When he was acquired in the early Spring of 2014, Jaroslav Halak represented something the Islanders hadn’t had in a long time: an actual starting goalie. Evgeni Nabokov had emptied his erudite tank to get the team into the 2013 playoffs and during the following season, saves and wins were few and far between.
Halak also represented the kind of canny trade Garth Snow was once capable of. He signed budget players Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin in 2013 and neither could help the team during a funky, frustrating season. So at the deadline, Snow traded both to the Chicago Blackhawks for a measly fourth round pick. That measly pick was subsequently sent to the Capitals for the rights to pending UFA Halak, who signed a four-year $18 million contract with the Islanders.
The chicken-shit-into-chicken-salad sequence of deals kicked off a big summer for Snow, who signed forwards Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, then traded for defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk just before camp. Those five players help the Islanders close Nassau Coliseum with a 101-point season and an appropriately grueling (but unsuccessful) playoff series against Washington.
The phrase, “The Final Piece of the Puzzle” is one we take very seriously here at the Lighthouse Hockey Historical Society. Halak wasn’t supposed to be Butch Goring, but he was supposed to be the kind of reliable, everyday goalie a “normal” team (a.k.a anybody but them) usually has.
Everything was locking into place. Until it wasn’t.
Today, about 18 months after his first All Star season with the Islanders ended, Halak was placed on waivers, having been replaced by the guy who was signed to be his back-up and a 25-year-old “prospect” whom the team has been protecting like he’s made of glass.
Halak was vocal that the situation wasn’t to his liking. So was his agent Allan Walsh. The good news is, it’s not their problem any more. Snow can say what he wants about Jaro “getting back to that level,” but we all know he ain’t coming back any more than Rick DiPietro was when he was waived.
Halak’s stats in his two-plus seasons in blue and orange were okay - a 62-38-13 record, and a .913 save percentage. More important numbers included his cap hit ($4.5 million AAV) and his games lost due to injury (a bunch every season). Those are what’s going to keep him from getting claimed by noon Saturday. Like any goalie, we was just as likely to steal a game as he was to look like he hadn’t slept the night before.
Jean-Francois Berube has played in four games this season, and hasn’t looked particularly good in any of them.* Meanwhile, Thomas Greiss puts up starter’s numbers almost literally without breaking a sweat and is a UFA at the end of this season.
This is only a situation the Islanders could find themselves in. Without any margin of error, even an innocuous, prudent move like adding a third goalie on waivers can spiral out of control and become a symptom of a team falling apart at the seams. Picking up Berube off waivers while Halak was hurt to start last season was supposed to give the Islanders depth in goal. Instead, they drowned.
Arthur Staple has described Snow as being like “Big Paulie” from Goodfellas, only moving when he needs to. Here, once again, his infamous patience hurt his team. It’s safe to assume he tried to trade Halak and found no takers, but we’ll never know what deals were out there. Would Berube have been picked up by another team (or awarded back to the Kings) had Snow put him on waivers at any point over the last year and a half? Did the team expect Greiss to be this good when they signed him for chump change? Should they have committed to him as the starter earlier this season, especially after the playoff run he had? We don’t know. Now, we’ll never know.
The Great Three Goalie Experiment didn’t kill the Islanders’ season. But it didn’t help it, either. Sorta like everything they do.
It’s hard to get ahead in the race when you’re always punching holes in your own tires.
*-Small goalie sample size alert