With Thomas Vanek's pending unrestricted free agency and the NHL trade deadline looming, the New York Islanders now face a decision of their own making: What to do after Thomas Vanek declines their advances and decides to test the free agent market?
I mean yes, the rational and widely expected next decision is to pull the trigger on a trade and recoup some assets. But then what? Who gets a crack at Vanek's spot on the first line next to John Tavares and Kyle Okposo?
The immediate answer may be Brock Nelson, who has done well in that role in limited appearances, though he is not the traditional "sniper" the way Vanek is and he's looking like a guy who can carry his own line at center. Garik16 recently went into the data on how Nelson has improved the results of every Islander he's played with this season, which makes him both handsome (Nelson, not Garik) and useable on basically any line.
So Nelson is a logical fit and a good one, but long term, there are some other possibilities. Those possibilities might have you entertaining just how important it is to empty the vault for Vanek -- maybe even entertaining the possibility that the Isles dodged a bullet of their own making when he told them "it's not you, it's me." (Yes, he literally said that. Because Vanek is awesome in his own way.)
No matter what your stance on Vanek, you're lying if the prospect of tying the Isles' most expensive and longest contract to the 30-year-old forward doesn't make you at least a little bit nervous about repercussions on the back half of his next deal.
But even if you were all-in for re-signing him -- they took the leap to acquire him, they had to give it their all to try to lock him up -- it's informative to consider what now looks like the inevitable scenario of him no longer being in the lineup on March 5.
The Islanders have a Potential Center Logjam
Don't get me wrong -- having lots of centers is a good problem. Centers make good forwards! Even if for some reason they can't be housebroken at the NHL level, they often make good wings. (Then over here you have Josh Bailey.)
But one thing is clear about the current Islanders: Even with Peter Regin walking out that door, there is not enough room for John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Nelson, Ryan Strome or Casey Cizikas to all play center. Even if you don't like Cizikas at a fourth-line center, you probably don't want Strome or Nelson getting fourth-line minutes (except on this team, where the fourth line gets third-line minutes. Hmm...).
It's enviable depth right now -- one of the areas Garth Snow deserves high marks for stocking -- but it's a lineup puzzle or resource surplus once Strome arrives for good, something that could happen any day now. Early indications are coach Jack Capuano prefers Nelson playing center. Nelson is kind of good wherever he goes, but what if they keep him at the pivot?
At the risk of verifying Pierre McGuire's draft day salivating, what if you just go ahead and stick Strome on Tavares' wing? And what if that works, oh, say, roughly as well as it did with Matt Moulson or P.A. Parenteau there?
The Islanders have kept Strome percolating in juniors and now in the AHL for one important reason most of all: To work on his defensive game. What if Strome's defensive acumen reaches a level that Vanek frankly doesn't exhibit? (Alternatively, since Nelson is already there, what if he does the trick and then Strome slots in as a productive 3rd-line center/scorer?)
Shifting the Money
As alluded, there was always some risk to dumping the biggest weight of the team's budget for seven or eight years on a forward who will be 30 to 38 over that time. The Islanders' apparently long-running coveting of Vanek is both understandable -- everyone wants that proverbial "true star wing" to ride with Tavares -- as well as risky, because it addressed an existing strength rather than some long-evident weaknesses.
Though they'll still surely hope to woo him again in free agency over the summer, one wonders if they'll feel compelled to target a different "big name" winger to fill the role and lineup dream.
But with the Islanders generally being deep at forward and adequate on offense these days (and most key forwards locked up through at least 2015-16), Vanek's departure might just open up more room to invest on the blueline and in goal -- nay, it might force them to invest in the back end, the root of so many of their ills.
The Isles have decisions to make soon. It appears Vanek has forced one of them. As disheartening as that is, could it be a blessing in disguise?
- [Bits] Flames, Flame-outs, Friends and Free Agents on a frigid Friday.
- Fire Sale Flashpoint? Isles trade Regin, Bouchard to Blackhawks for scrap of paper
- Flames 4 (EN), Islanders 2: Situation Normal
- Islanders vs. Flames: Five questions with Matchsticks & Gasoline
- Andrew MacDonald on Islanders Contract Talks, Trade Rumors: 'Garth has a decision to make'