Islanders Showing Faith In Roster During Free Agency

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Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders

When free agency began on Wednesday, July 1st, the New York Islanders weren’t expected to make any drastic moves, in spite of a first round defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals in last season’s opening playoff round.

The Isles amassed over 100 points for the first time in over 30 years and placed fourth in the National Hockey League in goals per game (2.99), trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and New York Rangers in the overall rankings.

The issue, however, lies more on the defensive side of the puck, and depending on how you look at it, you could either overpay–be it in dollars or term–for an aging veteran, as we saw with San Jose’s signing of Paul Martin or Edmonton’s claim of Andrej Sekera.

There’s also the option of waiting for your young stable of talented players to find their way through quality minutes at the NHL level. However, the Isles finished 23rd, allowing 2.73 goals against per game and are an injury away from relying on too many youngsters to get them back to the playoffs during an inaugural year at Barclays Center.

After two days, it’s clear that general manager Garth Snow prefers option two and, with some difficult contract decisions coming up and not as much money to throw around as in previous years, it’s most certainly the right call.

The New York Islanders currently sit with a little over 9MM remaining to the cap ceiling (that’s right, to the ceiling, not from the floor) and Brock Nelson still to sign a restricted free agent contract that will go against that number. If you calculate Nelson getting something similar to what Anders Lee got last week, that will bring the number down to slightly below 6MM to spend.

Can’t just break open Fort Knox or ask a bank for a loan, ya dig?

Factor in possible extensions due to Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Ryan Strome (all free agents next summer) and John Tavares and Josh Bailey in three years time, and it’s clear why now is the time for both the Islanders and their general manager become cognizant of managing their cap situation.

You can most certainly move Michael Grabner, as the winds of speculation have suggested, and clear up 3MM in cap space to facilitate a minor  let’s-win-now type of move, as so many fans crave, but at what cost?

Giving an aging Joel Ward, underwhelming in the regular season but fantastic in the playoffs, a 3-year deal? What happens to Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang when they’re ready in two years time? There isn’t enough minutes to be had for everyone and it’s better to develop in-house talent rather than take a gamble on free agency. The expression, ‘the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t’, can apply here.

And let’s be honest, this year’s free agent crop is arguably the worst seen in over a decade. General managers seem to be in ‘financial constraint mode’ this off-season, not giving away too many of those crazy, off-the-wall deals we’ve seen in the past. So what is it then?  Have they learned their lesson at long last, or is it the market dictating their new-found fiscal responsibility?

I’ll go option two for $200 Alex!

All about dem minutes

Taking a peek at the potential training camp roster for the New York Islanders, barring any trades of course, your top nine should be: Bailey, Tavares, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Nielsen, Okposo, Lee, Nelson, and Strome; the fourth line of Martin, Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck leaves Grabner and Kirill Petrov as spare forwards. If you go out and sign a big time forward or even trade for one (Patrick Sharp anyone?) they’ll want, nay, demand minutes.

So the question becomes: who leaves the lineup? Which player gets their minutes cut? The concern over Isles head coach Jack Capuano‘s disbursement of ice-time were loud on an almost game-by-game basis. Can you imagine how much louder they would be if Lee, Nelson or Strome were to be among the unlucky to sacrifice ice time?

People who haven’t followed the Islanders or their plight (although they’ve certainly heard about it) cannot possibly understand the frustration on the part of fans and the deep-rooted desire to win a championship. Coincidentally, fans haven’t the responsibility of running a professional hockey team amid the salary cap era. It’s most certainly not a video game in real-time, as some of the suggested moves are easier said than done.

To sit back and assume that Snow isn’t ‘doing anything’, ‘sitting on his hands’ or quotes like ‘does he even own a phone?’ are just plain naive. As Justin Williams, who signed in Washington, proves, there’s more to it than just making an inquiring telephone call. The player, especially those hitting unrestricted free agency for the first time in their careers, have a big say in where they go.

And the reality is, Islanders fans, not EVERYONE wants to play in Brooklyn, no matter how good this team will be, or how marketable they will become.

The youth is coming along just fine, thank you very much 

There’s something to be said for developing in-house talent. You can control them, especially in restricted free agency, in terms of contract demands, all while grooming them into your system.

The advantage of it all is knowing what you have in terms of character, something the Islanders value tremendously in the locker room.

There are some, however, that don’t want or can’t depend on the continued maturation of these young players: What if they fail? What if they don’t develop? And although those might be valid concerns, but what of the alternative? What if they do succeed? Would you want that to be with someone else? After investing so much over the last couple of years during the ‘rebuild’, do you really want to see another team reap the benefits?

Ryan Strome collected 50 points in his first full NHL season. Brock Nelson scored 20 goals in his second and Anders Lee scored 25 in his first and has 35 goals in his first 100 games. All three are coming off their first career playoff experience. On defense, Calvin deHaan will be better in year three after suffering through a sophomoric slump, something many before him in his position endure.

Then there’s Ryan Pulock–a future power play quarterback with a tremendous shot from the blue line. And the gritty Scott Mayfield looked poised and confident in the two playoff games he appeared in.

There are scouts, of which nobody on this site is, that vouch for the career arcs of all these players. Guys who have been doing this for 10, 20 and 30 years. Are they ALL wrong? The youth of this team is just fine. As long as they get the minutes required (sound familiar?) they will continue to develop within the system to become what everyone – except some fans – have projected. And that will be more than enough to make the Islanders annual playoff participants.

But what have they done? 

So far, the Islanders have been shrewd and financially responsible in free agency. They signed Thomas Griess, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to a low-risk contract to back up starter Jaroslav Halak. They re-signed restricted free agent Lee to a four-year cap friendly contract. They’ve also kept Thomas Hickeyrewarding his continued hard work and service with a three-year deal, costing only 2.2MM against the cap.

The Isles, moreover, signed six players to two-way deals to re-stock a barren Bridgeport team (yes, this is Snow’s responsibility also). And, if you believe ‘sources’, some have told Islanders Insight they did inquire about Williams and T.J Oshie and at bare minimum, made a phone call about Sharp.

Maybe there’s a depth defenseman out there. Maybe not. But make no mistake, Snow is looking. Always texting, always calling. The man is doing his job. Just like he did last season when he acquired the Islanders three biggest needs in Halak, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. You want experience? You want playoff tested? They got it last year.

Now, it’s time for the team to take the next step. The youth needs to take their experience garnered last season and combine that with the savvy advice of a Boychuk and Leddy and move forward. There shouldn’t be any reason to doubt they will. Faith is defined as belief, confidence or trust in a person, object, religion, idea or view.

The person? Lee, Nelson, Strome, deHaan, Pulock, Mayfield

The object? Playoff success

The idea? Win a Stanley Cup

The view? Stay smart financially, manage in-house assets, give them opportunity to succeed.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

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