The Future for the Islanders: How a Small Market Team becomes a Title Contender

One thing New York fans are not accustomed to is a team that can't spend money. Almost all of us here are fans of other New York sports teams and every one of those teams is a big budget team that can spend a lot of money (And I'm a Met Fan, but don't go claiming that's only the Yankees....the Mets spend a ton too). But the Islanders aren't like that. They are losing around 20 (More?) million dollars a year. They CANNOT spend a lot of money. The Cap floor is essentially our cap ceiling.

Many of you will object to this: but the Isles made plays for top free agents in the offseason, but were turned down because of the coliseum? After all we went big after Ilya Kovalchuk! How about Paul Martin or Dan Hamhuis - whom two sources stated were given the top offer by the Isles? The answer is yes, it's possible for the Isles to sign a big name flashy FA; Wang may decide to splurge a little bit, so as to possibly get more attention to his team (hoping that will recoup the investment) and to the lighthouse situation. That of course explains Kovalchuk. Hamhuis and Martin were approached early in the FA situation and both were situations in which the Isles were under the cap's unlikely the Islanders would have signed both players and this was before the signings of several others (James Wisniewksi's contract in particular).

The end result is something like this: The Islanders Salary is probably going to be until 2014-2015 right at the cap floor, with it's absolute ceiling being 10M above the floor, and a probable ceiling being 5M above the floor. They won't spend more unless it's absolutely clear that it will pay for itself (win a championship), and thus they won't spend more until it will help them succeed in their new location after the Coliseum lease ends, whether that be in Queens, Brooklyn, or elsewhere (I don't want to think about this option).

This of course poses problems to the Islanders that other teams - such as our hated neighbors - do not have. It also makes creating a title contender quite a bit trickier than some posters here on this board seem to understand.

Drafting, Acquiring, and Keeping Hold of Young, Cheap, Talented Players.

A small market team's best weapon for success is using the draft and other methods (trading for prospects) to acquire young talent for cheap, whom they have control over for several years. This is of course the best tool for success for ANY team, but for a small market team it is ESSENTIAL. To use a baseball analogy (and I'll be using a lot of these, as I'm most knowledgeable about baseball despite it sharing the top spot in my heart with hockey), poor use of the draft as a small market team results in you becoming the next Pittsburgh Pirates (#18 Farm System in MLB), while good use of the draft can make you the next Tampa Bay Rays (#2 Farm System in MLB).

A small market team does so in multiple ways.

  • First, it takes more chances on the later picks, going for high potential and ignoring non-hockey concerns (An example of this would be drafting both Kirils, as both have high potential, but for non-ice-related-reasons dropped down the rankings).
  • Second, it accumulates more picks if it can, so that it has a higher potential of picking up diamonds in the rough (This was successfully accomplished with the 5 to 7 to 9 move a few years back).
  • Third, of course, a small market team needs to make better picks - but well, the draft can be a crap shoot at times and this is often more luck of the draw than good scouting

Fourth, the team manages its salary to HOLD ON to its young talent, while letting older players go by the wayside unless they can afford to keep them. This is the kicker: If you manage to have multiple young players on the team at once, when they all hit RFA, then UFA statuses, your salary suddenly faces a crisis. In the NHL, an entry level contract is three years long (or two for players of an older age), after which the players become a RFA, after which these players suddenly suddenly stop being super-cheap and become a little drain on the team's salary (For reference, Matt Moulson went from minimum to 2.45 Million dollars,, and that was without any bargaining power due to restricted free agency). And if those players hit UNRESTRICTED free agency at once (age 27 or after 7 seasons in the league), well suddenly the team will have massive monetary problems.

So how does the team deal with this? First of all, it should obtain longer-term contracts for it's most important RFAs, potentially buying out UFA years, or if not, then at least locking down the players' RFA years at a reasonable increase. Offer sheets are not really a problem (like what, 1 or 2 players a year get an offer sheet, and it's not a likely occurrence even for valuable RFAs), but in this method you can lock down players for cheaper costs than you would otherwise.

*Now the Islanders have already failed recently in this regard: Matt Moulson was the perfect example of a young(ish) talent who they had a year of RFA control over....and they simply got a one-year deal done. Moulson's situation is an odd one in that it was a flash out of the blue, but that simply should've aided the Isles in getting a longer deal done (as Moulson not taking a longer deal would result in him risking a bad performance or an injury ruining any UFA salary increases). Instead, the Islanders signed him to a one year deal, leading to Moulson being perilously close to leaving the Islanders after two seasons and the Islanders being rumored to trade Moulson at the deadline. A trade isn't terrible (it's better than losing the player for nothing), but it's not what you'd hope for when you luck into a 30 goal scorer with a bargain free agent pickup for the minimum salary.

P.A. Parenteau is another potential failure for the Isles if they don't act soon; while he's not as likely to be demanded as Moulson is, Parenteau is a UFA this year and as a probable 20 goal, 50 total point scorer, may be able to find more money elsewhere. Great pickup for this year, but the Islanders really should be thinking long term, and picking up guys for 1-2 years only to have them leave does you no good even if they turn out to play well during those years on the Isles.

NOTE: I've skipped over in this piece the very important other method of talent accumulation: taking a chance on waived or un-tendered young free agents like PA Parenteau and Matt Moulson, which is also very important to a small market team....but such a team needs to be able to actually sign long-term those guys if they turn out well. If not, such acquisitions are pointless unless the team is ready to compete.


Signings and Trades:

I've talked about drafting, and I'm now going to talk about signings and trades.

1. There is a big thing that small market teams must do in order to succeed: They must NEVER lose a valuable player and gain NO compensation unless the team is competing for the title and cannot afford to trade a player who refuses to sign an extension. These teams cannot even take a CHANCE of this occurring. If a player would be an unrestricted free agent, refuses to sign an extension before the trade deadline, and has some value, the team MUST trade that player away unless the team is 100% sure that that player will not receive a free agent offer. Of course, if that player wouldn't receive a free agent offer, odds are good that the player has no trade value in the first place.

On the current Islander team, that refers to Matt Moulson (and to a lesser extent P.A. Parenteau.). Next season that also applies to Frans Nielsen. What this means is that for this season, if an extension for MMM isn't worked out by the trade deadline, the team MUST TRADE MATT MOULSON. This is a touchy area here among Islander fans as I've seen lately....if we trade away Moulson these fans say, you send a message to the fans that we can't keep players and that we don't reward excellence.

Well guess what guys, we CAN'T keep players for larger amounts of money. As this whole post talks about, we are a small market team, who can't be like the Rangers and open up the wallet. And if we can get a decent prospect or a decent package of picks (a late first rounder in two years drafts perhaps, or a first and a second?), the Isles should make the move. Yeah, it sucks....but this isn't baseball, where a team can keep a player and get free agents as compensation if they leave in free agency. In hockey, if they leave in unrestricted free agency, the team gets nothing. So if that's likely, or even is very possible (lets say a 33% chance of occurring), the Isles should make the trade. The team cannot replace players easily through signings, and thus cannot continue rising toward contention without getting something in return for every piece that falls out of our hands.

2. When re-signing or signing players, the Islanders need to keep an eye on the age of said player and their likely progression over the next few years. Signing a veteran leader to a cheap deal (Weight) is a fine move. Signing a 30+ year old player to a multi year deal for not a small amount of money? The team can't do it. In those situations, the odds are good that the team will get burned and be paying good amounts of salary to players who are inferior to others available for the same amount of money. The team needs to be EFFICIENT. Paying older players a decent amount for more than a single year is almost always inefficient and thus what a team can't afford.

On the Islanders right now, the only situation like this coming up is Mark Streit in two years time (he's under contract for the next two seasons). Odds are good that the last of those seasons will be the worst of Streit's as an Islander, just simply due to aging. If that holds true, a long term contract for similar amounts of money to his current contract is right out. In fact, in that case, the Isles should let Streit walk unless he takes a salary cut down to half his current salary (odds are good he'd walk). If the aging pattern doesn't hold true, the team should still be extremely wary of a longer-term deal for the aging defenseman. Older players (30+) should get one year contracts, if possible, unless the team is a title contender and needs them to stay there.

3. Signing Bigger-Name Free Agents: The Islanders, due to their small market status, are unable to sign big name free agents for the most part. A splurge is sort of possible, but unlikely, so Brad Richards ( a typical example), is RIGHT OUT. Remember, the Islanders have salary increases due THIS YEAR in the RFA contracts of Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, Rob Schremp, and Blake Comeau (the latter two could be let go, but I doubt it), with John Tavares getting a raise the year afterwards. And of course, there's the fact that the Isles will probably still try and sign PAP and/or Matt Moulson to longer term deals. In short, there's very little left in the budget for what will probably be multiple roster spots, and thus going much over the league minimum for a single spot is very unlikely.

Note, a small market team CAN sign such free agents when it is reaching critical mass and is about to be a contender. But the Islanders don't qualify, and thus those players are right out.


So what do the Islanders need to do to compete for the Cup? The following:

Ensure the keeping of Young Skilled Talent such as Tavares, Okposo, and Bailey, who can be the core of a Cup Team. Do not let any young talented players go unless you absolutely have to (I'm talking Schremp and Comeau here, who while streaky, have talent and potential, which the Isles will need to maximize).

Trade away any guys approaching UFAs years who are likely to leave: this of course means Moulson and Frans Nielsen in the next two years.

Finally, develop your prospects so that you're successful in 2-3 years (We're not a cup contender next year guys, and probably not a playoff team next year). Shorter term success is less important at this point...if we fail, we get better picks, which will result in us succeeding faster.

All in all, the answer is not very involves us not signing bigger and better players very often, if at all, and always looking toward the future in a slow build-up. But it's very possible, and the pieces are starting to come together. Just please, don't act like the Isles should contend next year by spending more's not going to happen.

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