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.


  1. Good points. I think that Halak was the big deal here. As he did against the Rangers, i thought he really won that game. Just unreal with some major saves.

    I think the best part about the Isle's is that they figured out that depth is so crucial and it goes from adding good pieces to developing other pieces as well.

    I also laughed at the McDonald deal with the Flyers.

    Playoffs hockey will be much different for the Isle's but i think they belong in the 'anyone can win the Cup" group at this point. Hey, you never know. There is always a surprise run in the post-season and there is no reason to not think that the Isle's could be one.

    Yet, even if they get eliminated in the first round there is still so much to take away from this season. A lot of good things for next season to look forward to and in the following seasons.

    I just hope that this time Snow does not get too greedy and eager to speed up the process of building a winner and take silly shortcuts.

    1. Well, I don't think he'll be dumping good young players at this year's deadline for a rental. Snow's track record is pretty established at this point. He's patient and rarely trades away youth (Nino notwithstanding). Granted, the point of the article is that Snow has - in hindsight - made some questionable decisions that were not consummated because of the other party involved saying no. So he's not infallible. But bringing in the likes of Taylor Hall or Phil Kessel would take a package that includes numerous players, likely Strome and Griffin Reinhart. And that would cruch the teams mid-term future.

    2. BTW, I disagree with a first round exit being OK. I think if this year's Isles team doesn't win one round, it will be a failure. They don't have to go to the conference finals, but they really need to win a round. It's the one thing they haven't done in a long while and it would really help put the team in a new light.

  2. the buck-nino trade may have happened because of cal's history with J.T. I know this may be far fetched, but Garth knows buck's gonna leave his guts on the ice and did not see the same thing in nino. of course, nino's attitude probably forced garth to look in cals direction. I believe that chemistry between cal and J.T > nino's potential. even if im wrong, it helps me sleep better at night believing that.

    1. I think it helped that Clutterbuck knew Tavares and played along side him in Junior. I don't think it was the main reason, though. I think your second point was the main reason. One of Garth's consistencies is getting "character" guys. Guys with a good work ethic, etc. Nino didn't seem to be that guy. Clutterbuck is.