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Life without Tavares: What does Plan C look like?

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While signing John Tavares is Plan A and Plan B, there is a decent chance that the star center walks this offseason. What do the Islanders do then?

New York Islanders v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Snow said re-signing Tavares is ‘our Plan A and Plan B’ for the offseason. After Monday’s exit meetings, Tavares expressed his desire to return but was noncommittal about actually re-signing. The captain spoke of his affection for all things Islanders but left the window open a bit to possibly climb out.

‘I’m hoping that I’m coming back,’ Tavares said. ‘I love it here.’

But he also said, ‘I think I’ve earned the right to take my time and go from there. I don’t know if it’s going to be a week, two weeks, a month, two months.’”

With the regular season dead and buried, the New York Islanders have one of the most important offseasons in recent franchise history ahead of them. Aside from John Tavares’ contract expiring July 1st, the Islanders must also decide what to do with RFAs Brock Nelson, Shane Prince, Ross Johnston, Alan Quine, Brandon Davidson, and Ryan Pulock, as well as UFAs Nikolai Kulemin, Chris Wagner, Calvin De Haan, Thomas Hickey, Dennis Seidenberg, and Jaroslav Halak. The Islanders have a little over $33 million in cap space to spend on re-signing current players and signing or trading for new ones.

The John Tavares decision complicates all this, as Tavares has been rumored to go from anywhere between $9-$11 million all the way to $15 million a season, for the full term of seven or eight years, depending on where he ends up. Tavares has indicated that he plans to take his time on the decision, and he has every right to do so. Tavares has given nine years of his NHL career to the New York Islanders, and has rarely had any talent to support him. However, the Isles organization has to plan for both outcomes whether he stays or goes, and the longer Tavares takes, the more important it is for the Islanders to have a solid backup plan.

Assume the Isles aren’t going to clear house with management and coaches this offseason, in part because of the Tavares decision, and in part because by the time that decision gets made it may be too late. Maybe they hire a president of hockey ops, maybe not. With that in mind, here is what Plan C for the Islanders could look like should Tavares walk.

1: Trade Tavares before July 1st

Florida Panthers v New York Islanders Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

If contract talks stall or go sour, the organization could at least recoup a low-round pick for Tavares. It wouldn’t be anywhere near the return they may have received for moving him at the deadline, but the Islanders had to try to re-sign the franchise center, and when you take a gamble, sometimes you lose. Getting a third or fourth round pick from a team for a bit of extra negotiating time would at least allow the Islanders to get some value for Tavares.

2: Let Barzal lead and sign UFA replacements

NHL: New York Islanders at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Mathew Barzal announced himself to the world this season as one of the best players in the NHL at just 20 years old. Barzal put up rookie numbers in the stratosphere of some of the best players in the game, past and present. The Beauvillier-Barzal-Eberle line was arguably the Isles’ best and most consistent line, and will probably be kept together for the World Championships that all three are attending. If Tavares leaves, Barzal could center line one with Jordan Eberle on his right and Anders Lee on his left. Unfortunately, outside of Tavares, the free agent center class is a pretty weak one. Internally, aside from Barzal, the Islanders have Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, and Alan Quine either under contract or available as RFAs. The top UFA options aside from Tavares would be Paul Statsny, Tyler Bozak, and Riley Nash. Stastny and Bozak are both 32 and Nash is 28. With Barzal on the top line and Beauvillier and Nelson both struggling as middle-six centers this season, getting at least one of those three free agents would be necessary if the team’s goal is to compete next season. Let’s take a closer look at those options.

Paul Stastny

Stastny started the season with the St. Louis Blues, finishing out the last year of his four-year, $28 million contract he signed starting in the 2014-15 season. He was then traded to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline, putting up 13 points in 19 games with the Jets, and finishing the season with 16 goals and 37 assists for 53 points in 82 games with both teams. Stastny also registered a 54.08 CF% this season. His $7 million price tag each season was a significant overpay, as he never stayed healthy enough to play a full 82 game season for the majority of his contract, and never cracked more than 50 points until getting traded to Winnipeg. His strong production in Winnipeg was also aided by a 16.7% shooting percentage, so there are some significant risks of regression at play.

Given that Stastny is 32 years old and already has injury concerns and lowered production, giving a long-term deal would be extremely risky. However, if Tavares walks, the Islanders would need a second line center, and they can’t rely on Beauvillier, Nelson, or Cizikas to be at that level. Matt Cane’s salary projections have Stastny signing a two-year, near $10 million contract. I could see the Islanders having to give an extra year, as this could likely be the last contract Stastny signs in the NHL. A three-year, $15 million contract wouldn’t hurt the Islanders, who have a lot of cap space with the absence of Tavares. Stastny’s contract would also expire at the same time as Mathew Barzal’s, meaning that there would be plenty of room to sign Barzal to whatever deal he would deserve coming out of his ELC.

Tyler Bozak

Tyler Bozak has been somewhat unfairly panned in his time in Toronto, largely because of a big contract and bigger expectations, but the Islanders wouldn’t need him to be The Guy, which should temper that. He could be looking for a contract between the $3.5-$4 million range, a slight decrease from his current contract. At 32 years old, a three-year contract for a number between there would be the best option for the Islanders, though it would be an overpay if he was playing third line minutes. Bozak has put up 43 points in 81 games this season, coming off a career high 55 points in 78 games last season. His CF of 52.23% shows that he can drive possession, a skill that the Islanders desperately need. He could be a cheaper option to Stastny on the second line, though he could struggle playing tougher competition, especially with wingers who have struggled defensively in the past.

Again, there are risks to signing a 32 year old, and it may be better to use Casey Cizikas as a third line center given the cap implications. If Bozak centered the Islanders’ second line, the biggest worry would be whether he would struggle against tougher competition again. On the other hand, saving money in order to sign Anders Lee and/or Jordan Eberle could be something that the Islanders look to do, so Bozak may be an appealing option who would probably have less suitors than Stastny.

Riley Nash

Riley Nash is going to be an interesting player in free agency. With 41 points in 76 games, he’s the fourth-highest scoring UFA center in this class, but it’s the first time in his NHL career he’s even broken 30 points, let alone 40. At 28 years old, it seems unlikely that he’d continue to be a consistent 30-40 point player, and would probably fall back down to his 20 point play. However, that would make him a pretty good fourth line center for the Islanders. On the other hand, his contract prediction is a three-year, $2.8 million deal, which is simply too much for the Islanders to pay for a fourth line center. A cheaper deal could make sense for both parties, but at that point it would probably be better cap management to promote internally for that fourth line center spot.

Potential Trades

There are probably some centers that could be pried loose from struggling teams, but they will likely require a high return. Elliotte Friedman said in his 31 Thoughts that Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly could be up for trade after making negative comments about the Sabres being comfortable with losing. The Islanders probably can’t afford to be major players for him, as he’s signed to a $7.5 million cap hit until 2022-23, when he’ll be 31. He’s coming off a 61 point season, and if his name is floated around, there will be a lot of suitors.

Another option could be Alex Galchenyuk, who despite doing well with the Montreal Canadiens on the wing, seems to still want to play at center in the NHL. Two seasons ago in 2015-16, he scored 30 goals and 56 points and seemed like Montreal’s new number one center. While Montreal would want to hold onto him as he put up a 51 point season this year, his desire to play at center and his free agency at the end of the 2020 season could see him moved for a bigger return.

Restricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou could be another trade target, and could be acquired for a lot less than O’Reilly or Galchenyuk. It’s believed that the Red Wings would want a good, young defenseman for him, but given that Athanasiou hasn’t gotten regular NHL minutes outside of the fourth line, it’s hard to see them getting anyone extremely high end. The Islanders have a lot of good young defensive prospects that could be traded for help now, including Mitchell Vande Sompel, Kyle Burroughs, and Parker Wotherspoon. Athanasiou is a speedy skater, always a positive in today’s NHL, and at 23 years old, has room for improvement. The Detroit Red Wings likely can’t afford him and improve their team in any meaningful way, and he could be a good option as a third line center for the Islanders without the big money of a UFA signing, or the huge cost of a marquee name.

Bottom Line: The Islanders need to find at least one, and optimally two, new centers for the team, without committing too much money to the bottom six. Paul Stastny, if it makes sense for both parties financially, would be a good top six option, as he can take defensive responsibilities against tough competition and still put up points, and leave Barzal more of the offensive matchups. Andreas Athanasiou could be a cheaper bottom six option, adding more speed and more offensive flare than Casey Cizikas or Tanner Fritz. Running center depth of Barzal-Stastny-Athanasiou-Cizikas looks pretty good on paper, and potentially a player from the draft could fill in as well if the Islanders can’t get both Stastny and Athanasiou.

3: Sign RFAs and promote internally

New York Islanders v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Islanders’ biggest RFAs this season are Brock Nelson and Ryan Pulock. Nelson struggled this season at center, but could be a strong wing option, as he still has a killer wrist shot and has been a consistent 20ish goal scorer the past few seasons (yes, he only hit 19 this season). Nelson has scored some big goals for the Islanders, but consistency and defensive play have been his weaknesses. Still, due to his goalscoring ability and time in the NHL, he’s due for a raise. Nelson could sign for $3.5 million, a $1 million/year raise. A two or three year contract at that value would bring him to UFA status, where he can seek a bigger payday with the Islanders or elsewhere.

On the other hand, Ryan Pulock has made a big impact this season, but only has one NHL season to negotiate on as an RFA. He’s been an AHL all-star and played a big role in the playoff series against the Panthers a couple of years ago, but it seems likely he’d go for a bridge deal. A two-year, $2 million deal could be fair for both sides.

With the signing of Yannick Rathgeb, it makes sense not to give Brandon Davidson a qualifying offer. Rathgeb is a cheaper option as a rotation defenseman. Thomas Hickey and Calvin de Haan are likely going to walk, with Sebastian Aho and/or Devon Toews (who also needs to sign an RFA deal) getting penciled in for next season instead. One of Adam Pelech or Scott Mayfield could be an extra defenseman as well, so there’s no need for any more higher priced extras.

Tanner Fritz started to perform better the more comfortable he got in the NHL, and so for that reason, plus his low salary, could make him the team’s fourth line center. Kieffer Bellows, Josh Ho-Sang, Otto Koivula, and Michael Dal Colle have an opportunity to make the team out of camp, as well as whoever the Islanders might draft, especially if the lottery goes well enough to give the Islanders a top-three pick.

Bottom Line: At some point, the prospects have to get opportunities. We’ve seen what happens when over the hill veterans are given too much time, and it isn’t pretty. Josh Ho-Sang ended the season strong in Bridgeport and has been around a half-point per game player in the NHL. Kieffer Bellows has 41 goals and 74 points in 56 games with the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL. While it’s not an exact comparison, Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point scored goals at a similar rate in his draft +2 year in the WHL, and then went on to score 18 goals and 40 points in 68 games in his first NHL season. Devon Toews needs to play in the NHL or he’ll be a UFA at the end of the season, and Sebastian Aho looked pretty good in his NHL time. The young players need to play this season, and they’ve earned the right to do so.

4: Find a Goaltender

Currently, the goaltenders under contract next season for the Islanders are Thomas Greiss, Linus Soderstrom, and Eamon McAdam. Greiss has struggled lately, Soderstrom is unproven and struggled in Sweden this season, and McAdam has struggled in the AHL. Running Greiss-Soderstrom as a 1-2 is asking for trouble, so finding a player to provide more stability in goal is key. The team could also re-sign Christopher Gibson, who looked serviceable in his NHL appearances, but his history shows that he probably won’t be up to splitting an NHL job and performing well. Unfortunately, the UFA class isn’t the most prolific, with 32 year old Carter Hutton being one of the best options.

Aware of the bleak goaltending situation, the Islanders appear to be spinning the wheels on former prospect Mikko Koskinen, who has done extremely well in the KHL. However, Koskinen is now 30 years old and hasn’t played in the NHL in over seven years when he played four games for the Islanders in the 2010-11 season. He spent time between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL and the Islanders’ then ECHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies, and only had serviceable numbers in the ECHL. That’s not a good sign for success going forward, and at that point running Greiss and Soderstrom seems like a better option.

This should turn the team’s attention to trading for RFA backup goalies looking for an opportunity to start, a steady NHL job, or a new environment in general. Another interesting thing to look at is that typical starters Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils are starting their respective teams’ playoff series on the bench. This could make the trade market for goalies more enticing.

Carter Hutton

Carter Hutton is the top goalie of the UFA class, coming off a career year with a .931 save percentage in 32 games with the St. Louis Blues. Up to that point, he had been around league average, and had only played in 105 NHL games in his nine year pro career. He’s never played more than 40 games in a season, which he did when he was with the Nashville Predators during the 2013-14 season. Goalies are voodoo, but even if Hutton falls back to his career average, he’d still be a better option than Greiss most likely. On the other hand, a bigger workload than 40 games could be a problem for a 32 year old who has never played more than that. The increased workload could be an issue going forward if he signs with the Islanders.

Philipp Grubauer or Braden Holtby

Grubauer will be starting in net for the Capitals in the first game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and he has earned that role. Holtby has struggled post-All Star break, while Grubauer has been lights out. At 26 years old, it looks like it’s Grubauer’s time to be a full-time NHL starter. For the Capitals, it puts them in a similar situation as the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Matt Murray was clearly the guy for them going forward, but long-time starter Marc-Andre Fleury was signed to a long-term contract for a lot of money. The Penguins convinced Fleury to waive his NTC/NMC, and he was picked up by Vegas in the expansion draft. Unfortunately for the Caps, Seattle or wherever the NHL will expand to next isn’t quite ready yet, and so the Capitals will have to determine how much money they’re willing to spend on their goalie tandem.

Grubauer has a .923 save percentage in 100 NHL games over six seasons, though he split time with the Hershey Bears for three of those seasons. Holtby has a .919 save percentage in over 300 NHL games, but in the 2017-18 season, he only put up a .907, below league average. Holtby has played a lot of games for the Capitals in the past few seasons, so this could be a short-term sign of fatigue or a long-term problem. It’s hard to tell right now.

Trading with a division rival would be tough, especially with Holtby’s no trade clause that features a list that probably doesn’t include the Islanders. The Capitals may also have to give up on Grubauer in order to re-sign other key players, and they’re supposedly bringing in goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov this year. Grubauer is arbitration eligible and if he performs well in the playoffs he could have a real case for a bigger salary, giving the Capitals a lot of salary cap trouble.

Cory Schneider

Another division rival has found themselves turning to the backup goalie come playoff time. Keith Kinkaid appears to be the starter for the New Jersey Devils’ first game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Devils aren’t nearly in the same position as the Capitals, and don’t have to make this decision during this offseason. However, they might want to give more time to prospect Ken Appleby, and 32-year-old Schneider has seen his numbers drop these past two seasons to a .907 save percentage.

Goalies tend not to rebound in the Islanders’ system, but Cory Schneider is still highly regarded around the NHL. His $6 million cap hit until 2022 could make the Islanders balk, plus a no trade clause would limit his destinations should the Devils choose to trade him.

Robin Lehner

Lehner has been with the Buffalo Sabres for the past three seasons and had two strong seasons in net behind two awful Sabres teams, before regressing to a .908 save percentage this season. He has some concussion history, and that may be behind the regression, but his numbers before then were extremely promising.

His expiring deal was a one-year, $4 million contract, and committing in that range and for multiple years to Lehner could be unwise given his injury history and poor season. On the other hand, Buffalo might be more likely to trade Lehner than any other team with an RFA goalie. His name has floated around trade rumors in the past, and with the Sabres still rebuilding and re-tooling, Lehner might want a new environment to bounce back.

Garret Sparks

Early in his career, Sparks bounced up and down between the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL to the Toronto Marlies in the AHL. However, he’s increased his value lately having posted high save percentages north of .920 in the AHL two seasons in a row. He’s had 17 games in the NHL, all during the Toronto Maple Leafs’ “tank for Matthews” season, where he had a .893 save percentage.

His strong AHL play could make him the Leafs’ next backup, or he could seek a backup role elsewhere. He’s been the Marlies’ best goalie this season, so the Leafs might want to hold onto him, which could lead the Islanders to look at...

Calvin Pickard

Pickard is an interesting case. In 87 NHL games, he has a .913 save percentage. His limited time as backup for the Colorado Avalanche, where he played only around 20 games a season, had him posting save percentages north of .920. However, when he had a bigger workload with 50 games for the Avs, he only had a .904 save percentage. In one game for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, he had a disastrous outing, but in 32 AHL games he has had a .920 save percentage.

The Leafs may not be able to keep both Sparks and Pickard as they look for NHL jobs, and so one of the two from the Marlies will likely be let go. Pickard has had some more NHL success in the past than Sparks, but he’s had some time removed from being a highly touted prospect.

Bottom Line: It could range from challenging to impossible to acquire any of the most appealing goaltending options, and it’s unlikely that the team would opt to offer sheet any of the RFAs. That may be why the team has taken a look to the past with Koskinen, someone they’re at least a little familiar with. On the other hand, trying to trade for some of these players could be shrewd pickups for the Islanders, shoring up a shaky goaltending situation. The trouble is that none of these players are guarantees, and we’ve seen promising AHL goalies struggle and well-performing backups fail to repeat that performance when given more games. It will require some creativity and some luck (if Soderstrom ends up being really good, then this is less of an issue) but the goaltending is slated to be a problem again unless they can find some help.

5: Try to offload bad contracts

Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Islanders Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Islanders currently have a lot of bad contracts on their hands. Of the forwards, Andrew Ladd is signed for $5.5 million until the 2023-24 season. Cal Clutterbuck is signed for $3.5 million until the 2022-23 season. Casey Cizikas is signed for $3.35 million until the 2021-22 season. On defense, Johnny Boychuk is signed for $6 million until the 2022-23 season. Of lesser consequence, Adam Pelech is signed for $1.6 million until the 2021-22 season, and Scott Mayfield is signed for $1.45 million until 2023-24. While those contracts aren’t huge burdens, they could potentially block young, more highly-touted defensemen like Devon Toews, Sebastian Aho, Parker Wotherspoon, Mitchell Vande Sompel, and David Quenneville. Toews will need to be re-signed this offseason, and play at least 80 NHL games in order to stay under team control going forward.

Coming up in the next two seasons, the Islanders will have to get new contracts for Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Ho-Sang, Tanner Fritz, Michael Dal Colle, Mathew Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, Linus Soderstrom, Sebastian Aho, Parker Wotherspoon, and Mitch Vande Sompel, and potentially Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews depending on their future play and the deals they take. Obviously, some of these players are more critical than others, but Lee, Eberle, Beauvillier, Barzal, and Pulock will all be getting big contracts most likely. These all come up in the next few seasons, before the big anchor contracts expire. Depending on future performance and what these players could command, cap space could get very tight.

Bottom Line: It doesn’t have to be done immediately, but it would help to start thinking about ways to move Ladd, Boychuk, and Clutterbuck, if it’s at all possible. Those are the biggest ones and require the most creativity to move. Whether that’s taking on a higher cap hit for less time or retaining salary, I think those options are worth exploring if Ladd or Boychuk would want to waive their no trade clauses. There’s a chance that they won’t, and that wouldn’t sink the team, especially since they wouldn’t be committing $9 million+ to Tavares. However, there are a lot of key players coming up for contract renewals, and the more flexibility available to sign them, the better.

6: Have a plan and stick to it

This one is probably the most important. Is the goal to rebuild again if Tavares leaves, creating a stronger roster around Barzal? Is it to re-tool, shoring up the depth and letting the younger players get more playing time and moving on from underperforming veterans? Does the team see itself as a realistic Stanley Cup contender, and if so, what does it take to get there? Offensively, the team was one of the best in the league. Without Tavares, this will undoubtedly take a hit, but young players like Barzal and Beauvillier will continue to develop and get better, Kieffer Bellows and Josh Ho-Sang could see time in the NHL, a bounce-back season for Nick Leddy, a full season of Ryan Pulock, and, ideally, a completely new defensive scheme could help tighten up the awful leaky defense. The team has to settle on an identity though, because going through this season by season is unwise.

If the goal is to use Barzal, Beauvillier, and Pulock as the new core, it may make sense to move on from one or more of Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Nick Leddy. Trading high-end talent like that would signify a new rebuild, but it would be selling high on all but Leddy, and ensuring that Lee and Eberle don’t leave for nothing at the end of the 2018-19 season. If the goal is to re-tool and compete, then signing or trading for possession drivers for the middle six, trading for a true top 2-4 defenseman, and getting a competent goaltender are going to have to be at the top of the list of needs. The Islanders can’t let the season dictate where they are and then choose to stand pat again. They have to know whether there is a real chance to compete or if it makes sense to stockpile assets. The Isles can’t make the same mistakes of last season where ineffective veterans were let play for far too long.

Bottom Line: The team chose not to trade Tavares or Hickey at the trade deadline, seemingly under the idea that the team was neither good enough to make a real run at the playoffs nor bad enough to fully tank. However, that’s a bad place to be in the NHL, and the team needs to be decisive going forward. If it makes more sense in the long-term to completely rebuild, then the team should sell off players with value and expiring contracts that aren’t going to be part of that new core.

This offseason is one of the biggest and most important in franchise history. John Tavares’ decision will impact the entire organization’s plans going forward. The best hope is that the team starts trusting young players to take on roles in the NHL, and allows them to play instead of forcing a veteran on the team when one isn’t needed. The current management and coaching staff should also receive a significant re-haul if Tavares doesn’t re-sign, but that won’t guarantee an improvement, as seen by the Colorado Avalanche’s late switches before the 2016-17 season. Plan A and Plan B may be to re-sign Tavares, but history has taught us that there absolutely must be a Plan C.

(All stats referenced via Natural Stat Trick, HockeyDB, CapFriendly, and @Cane_Matt’s salary projection sheet)