Friday, February 27, 2015

The Blueprint

Another two weeks, another step closer to the playoffs as the Islanders won five out of eight games since my last post.  Sadly one of the losses was an epic game against the hated Rangers, but the game was supremely entertaining even as the Isles collapsed in the final period.  It made the entire hockey world beg for a playoff series between the two rivals.  Personally, I'd be happy to experience that series in the second round or later.  The Isles need to win at least one round this spring for the season to be deemed a success, so I'll already be plenty un-sober while dealing with any opponent they face.  If that opponent were the Rangers, well...

For now I'm cheering for the team to secure home-ice advantage for that anticipated first round series and for the injury bug to remain far away from the clubhouse.  So far so good on the first wish, but it's getting iffy on the second.  Kyle Okposo is still out (albeit on schedule to return in a couple of weeks). Casey Cizikas has missed the last four games.  Mikhail Grabovski likely suffered another concussion and Frans Nielsen (Danish god among men) hurt his ankle in the loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  Luckily Nielsen didn't miss any games, but it's moments like those that will eat away at my sanity as the season winds down.

The Islanders have enough depth to handle a single injury here or there.  Hell, they have too many decent players and have played an effective IR shell game all year in order to keep from sending extra bodies down to the minors (and through waivers).  General Manager Garth Snow seems to need at least one guy on IR to keep the roster intact.  It took injuries to three starting forwards for things to finally start getting thin up front.  Such depth is a hallmark of contending teams and one of the reasons why the hockey world is starting to come around on the Isles as a Stanley Cup contender this year.

Not too far back I answered the question of whether I'd want to have a Cinderella run to a single Stanley Cup this year followed by another decade of failure, or take a playoff loss after this season in hopes of enjoying multiple championships in the coming years.  I choose to take the Cup since in the end, nothing is guaranteed.  An important factor in the question was that the Islanders and their depth are poised for a good long run of competitive hockey.  The post took this assumption as fact.  However, I have since wondered if the details really support that assessment.

The foundations of contending teams don't always follow similar blueprints.  If you look at some of the recent top teams, there are obvious components that make up a competitive roster.  A Vezina-caliber goalie or Norris-caliber defenseman sure helps.  An elite top center with a deep top 12 group of forwards is nearly a requirement.  However, just because a team doesn't have all these things, doesn't mean it can't be a perennial Cup challenger.  The question is, how many of these pieces are needed?  If we focus on these four elements, maybe we can see how deep things need to go.  Maybe it's as simple as adding up the different pieces to see where a team sits.

For those with an allergy to numbers and spreadsheets, make sure you take your meds before continuing.  I was going to write this analysis out, but realized it's better to ask forgiveness for a table or two than ask for them to use the bathroom before reading.  Conversely, if you are a person of science and numbers and well thought out critical thinking, then my "analysis" will also make you cringe.

Here's what I feel have been the NHL's regular contenders and how many of the crucial pieces they've had on their roster:

Team MVP Forward Norris Defenseman Vezina Goalie Forward Depth
 Los Angeles 0 1 1 1
 Chicago 2 1 0 1
 Pittsburgh 2 0 0 0
 Boston 0 1 1 0
 NY Rangers 0 0 1 1
 San Jose 1 0 0 1
The first three columns are pretty obvious.  The fourth - Forward Depth - is more subjective.  A pattern emerged where the two teams that have won multiple titles (LA, Chicago) had a higher "score" than the others.  They had more of the ingredients.

The Penguins and Bruins, while not tallying as high a total in this admittedly unscientific experiment, did actually manage to each win a Stanley Cup.  How?  Well, Pittsburgh rode Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin all the way to the promised land.  Boston got an ungodly postseason from goalie Tim Thomas.  These two teams overcame their deficiencies in other areas by getting significant performances from their best players.

Teams like the Sharks and Rangers stay on all those Cup prediction lists at the start of every season because they have as many pieces as Boston or Pittsburgh.  While they may lack an elite forward or defenseman, both are deep in their top 12 forwards and top 4 defenseman.  I understand how subjective this is but I'm well into "TL;DR" territory, so I'm going to keep it simple.  For now, just trust me.  Most knowledgeable hockey folks will cite depth for both teams as a key factor in their recent success.  The Rangers are deep and have an all-world goalie.  The Sharks are deep and have usually had an MVP-caliber forward in Joe Thornton.  The fact that Thornton has declined in performance is contributing to the Sharks struggles this year.

So what do the Islanders have?  They're currently the new San Jose Sharks.  An elite top center with a deep group of forwards, but not quite all the way there on defense and in net.  This is great because the Sharks have contended every year for a while but also scary because well, this is what the Sharks have to show for all those playoff appearances:

The reality is the less of these pieces a team has, the more it relies on luck or - for lack of a better term - "career performances".  If the Isles want to become a superpower like LA or Chicago, Jaroslav Halak will have to step up more consistently than he already has or one of the top defenseman must take the next step.  Sorry, Jaro, but to me the best chance is that a defenseman develops into a Norris-level guy.  Luckily, Snow just locked up Nick Leddy, who is a decent candidate for such an evolution.  Johnny Boychuk is older and has little developing left to do, but has become a top-pair blueliner when finally given the minutes so it's not a stretch to think he could progress even farther, at least in the mid-term.

There's also young guys like Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock knocking on the roster door.  It's quite premature of me to proclaim either of those two will be award-winning defensemen, but as far as defense prospects go, at least they're near the top of the list of future candidates.

I'll be cheering for some luck and a career performance from one or two (or three) guys this postseason because the Isles will need that.  But I'll also be keeping a close eye on Leddy and Halak for signs of taking that next step into the elite-level territory that their captain currently occupies.  Only one more piece needs to get there to really have something long term in Brooklyn and beyond.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Grace Period

The New York Islanders are chugging along on their resurrection season, which is giving diehard fans a growing soapbox from which to cheer from.  Truth be told, the team has had pretty mediocre results since the All-Star break, winning only half (4 of 8) their games.

One of the reasons I enjoy hockey and the Islanders so much is because I have a healthy rivalry with my Rangers-fan younger brother and cousin, whom we are very close with.  My older brother is also an Isles fan like me, so the four of us are constantly ribbing one another whenever possible.  Throw in a group of longtime friends who have also chosen sides, and it's a shock we all end up alive at the end of each season.

During this recent stretch of ordinary hockey, an email floated into my inbox which questioned the validity of goaltender Jaroslav Halak's play and surmised that he won't be able to get the team deep into the playoffs.  I thought, "He's questioning an all-star?!?"

Of course, I replied with a request for evidence to somehow back up this dubious claim.  When he did, he made me realize something.  Halak actually has been rather average.

In order to save face, I made sure to mention how often the Islander goalie has made the necessary save during a close game.  The truth is, the team simply doesn't give up all that many shots per game (they're second in the NHL).  If Halak stops 90% of them, all the Isles have to do is score 3 goals.  Which they also happen to do quite often (they're fourth in the NHL).  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this formula.

So even though I had to acquiesce to the Ranger fan, I didn't sulk about it.  Sulking is something Islanders fans have mastered over the last 20 years.  Most "debates" with rival fans weren't really debates insomuch as they were excuses to fire up the pity train.

That sort of stuff was in the past.  This year, there was no need for a sheepish retreat.  In fact, I felt it necessary to mention - repeatedly - how the Islanders are doing just fine with their average goaltending.  Fine enough to be four points ahead of the Rangers and (still) leading the division.  I didn't hesitate to pull the "and it's not like the Rangers can beat their average goalie anyway" card.

Of course, this felt great.  For many years, I'd listen as fans of good teams would quickly distill every argument down to a simple, "They just win" proclamation.  And during all those years, I grew to really, really hate that sentiment.  It was a main ingredient to the fuel of that pity train.  Instead of trying to debate the merits of the team and hear the inevitable reply, we'd become accustomed to just slumping back and giving in before even starting.

"I know, I know.  They do some 'good things', but yes...they still lose all the time."

A long-running joke of mine is that I'm a fan of the Isles and New York Mets because I want to teach my kids that winning isn't everything.  There's a small truth to it.  I've had to answer the age-old question, "Why are you a fan of a losing team?" more times than I care to remember, but I have a twisted sense of pride when I do.  Being this loyal is hard and not many fans would last this long.  It's a pointless battle of attrition, but it's a battle I haven't lost yet nonetheless.

Because of this I tend to hold a bit more contempt for those fans at the other end of the spectrum.  Bandwagoners are a part of any successful team's fanbase and not all are obnoxious.  Of course, the more sustained the success, the more prevalent those unpleasant fans become.  The older I've become, the more weary I've grown of these people.

Except with that email back to my brother and cousin, I turned into one.

Surely I can have some time to bask in the (admittedly very recent) success of the Islanders without becoming "that guy".  I remember watching the 1996 Yankees win the World Series and while I hated every second of it personally, it was hard not to be happy for my friends and family who'd sat through as many bad seasons over the previous 15 years as I had.  They were as surprised as they were elated.  But surprise success quickly lead to consistent success and, well...we all know where some of the fanbase has gone from there.

I can say for sure I'll never really turn into "that guy" no matter how much success the Islanders achieve.  I'm not wired that way and luckily neither are most fans.  But all fans are proud of their team.  Even losing ones.  It's one of the components of being a fan that invests their time and emotion into following the team.  Unlike optimism and confidence - which have been completely missing from my selection of feelings - pride has always been there.  Except now the source of pride is the complete opposite.  Such a quick shift takes some getting used to, but it also warrants taking advantage of.  We've got a grace period to work with.  It may not last very long.  A first-round playoff exit would put an end to all of it pretty quickly.  But right now, as the team sits atop the division, I think most other fans would afford us a few obnoxious retorts.  A few dismissive waves of the hand while countering with a simple statement:

"They just win."

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Road Not Travelled

The New York Islanders came back from the All-Star break and picked up right where they left off, beating the rival New York Rangers at home.  It was an important game not only because it was the Rangers, who are right behind the Isles in the division and their biggest rival, but because it was the first game back after a week off and would help set the tone for the last part of the season.  The team winning these "big test" games has become an increasingly common occurrence.  So much so that my reaction to the win was more like:

...than what I used to do when the Isles beat a good team:

As the season has progressed - and more so after the victory over the Rangers - praise for all things Islanders has come from all corners of the continent.  Two weeks ago, even the Fresno Bee was posting stories to get in on the action.  Without fail, the adulation includes references to all the moves GM Garth Snow was able to pull off in the offseason.  Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Mikael Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, and Jarosalv Halak have all been major contributors to the success of the team so far.

The offseason was such a whirlwind around so many new players arriving that everyone has forgotten about what might have been.  It's probably better that way, of course, since what might have been is a terrifying thought.  Like every GM, Snow made numerous decisions in the last two offseasons.  While everything he did this past summer turned up rosy, the moves he was unable to consummate in the years before had just as much to do with the shape of the team.

No Soup For You

A few veteran Islanders were traded away as is became obvious Snow wasn't going to offer them new contracts at the price the players were asking.  Going back to the 2013 offseason, captain (at the time) Mark Streit was a capable yet aging blueliner who was likely seeking a longer contract instead of an outright lucrative one.  The Islanders seemed OK with giving him fair market value as far as salary (around $5 million a year), but were staying away from anything longer than three years (due in no small part Streit being over 35 in age).  Turns out, Philadelphia was all too happy to cave on both factors and traded New York a draft pick in order to sign him before he became a free agent.  He signed with the Flyers for four years and $21 million.  Streit has been decent for Philly in the years since, helping them to the playoffs last year and leading their defenseman in scoring this year (even though the team itself is pretty terrible).  Having Streit on the roster for the Islanders during last year's flameout might have helped mitigate some of the glaring defensive deficiencies, but I don't think anyone would say he'd have been a big key to a turn around.  Plus, were he still on the team this year it may have kept Snow from acquiring Boyhuck or Leddy (or both).  That result in and of itself is reason enough to feel good about his departure.

A new contract for defenseman Andrew MacDonald never really came close to happening and Snow was somehow able to trade him to Philadelphia for two draft picks and a C-level prospect.  After the Flyers quickly signed MacDonald to an exorbitant extension ($5 million annually!), the hockey world reacted similarly to how the Islanders fanbase did...

In the real world, keeping MacDonald was unlikely given his contract demands.  But for arguments sake, let's say he gave Snow a hometown discount and took a little off the top to stay.  He still would've cost the team upwards of $4-$4.5 million per year.  This is a frightening thought for anyone who has seen MacDonald attempt to defend an opposing forward coming across the blue line.

Matt Moulson was a fan favorite who earned his reputation with the fans through humility, hard work and perseverance during the rough times of the franchise.  He was close friends with star center John Tavares and they had undeniable chemistry on the ice.  There was a decent argument that he had earned a big contract after accepting a lower-valued one in 2011.  Making just over $3 million per year doesn't seem low, but for a 3-time 30 goal scorer, it was a bargain.  Not much news came out about where negotiations stood with Moulson and Snow, but considering he signed with Buffalo for $25 million over five years, my assumption is the Isles weren't thrilled with the idea of paying him that.  In my last post I touched on the fact that Tavares has consistently made any player lucky enough to be put on his line better.  Out of all the wingers no longer on the roster, Moulson is probably the best of the bunch.  However since leaving the team and Tavares, he has scored just 24 goals in 111 games.  Granted, the Sabres have been historically terrible since he joined them, but there's not too many folks singing his praises as a top line winger.  Had Garth Snow acquiesced and given Moulson $5 million per year to still be an Islanders, there's no way Grabovski or Kulemin join the club.  Even with Moulson's 30-goal potential with Tavares, the loss of that crucial depth would've made it a net loss choice.

Dodging Bullets

The trade that sent Moulson away brought in Thomas Vanek, who fits into another type of transaction - the failed blessing in disguise.  I'm not talking about the trade itself, which I feel was a good one to make at the time even though it turned out to be a failure.  Vanek worked very well with Tavares and Kyle Okposo.  I would also argue that the success of that line lead to the discovery that Okposo and Tavares are pretty good together (they only played together intermittently before), a benefit this year's team is enjoying.  The reason for the abysmal season was defense and goaltending, not offense.  Vanek worked well enough to earn a contract offer, something that wasn't afforded the players I previously mentioned.  And it was a big one, reportedly over $7 million per year for 7 years.  His rejection of the offer wasn't surprising, but had he taken it it may have been the single most disruptive thing to the current incarnation of the Islanders.  That much cap space spent on a player creates big ripples down the ledger and would probably affect every future negotiation including the free agents Snow was able to sign this summer.  From Grabovki & Kulemin all the way through Halak and depth guys like Calvin de Haan and Casey Cizikas (both of whom signed extensions this past offseason), the weight of that Vanek deal would've affected all of them.  Not to mention that Vanek hasn't been all that good this year (admittedly he'd probably be much better with Tavares) and has had some off ice issues.  All of this makes his decision to leave Long Island a good one for the Islanders.

Another veteran who turned down an offer from the Islanders was defenseman Dan Boyle.  In a situation reminiscent of the Christian Ehrhoff deal in 2011, Snow traded a late draft pick for the negotiating rights to the defenceman.  Like Ehrhoff, turns out Boyle never wanted to play for the Isles (or really anyone anyone other than the New York Rangers).  It cost the Islanders a fifth round draft pick, but it gained them much more as the hole left by Boyle's rejection was there to be filled by Boychuk and Leddy.

There was one other transaction that once everything is said and done could be still wind up a bad one for Snow.  Right now it seems like it was good idea to send Nino Niederreiter away in a trade for fourth line superpest Cal Clutterbuck.  I fully admit that Nino's potential as a 30-goal scorer in the NHL is way more valuable over the long term than what Clutterbuck provides.  Niederreiter is only 22 and will probably score close to 30 goals for Minnesota in only his third NHL season.  But considering the value of the Islanders fourth line this year, it's tough to gauge what the absence of Clutterbuck would do to the roster.  Not to mention the fact that Nino wasn't thrilled to be playing for the Isles, which could've affected his performance and usage by head coach Jack Capuano.  It's an open debate, but I at least want to mention there's a chance that keeping Nino over Cal would have been a negative.

So what does that leave the potential 2014-2015 New York Islanders looking like had all these players been kept or had they chose to stay?  Take a look:

Okposo - Tavares - Moulson/Vanek
Bailey - Nielsen - Niederreiter
Nelson - Strome - Lee
Cizikas - Martin - Grabner

Boyle - Streit
Hamonic - MacDonald
Visnovsky - de Haan/Hickey


From an offensive standpoint, it's not terrible.  The Isles have had a decent offense for a few years now (led by Tavares) and while I feel the real roster's four lines are better than this hypothetical group, it's not falling off a cliff in performance either.  It doesn't hurt that the kid line of Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee would still be on the team.  If we allow the Moulson-Vanek trade to happen, the forward group gets even better, but the financial impact of signing Vanek to that monster contract makes the signing of Halak a near impossibility.  Even keeping Moulson, who commanded $5 million per year, would've impacted the Halak contract.

Speaking of the goalies and defenseman...

I honestly have no clue who would be in goal for the Islanders had Halak not been signed.  With large contracts given to Moulson or Vanek, Boyle, Streit and MacDonald (add in some more for Niederreiter), it's unlikely Snow is spending $4.5 million on his goalie.  I admit to not having run all the numbers of this hypothetical, but I'm confident given owner Charles Wang's history that they would not be spending all the way to the $70 million-plus limit.  They haven't even done that with the real roster, which only adds to the appeal of Snow's brilliant roster maneuvers.  My educated guess is they resign Evgeni Nabokov for under $2 million.  But seeing how epic the mess was in the 2013-2014 season, having that defense with Nabokov behind it again would be another major disaster.

Which to me is the amazing part of all this.  We're not even talking about that much time.  All of this has been within the last 22 months, since the Islanders were eliminated from the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  It's been a remarkable stretch of trading, signing, rejecting, drafting and player performance changes.  All of which had to happen for the team to be where it is right now, looking down on the Metropolitan division from the top.