The writing has been on the wall and in the inferences left by reporters covering the team, most notably by Arthur Staple of Newsday and Brian Compton of nhl.com, for the last few months: Jaroslav Halak is likely on the way out of the New York Islanders' crowded goalie picture.
It's not as easy as simply waving him -- nor waiving him -- away. The goalie is still signed for two more years at a $4.5 million cap hit, and that kind of commitment to a player you're trying to remove in a salary cap environment does not fetch much in the trade market.
But in his season-ending conference call, the always-on-message general manager Garth Snow gave his most overt words yet indicating Thomas Greiss is the man and Jean-Francois Berube is in the cards too: He outright called Greiss a "number one goalie in this league."
What's more, Snow's language praising Greiss contained notes of what has reportedly been lacking about their impression of Halak, part of which is simply the matter of staying healthy:
"As it turns out, Jaro missed significant time during the season and it became a position of strength for us to have Thomas Greiss, the way he performed during the season and the playoffs, and to have Berube come in and really solidify that position was a positive for our club. Moving forward, we will have to make decisions."
"Thomas came in and displayed a great work ethic whether he was playing or whether he was backing up on a certain night. I think Thomas earned the respect from our players, from our coaches because of his personality, his demeanor, his work ethic. And when he got the opportunity to play, he seized it and he played great for us.
"He proved to be a No. 1 goalie in the league this season ... but the challenge for not only Thomas but all of our players is to improve and build off that and get better."
This all backs up what Staple and Compton have indicated lately, that the feeling they were picking up around the team was that Halak would be dealt. They doubled down on that during clean out day, when Halak sounded like he knew that was a distinct possibility too.
He wasn't a fan of the three-goalie situation -- no goalie ever is -- and said so during the season, though ironically his latest injury underlined the wisdom of hanging on to Berube despite the roster discomfort.
(Staple's latest story in Newsday, a review of the goalies, put it bluntly: "Reading between the lines it's not difficult to see there's a rift between Halak and management.")
By the way, today is Halak's birthday.
Happy Birthday, Jaro Halak! pic.twitter.com/dygNpbJZXb— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) May 13, 2016
Berube, if you'll recall, was only claimed on waiver at the eve of the season when Halak was injured in training camp. Rather than risk losing Berube on waivers, they kept him all season as insurance in case Halak, whose career has been marked by injuries when carrying a "true number one" load, was injured again.
Turns out it was the right move. Halak was arguably playing at his best when he went down -- again, a cruel confluence of fortune and misfortune that he's experienced before in St. Louis -- but that added weight to the possibility that the Isles don't want to risk relying on him at his cap hit when they have other players to re-sign or replace.
Old Problem, New Problem
For what it's worth, though, going forward with a Greiss-Berube tandem carries its own risk. Greiss has never carried the workload of a number one goalie (though this year he had 41 regular season appearances and 11 more starts in the playoffs), and Berube, as much as they like him, does not have a long track record to bet on. The beauty of Greiss was that if Halak faltered or was hurt, Greiss was capable of stepping in, even through two playoff rounds.
Can the same really be expected of Berube?
Stats-wise -- and stats are limited for goalies, even more so in the AHL -- Berube has been a decent AHL goalie on very good AHL teams. Team success was there with the Manchester Monarchs, where he won a championship, but it's risky to extrapolate an NHL future from that. We can say he carried the load in the schedule-compressed AHL, while his partners had nominally better stats in lower exposure:
Manchester Monarchs, 2013-14
Berube: 48 GP, .913 save pct.
Martin Jones: 22 GP, .928 save pct.
Manchester Monarchs, 2013-14
Berube: 52 GP, .913 save pct.
Patrik Bartosak: 28 GP, .919 save pct.
Goalies can improve with age -- Jones, now a starter for the Western Conference finalist San Jose Sharks, certainly did, as did his opposite number Brian Elliott.
But the numbers so far don't offer a lot of promise that the Islanders' goaltending situation in 2016-17 will be as good as it was in 2015-16.
Berube's NHL history is all of seven games this season, with average stats, but seven games is nothing when projecting NHL goalies. The best guess at age 24 is he could be a steady backup, which may be just what the Isles seek as they envision this season's backup taking on the number one role.
How to Keep Halak Happy?
There is one more factor, of course: Whether Halak, when reduced to a backup role, would perform as well as Greiss did, or even as well as Halak does as a starter. He has had some tension with his teams in the past over playing time -- he was part of young tandems in Montreal and St. Louis -- so this, as it often is when trying to assemble a duo of happy and high-performing goalies, is a valid concern.
But the main calculus with Halak has always been whether he can be counted on to stay healthy. Factor in his cap hit and the need to deploy that on positions other than backup goaltender, and you see what the Islanders are thinking.
Yet factor in the limited history of Greiss and Berube in the roles they are likely to assume next season, and you see where the Islanders are flirting with a new, different problem.