Cries of "CRISIS" and "You watch I told you so!" are a rite of summer passage among many New York Islanders fans. If there are free agents out there? They must be bought. Prospects who can(?) be flipped for "proven veterans" already commanding more cap space? Make the trade.
But this is not the only way to look at the team, nor roster construction.
For a case in point, see a recent column by Jeff Capellini, CBS New York columnist and Passionate Twitter Voice, about why the lack of activity by Islanders general manager Garth Snow this summer is the potential harbinger of bad things to come for the club.
Which, yeah: after a breakout season by the Isles in 2014-15, I can understand his sense of worry at the Isles' apparent unwillingness to make moves to solidify what should now be a perennial playoff-contending roster.
And while I respect Capellini's opinion and will defend to the death his right to assert it vocally and in print, I find myself wondering if maybe the quietness on the Brooklyn free agency front is really a bad thing.
More bluntly, I disagree with most everything Capellini states. Let's dig in...
(Ed. note: Portions of Capellini's text are in blockquote, followed by Willhoft's commentary.)
It's July and They've Done Nothing
The Islanders bowed out in the first round of last season's playoffs following a 101-point regular season in which they limped to the finish line.
Their solution so far this offseason has been to do basically nothing.
I've been told I'm overreacting. I've been told it's only the middle of July and there is still plenty of time for general manager Garth Snow to makes moves that will make this team better.
All very accurate and true statements.
The only thing I'd add is that the Isles' playoff loss wasn't an epic flameout that hinted at the need for "impact changes" this summer. Their opening-round series loss to the Washington Capitals was a) on the road; b) by a single goal in Game 7, and c) three(!) of their top six(!) defensemen missed time due to injury during the series. (I preemptively addressed his "limped to the finish line" argument here.)
Other than that, yes: we agree that Snow has opted to make fiscally responsible moves instead of flashy ones so far this summer, and that this column is set up nicely to be kinda overreaction-y.
The Proverbial 'Impact Piece'
But assuming Snow doesn't add an impact piece on offense or defense — or both — between now and October, the Islanders, at least on paper anyway, will have blown a major opportunity to put some distance between themselves and several teams in the talent department in what is a very tight Metropolitan Division. It seems odd to me that a team entering a new arena in the world's most demanding market would have so little urgency, especially when it has to convince its new audience that it is worth spending money on.
Oh. That's all they have to do: just go out and "get" impact players. On offense and defense.
Kind of like how someone would go to the grocery store and "get" milk or "get" bread. Just pick them up. They're sitting there, just waiting to be gotten.
That misconception—or intentionally incendiary language, which is completely valid because hey, this is a column and that's exactly what columns are for—often descends into an argument about how the Islanders need to keep up with the Joneses (read: Metropolitan Division rivals) and sign someone (anyone) or trade for someone (ANYONE) despite already having a full roster with all the necessary pieces in place.
Also: terms like "impact piece" are great because they're generic enough to encapsulate all of the rage of Isles fandom without actually saying anything meaningful. "JUST GO GET A BIG-NAME PLAYER." That's it. No options, no names, even. At least give me a few players who the Isles should target. That'd be a start.
It would show me that your arguments have had some thought put into them and that you're not just yelling your fears into those plastic canisters they give you at the bank drive-thru, putting them into the vacuum tube, and sending them back to the now-horrified teller.
Don't Trust the Young Players, Part with Assets and Money Now
There are two prevailing thoughts that some fans and media members are using to justify the Islanders' inactivity. Both have their merits to a degree, but neither is a strong enough argument against being proactive.
First, some simply believe that the team's younger players will all mature at the same time and take their games to the next level, thus justifying Snow not parting with assets in trades and/or money in free agency on supposedly over-priced veterans.
We saw a lot from Ryan Strome last season, his first full one in the NHL; he seems poised to make the leap in 2015-16 and we don't think that's debatable. So let's exclude him from this argument for the moment.
We'll assume that "younger players" means Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Ryan Pulock, and to a lesser degree, Scott Mayfield. Lee and Nelson have NHL experience and have grown accordingly; Pulock is positioned to become the no. 6 defenseman and likely point-man on the second power play unit this season; Mayfield will be in the training camp mix for the no. 7 slot on defense, but he's probably got another year or so before he's NHL-ready.
Not all of these players need to come of age at the exact same moment, but it's a pretty safe bet that they'll all improve with experience, probably this season. (And had a trade target been proposed, we could at least debate whether shipping Lee or Nelson for the ever-coveted winger-for-John-Tavares would be worthwhile. Alas, we'll have to go without.)
Even if these players all improve only modestly, they'll be giving the Islanders solid production at a fraction of the cost of an "impact player." Whoever that is.
Such Additions are Rabbits out of a Hat
The other thought is the offseason is long and Snow will eventually pull more rabbits out of his hat, like he did last year with the stunning trades for Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk a week before the beginning of the season.
"Last offseason Snow did something amazing to greatly improve the team which was only possible based on his careful long-term management of the club's prospects, not mention his proven ability to navigate the salary cap while on an internal and non-public budget, but I'm pretty sure all of that was just luck."
Is what I'm hearing here.
Last Year's Key Veterans are...Still Here
I have serious problems with the former and my doubts about the latter.
As for player maturation, the Islanders were one of the best teams in the NHL during last season's first four or so months, but contrary to popular belief it wasn't primarily due to young players leading the way. As it turns out, they were in most cases complementary parts to the impact veterans traded for or signed outright by Snow the summer before.
The list is significant. There was goaltender Jaroslav Halak. There were the aforementioned Leddy and Boychuk. There was veteran forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. They were predominantly the reasons why, in concert with superstar John Tavares, the Islanders improved 22 points in the standings from the season before.
Right, and those veterans are still part of the roster. They didn't disappear and leave the young guys to shoulder the entire load themselves once October rolls around.
Strome, Lee, and Nelson gained valuable experience playing alongside those vets and should better understand this season what it takes to contribute to the team's successes in more than a complementary role.
This is how the maturation process works. Even Sidney Crosby didn't come into the league as a veteran.
Young Players Aren't 'Consistent,' But Veterans Are?
Don't get me wrong, with 50 points and a plus-23 rating, 22-year-old Ryan Strome showed all the signs of greatness. He may one day be a 40-goal, point-per-game player in the NHL. The same can be said for 25-year-old power forward Anders Lee, who finished second on the team with 25 goals and has 35 goals and 57 points in his first 100 NHL games. The Isles rightfully rewarded Lee with a four-year contract and it stands to reason that he can be the big winger the Isles have lacked forever for a very long time.
Now this is something I can get behind: Strome and Lee are good. And will likely remain good, or get better. Maybe reasonable analysis is forthcoming!
But even they went through their growing pains at times. The production drop-off after Strome and Lee was apparent.
Take Brock Nelson for instance. Sure, most everyone agrees he has all the skills, but after scoring 15 goals in his first 32 games last season he scored just five in his next 50. That's not a typo. He then scored twice in Game 1 of the Isles' seven-game loss to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, only to promptly disappear over the next six games, including being a healthy scratch for one.
And now we're backsliding.
Instead, I'll just settle for accepting how Nelson's 20-goal, 42-point season wasn't worth anything in the grand scheme because those goals and points didn't come at a measured, standard, methodical pace throughout the entirety of the season.
And what's more, as much as Lee showed incredible potential during the regular season, he didn't score in the playoffs. In fact, he had but one measly assist before being scratched in both Games 6 and 7.
"Going goalless in your first five career playoff games is unacceptable. Unacceptable."
So I'm supposed to now believe a few summer months of maturity are going to make both of these key pieces of the future, and thus the Islanders, significantly better next season? The assumption of their positive development should take precedent over going out and acquiring a proven veteran? It sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like more pressure being put on Lee and Nelson than either really deserves at this young stage of their careers.
Leaving Nelson aside for a moment—who's only 23 years old, not to mention a positive possession player at the toughest position on the ice—I'm a little confused at why Lee is being picked apart here when Capellini wrote these exact words about him not five paragraphs prior:
"25-year-old power forward Anders Lee, who finished second on the team with 25 goals and has 35 goals and 57 points in his first 100 NHL games. The Isles rightfully rewarded Lee with a four-year contract and it stands to reason that he can be the big winger the Isles have lacked forever for a very long time."
So which one is it? He's a good player and getting better? Or he's an offensive liability (who somehow finished second on the team in scoring) and, um, doesn't deserve the four-year contract that was his, uh...rightful...reward...?
Evidently UFAs in their Walk Year Cannot Be Trusted
After those three, the Islanders have a ton of question marks on offense, primarily due to the fact that three players they absolutely have to get a lot from are in the final year of their contracts, with no guarantees of returning next season.
Kyle Okposo is coming off a scary eye injury that contributed to him missing 22 games, and while his point production was very good — 51 in 60 games — he had just seven in 14 games after returning from the injury and all of three points in the series loss to Washington. And he reportedly wants his next contract to pay him in the neighborhood of $7 million to $7.5 million per season. Really? For someone who has never had more than 69 points in a season and is an injury risk?
I can't imagine Snow caving to that demand, so the Isles could find themselves in the throes of a playoff push next March with the huge distraction of Okposo's contract on their minds at the trade deadline.
I understand the thought process behind the Okposo trade scenario here, even if I don't necessarily condone it: why not trade a player if you're facing the very likely risk of letting him walk for nothing next summer? It's often the sensible thing to do.
What I don't agree with is how trading a 50-plus-point player (even with those 21 missed games) for what I assume would have been less than market value (since other teams would consider him an injury risk and probably not make their best offers to Snow), would have benefited the Isles when they were in the midst of a playoff seeding race.
Snow knows what it's like to be a seller in a buyer's market, and I'm willing to bet he didn't enjoy the feeling. Had Okposo been shipped out, the Thomas Vanek comparisons would have been endless. (And probably warranted.)
Follow-up: if the entire team ends up getting derailed by one guy's hypothetical contract dispute during a playoff push (or playoffs themselves) next season, then the Islanders will have bigger problems that what one guy's monetary ask is.
Follow-up to the follow-up: suddenly players in their walk year can't be counted on? Like, guys who are literally playing for their next contract and probably want it to be worth a lot of money?
Then there's Frans Nielsen, who many Islanders fans overrate to a nauseating degree. For all the talk of how good a two-way player the 31-year-old Dane is, he's coming off his lowest point total in a season not impacted in some way by a work stoppage since 2009-10. He's finished in 11th, 17th and 29th place, respectively, in voting for the Selke Trophy — given to the league's best defensive forward — over the last three seasons.
Don't you EVER talk about Frans Nielsen that way. Don't you EVER.
Ed. note about "overrate to a nauseating degree." Really? He's a quietly good two-way center, one underrated for much of his career because he's small and unassuming yet quietly held opponents in check even when the rest of the team was crap. Now he's older and in decline. It's regretful that his peak came before the team was good, but something as silly as trophy voting doesn't outweigh what were in fact outstanding defensive metrics for several seasons. There is nothing "nauseating" here; he was what he was, and now is what he is.
Nielsen will make a seemingly paltry $3.5 million in 2015-16. I find it hard to believe he'll give the Isles a hometown discount either, since next summer is potentially the last time he'll see a significant paycheck, and we all know NHL general managers overpay for everything. Loyalty? I'll believe it when I see it.
*ponders life without Frans*
*wipes away a single tear*
I'd get into Michael Grabner, but it's really a waste of time. He scored 34 goals five seasons ago and has just 56 since. At first he was healthy and not scoring, and that was frustrating enough, but over the last two seasons he's missed 66 games due to a variety of injuries and now has a seemingly immovable $3 million cap hit for 2015-16.
I'm not sold on the assumption that Michael Grabner is a guy they "absolutely have to get a lot from" this season. Mostly for all of the reasons in the above paragraph.
Theoretically, Snow should have traded at least one of these players since the end of last season, but yet here the Isles are with not one, but three veterans who could walk for nothing at season's end. What's the solution? Promoting more kids with less experience next offseason?
As for the rationale that Snow will somehow pull off more miracle moves later this summer or in the fall, I have a hard time believing lightning can strike twice, mostly because the vibe the GM is giving off this time around feels different.
If nothing else, we know Snow rarely shows his cards. Nobody knows what he's thinking. But his recent comments, for whatever reason, sound more like he's resigned to start next season with this roster.
"Oh hey guys, it's me, Garth Snow. Thanks for showing up on such short notice. Is everyone here? OK. Here are my exact free-agency and trade-market plans for this offseason. I made you each a PowerPoint too, just in case you're visual learners. Before I get into specifics, I just want to say that I really hope all of my moves benefit my team while simultaneously making every other team in the NHL worse. Alright. Let's get started."
*end press conference*
If "nobody knows what [Snow is] thinking," why even bother trying to discern meaning from his carefully scripted, ultra-conservative, canned responses that were given after a prospect scrimmage in July to a media contingent so desperate for Islanders news that its members literally just covered a prospect scrimmage in July?
Some fans simply have a hard time accepting the fact that every single prospect in a very good system will not make the NHL roster. There's just not enough room. This notion that "the rebuild will be destroyed" or "the minors will be depleted" by trades is utter nonsense, because you know this GM's track record of thinking things through and believe in his ability to find picks.
What's the point of a great farm system if you don't use some of your assets to help win now?
Why is it okay for Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist in two of the last three seasons, to have just 86 points? I look at this man and see a 100-point talent of the ilk of a Sidney Crosby or any other superstar in the league. Yet, it's acceptable to some for him to be just above a point-per-game player?
Soooo...hey, how many 100-point scorers were there in the NHL last season? (None. Oops.) How many points was Tavares behind the league leader Jamie Benn, who got to play with Tyler Seugin? (One. Oops.)
What if Tavares had a proven veteran wing on his line, instead of the revolving door of linemates for basically his entire career? Don't you think some of the pressure would be taken off the defense and the Isles would put more teams away instead of sweating out these low-scoring games? And while we're at it, wouldn't a proven sniper take some of the pressure off Tavares to have to be the primary goal-scorer?
STUD WINGER ALERT. STUD WINGER ALERT. STUD WINGER ALERT.
But who is this mythical stud winger? And what, even theoretically, would it take to acquire him?
Well, I don't know. Because I'm not given any examples or ideas anywhere in this column. Which seems like a significant omission.
Who Needs Large Samples When Small Samples Will Do?
I hear all the time about how the Isles scored the fourth-most goals during the 2014-15 regular season and that should be proof enough that this team as currently constituted should not have to make a significant addition on offense. Then I counter with that stretch of eight miserable games in March — where the Isles managed just 12 goals — or how they won just 10 of their final 26 games (10-10-6), which cost them the division and a better playoff seeding, and nobody wants to acknowledge it.
"The numbers from an entire season clearly show that the Islanders are a playoff-caliber teams that can score a ton of goals and sustain that high level of scoring. Well, did you ever think that maybe one eight-game stretch in March actually overrides a season's worth of data? Because it absolutely does."
Of course, these are many of the same people who wanted head coach Jack Capuano out after last season but now have no problem with him coaching the same team that failed last spring. It's insanity.
OK, to be fair: very little about Islanders fandom makes sense.
You can say what you want about the Islanders' offense being impressive at times last season, but it wasn't a battle-tested offense. That, not the cop out that is injuries, is what cost them when it mattered.
The problem with calling an offense "not battle-tested" is that eventually, the offense is tested in enough battles that it becomes battle-tested, even if nothing is added to it or taken away from it, personnel-wise.
Applying this logic, the 2015-16 Isles qualify as battle-tested as they are presently constructed. They spent last season being tested in numerous battles. 89 of them, to be exact.
Which leaves us with the following question: does Capellini undermine the entire premise of his column with that paragraph about battles and tests? I'll leave that to the reader to decide.
The hope here is Garth Snow is smarter than the people who have apologized for his offseason to date. In a perfect world, hopefully he's just biding his time, formulating a plan to take advantage of a salary-cap strapped team or two.
Kind of like when that exact scenario played out last summer?
And why is it "apologizing" rather than "reasonable people viewing team-building differently?" (Case in point: Matt Larkin of THN, for one, puts the Isles in the "If it ain't broke..." group this offseason.)
Because if he's not, the Islanders could easily regress. It's just as farfetched as assuming everyone and their mother will turn into a proven vet overnight.
What if Snow was actually a wizard and he could use his magic to turn young players into grizzled veterans overnight though? There would certainly be fewer "Islanders need more battle-scarred, purple-heart-recipient, just-know-how-to-win type vets" columns out there.
But then I suppose the offseason wouldn't be nearly as fun.