The New York Islanders have their most important offseason in recent history and it all hangs on what happens with John Tavares. Tavares has one more year left on his team-friendly contract before he can hit free agency for the first time in his career. Getting him extended is paramount.
The Islanders didn’t make the playoffs, but finished 24-12-4 under head coach Doug Weight after he replaced Jack Capuano midseason. Weight is now the full-time head coach and general manager Garth Snow can focus on manoeuvring things around before the expansion draft and resolving the Tavares situation.
The Islanders need to find forwards that can compliment John Tavares. Anders Lee seems like a fit on left wing, but Josh Bailey might not be who you want flanking Tavares’ right side, even if he had a career season alongside the Islanders captain last year. If you’re serious about winning, Josh Bailey isn’t your first line right wing. They could also use another center behind Tavares, because the team’s offensive depth was noticeably poor last season. Ideally, Ryan Strome was expected to become that player, but it hasn’t been the case thus far.
The Islanders have a nice group of defensemen, but that creates a problem with expansion looming ahead. All of their top six defensemen are eligible to be taken in the expansion draft and even going the eight skaters protection route leaves one available for Las Vegas. Garth Snow could be in a prime position to move a defenceman prior to the expansion draft, allowing them to protect four forwards and four defencemen instead.
Again, everything depends on John Tavares. The Islanders need to figure out if they can extend John Tavares or trade him and recoup whatever assets possible. If Tavares doesn’t want to extend, Snow has to move him rather than let him play out his contract a la Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay. If he signs, Extending Tavares means their cap situation gets interesting. A hefty contract around the $10-million dollar range gets added to the equation in 2018-19, but Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin both see their contracts expire during that same time. Grabovski hopes for a return, but could remain on long-term injury reserve.
Tavares is their most important free agent, but they also have to be mindful of restricted free agent Calvin de Haan, who played almost 20 minutes a game on defence last season. Johnny Boychuk has no-movement clause so him and Nick Leddy will be two of New York’s protected defencemen. That means figuring out what to do with Calvin de Haan, Travis Hamonic, and Ryan Pulock, and possibly protecting four forwards and four defencemen.
Jaroslav Halak also makes $4.5 million in the last year of his contract and lost the starting position to Thomas Greiss, who was extended for three years. They should be able to make a meaningful addition at forward if they can move that final year of Halak’s contract. If not, he can be sent to the minors for a $1-million in cap savings or play backup to Thomas Greiss.
They seem a lot closer to the cap than they really are, but they’ll bury Halak in the minors or trade him, and likely lose a defensemen via trade or expansion. That’ll create enough breathing room to comfortable tinker with the roster. Maybe a team even takes Halak or Kulemin if it means getting one of their defencemen in return.
Offseason Game Plan
Sign or trade John Tavares. That’s priority number one and two and three for the New York Islanders. If they can’t sign him, they have to move on for life without Tavares, which could catastrophically change their team direction overnight. They could recoup some interesting assets in return for their star center, but it’ll become a difficult retool with few NHL centres on the roster.
Besides Tavares, getting rid of unwanted contracts and adding additional forward talent should be key for Garth Snow. They have enough defensive depth to withstand a trade or loss to expansion, so the focus should be on adding a forward that would hopefully play alongside the team’s franchise player.
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