Remember a few years ago when the New York Islanders dealt Matt Moulson and a first and second round pick in either 2014 or 2015 to the Buffalo Sabres for soon-to-be UFA Thomas Vanek? Then a few months later they traded him to Montreal for Sebastien Collberg and second round pick? That was awful. It was like, Alexei Yashin trade/contract/buyout bad. It looked like they gave away a lottery pick and Moulson for 47 games of Vanek, and a couple of throw-ins. Garth Snow opted to give Buffalo the first round pick in 2015 rather than 2014, giving him one summer to turn the franchise around, otherwise his team would be on the losing end of a horrible trade.
Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin were signed as free agents, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy were acquired through trade, and the team did a complete 180, going from eighth in the Metropolitan Division to third in just one year. This season, the Islanders are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and appear to be one their way to establishing themselves as legit Cup contender. That said, a trade request from travis Hamonic and two key impending free agents will make 2016 another interesting summer for Snow.
Even though he isn’t having the best season of his career, one of the biggest reasons for the Islanders’ success has been John Tavares. Obviously his elite play, as we all know, has been incredibly important to the team, but the thing that makes Tavares so valuable is his team friendly contract. Despite begin a Hart Trophy finalist in two of the past three seasons (one of them was derailed due to an injury), Tavares owns an incredibly modest cap hit of $5.5 million, which is way below market value for a player of his caliber. A couple years from now, Tavares’ deal is going to come to and end and Garth Snow is more than likely going to have to hand his franchise forward a pretty hefty pay increase, but thanks to some excellent long-term planning, that shouldn’t be a problem.
The Islanders have done am admirable job building their team around Tavares, not only on the ice, but in their financial picture. Only Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic and Anders Lee are signed beyond the end of Tavares’ current deal. Also, when July of 2018 rolls around and Tavares’ contract nears its end, a combined ~$17 million owed to Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Josh Bailey, and Jaroslav Halak is set to come off the shelf. Now, that can be a good and a bad thing, as those players will need to be replaced, but it gives the Islanders more than enough financial flexibility to get Tavares, who’s obviously the most important of the bunch, the money he’ll command.
Stepping back to the present, the Islanders are going to have to make decisions on quite a few free agents this summer. For starters, both Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen are set to hit unrestricted free agency and are both going to command raises from their $2.8 million and $2.75 million respective annual salaries. On top of that, Casey Cizikas and Ryan Strome are both going to need new RFA deals, and Unlike with Tavares, the Islanders don’t have a bunch of money coming off the shelf to help them pay for their impending free agents.
DEFENCEMEN & GOALTENDERS
The situation on New York’s blue line appeared to be pretty much locked in stone for the better part of the next decade with Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy joined Travis Hamonic as Islanders defencemen signed beyond 2020. That all changed earlier this season when Hamonic reportedly requested the Islanders trade him to a different team, preferably one in Western Canada, so that he could be closer with his family. This is obviously really unfortunate for the Islanders, as Hamonic is an established top pairing defenceman with a very team friendly contract.
That said, if the Islanders do end up moving him in the near future, they’ll certainly be able to get a king’s ransom in return. If I had to venture a guess, I would assume that when Snow does deal Hamonic, there will be a defenceman coming back to fill the void left by his absence. If they don’t, then the Islanders can try to replace Hamonic with top defensive prospect Ryan Pulock, who currently has 13 points in 25 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL.
Outside of Hamonic, the Islanders have Leddy and Boychuk knocked up for seven more years, Thomas Hickey signed for another three, and Calvin de Haan still on RFA years. This summer, all they need to worry about is replacements for Brian Strait and Marek Zidlicky as both are set to hit free agency, which shouldn’t be too difficult, as both play depth roles on the Islanders blue line.
So there are two major issues for the Islanders to worry about right now. First, there’s Travis Hamonic asking for a trade. What they’re willing to move him for, how long it’ll drag out, how his role can possibly be replaced, and all of that. Second, there’s the contract status of a handful of key forwards, as Nielsen and Okposo are both set to become UFAs and Cizikas and Strome need new RFA this summer. Otherwise, the Islanders have a good, young, deep team loaded with nice contracts and cap flexibility.
There isn’t much I can really say in regards to the Hamonic situation. We all know that he’s requested a trade and that he said he preferred for it to be to a team closer to his family, making Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg the most likely options. I think that the goal for Garth Snow here is to deal Hamonic and get an equally skilled defenceman that can step in immediately and fill his role. That said, it’s going to be really, really difficult to not only find a player that fits that description that a team is willing to trade, but also one that has a similar team friendly contract to the one Hamonic has.
Heading into the summer, the Islanders have roughly $52.5 million tied up in seven forwards, five defencemen, and two goalies, give or take, depending on what happens with Hamonic. So depending on where the cap ends up, the Islanders are going to have about $20 million for six forwards and two defencemen. Of course, some of those holes can be filled internally, and I doubt RFA deals for Cizikas and Strome will be too pricey, but factoring those in, fleshing out the rest of the roster, and potentially taking on a larger cap hit taken on in Hamonic’s replacement, the Islanders don’t have much wiggle room to sign both Okposo and Nielsen.
Okposo and Nielsen have been two of the Islanders best players this season. Okposo is leading the team in scoring and Nielsen isn’t far behind him. Nielsen also has the team’s best Corsi For percentage at even strength despite starting a good chunk of his shifts in the defensive zone. If it comes down to it, I’m guessing the Islanders would be more inclined to sign Okposo because he’s four years younger than Nielsen is, but I’m sure they want to keep them both around. Ideally, Snow would be able to find somebody to take on Grabovski or Kulemin’s salary, as neither player is providing the value they should be with $5 million and $4.188 million cap hits, but obviously that’s easier said than done.
Hopefully Garth Snow has some hometown discount tricks up his sleeve this summer, because it would be devastating for the Islanders, who are finally looking like a contender after years of terrible management and finishes in the league’s basement, to lose all of Travis Hamonic, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen at the same time.
Stats courtesy of War on Ice and Hockey Reference