokov; and the backup can be Poulin or Nilsson. Or we could get some other guys entirely to fill those roles and still have a great hockey team to watch in the fall. I'm excited to see what happens, and I'm guessing that if you've read this far then you are too. So let's go Islanders!