After finally breaking free from the chains of consistent mediocrity that plagued the franchise for over twenty years, the New York Islanders find themselves in a curious situation. Their last two seasons have been excellent. They made the playoffs each year, this spring they won their first playoff series since 1993, and for the first time since 1980-81 and 1981-82, they amassed 100 points in back-to-back seasons.
Unfortunately, thanks to a few key players set to hit the free agent market this summer, things in Brooklyn could be slowing down before they ever really even had the chance to get going. The Islanders and their new ownership are going to need find a way to navigate through what’ll be a pivotal offseason in guiding the direction of the team for years to come.
On the surface, 2015-16 was kind to the Islanders. Like I mentioned in the introduction, their 100 points (45-27-10 record) was good enough for their second-consecutive season in which they eclipsed the century mark. And as a result, they matched up with the Atlantic Division winning Florida Panthers in the first round, a series that they would win in six games before being taken down in five games by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Successful? You bet. This is a franchise that hasn’t seen any kind of significant playoff action in the past two decades, so getting to the second round really is an accomplishment. That being said, though, there was something beyond the surface about the Islanders that bugged me this year. I’m not going to dig too far here to try and create some negative narrative just for the hell of doing so, but I felt as though the team’s management group stood pat in a limbo position, and as a result, failed to reach the roster’s full potential, and also failed to maximize on its full value.
They had Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, two of their top three scorers last season, signed for a combined $5.5 million with their contracts coming to an end, and rather than either going for it and capitalizing on them while they’re on the team, or, hell, selling on them and getting something before they either walk in free agency or get pretty significant pay raises, the Islanders rolled into the playoffs as a middling team and just kind of fizzled out as pretty much everybody expected they would.
I mean, seriously, either go for it or don’t. Don’t just sit in the middle. I understand that it’s a lot more complicated than that, but I really, really think last year’s group fell short of it’s potential, unfortunately.
Easily the best, and, well, most predictable part of the Islanders roster is their blue line. Their top four consists of Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Calvin de Haan, and Travis Hamonic, who, after requesting a trade last season, will apparently be sticking with New York long-term. Hamonic and de Haan each anchor a top-four pair with strong defensive play, while Leddy and Boychuk are capable of generating offence.
Their forwards, though, are a little bit more difficult to analyze. Like I said before, Okposo and Nielsen finished second and third on the team in scoring and each played a major role on the team, obviously, but there’s a decent chance that both will be gone by the beginning of next season, leaving major holes behind them on the roster to fill. John Tavares is a staple as the team’s top centre, but without Nielsen and Okposo potentially in the fold, the Islanders only have Anders Lee and Brock Nelson as top-six producers.
A key for the Islanders next season will be whether they can get anything from Ryan Strome, who had a very, very disappointing 2015-16. Last season, he only managed eight goals and 28 points and was relegated to the press box on multiple occasions, which was unfortunate, especially after it appeared as though he had broken out in 2014-15 after a 50 point campaign.
In terms of depth… Nikolai Kulemin certainly isn’t the scorer he once was, as he hasn’t come anywhere near the 30 goals he scored with the Leafs back in 2010-11, and Mikhail Grabovski, who, throughout his career has always been a solid offensive producer, is a bit of an enigma due to suffering a concussion last season. Josh Bailey, like the other two, is decent in a depth role, but hasn’t proved he can produce in a top-six role.
The general rhetoric surrounding the Islanders is that they have a damn good fourth line in Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin because they hit everything that moves, but the reality is they get eaten alive in possession, as the three of them ranked at the top of the list on the team in shot attempts against per 60 minutes. That said, they still produce at a pretty solid clip for a fourth line, even though, uh, they aren’t really actually a fourth line when you look at what they’re paid.
Remember a little earlier when I said it’s unfortunate that the Islanders floated around in purgatory rather than going for it last season? Well, a big reason for that was Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, yes, but also, John Tavares, this group’s heart and soul, only has two years left on his criminally team-friendly contract.
Anyways, short-term, the Islanders have eight forwards, five defencemen, and two goalies from last year’s roster signed into next season with just over $17 million in cap space available to flesh out the rest of their roster. Some of those holes can be filled internally, as the Islanders boast a pretty strong prospect pool. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech will likely take a step forward on the blue line, while Michael Dal Colle could break the team and play a role among the team’s top-nine forwards.
Beyond that, though, the focus really does come on Tavares, who has the potential to become a free agent for the first time in his career in the summer of 2019. Garth Snow has actually done an excellent job in working the team’s contracts around his franchise centre, as a combined $9.188 million owed to Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski will come off the books that same summer.
The Islanders’ offseason pretty much comes down to whether they’re willing to sign Okposo and Nielsen, or one of the two, or, if they don’t sign either of them, how they’re going to replace them. They have $17 million to work with, unless they shed some other salary, like the contracts of Nikolai Kulemin or Mikhail Grabovski, possibly.
Obviously Okposo would be ideal to keep around, since he’s younger, and he’s proven to be an elite offensive producer over the past few seasons. But, of course, with that in mind, he’s also going to be considerably more expensive, and it’s actually quite a bit easier to replace a scoring winger’s spot in the lineup than a two-way centre who munches defensive zone and penalty kill minutes like Nielsen does.
Okposo, if he does end up walking, could possibly be replaced by a big name like Loui Eriksson, Andrew Ladd, or Milan Lucic, but if the Islanders are willing to fork over the coin that any of those players are going to command, hell, they might as well just keep Okposo around. A more sensible plan to replace Okposo would be bringing in two or three low-key options, like David Perron, Lee Stempniak, or Jamie McGinn, all of whom are players who are capable of providing and playing up and down the lineup.
Like I said, Nielsen is much more difficult to replace immediately, as the free agent market doesn’t really feature a player with his skill set, other than, say, David Backes or Eric Staal, which, like with what I said about Okposo and major names, wouldn’t really make any sense. Then, after that, I really can’t see anybody like Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, or Sam Gagner, or any of the other more low-key names filling his role adequately.
With that in mind, I would argue that Nielsen is the player the Islanders should put more effort into signing this summer. Sure, he’s older, but they could likely get him on a higher cap hit deal with shorter term, which would also work quite well with John Tavares and his expiring deal. Nielsen, in the past four seasons, has been one of New York’s most consistent offensive producers and strongest possession players, and he’s done so while playing largely in defensive zone situations. I think his absence would be greatly missed in the Islanders’ lineup, and there really aren’t any immediate options to replace him.
With all that considered, a new contract for Nielsen, new RFA deals for Shane Prince and Ryan Strome, and the addition of some middle-of-the-pack free agent wingers should be very doable with New York’s $17 million of cap space.
So this is a pretty critical season for the New York Islanders, who, after being pretty bad for a very, very long time, have finally turned a corner. Though it’s disappointing they didn’t make a more serious run last season, that’s in the past now and there isn’t much sense in worrying about it anymore.
The focus now for this team is capitalizing on John Tavares’ cheap contract, which has two years left on it while they still can. That begins with making a smart decision on what to do with Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, which in my opinion, is letting the former go while retaining the latter, as scoring wingers are much easier to replace than two-way centres.
This should be possible for the Islanders, as they have a fair amount of cap room, most of their roster (defence and goaltending) completely sorted out, and their new ownership group will very likely be looking to spend more so than the tight-pocketed Charles Wang leadership was, such as new ownership groups generally do.