NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: New York Islanders

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Scott Cullen
5/5/2014 10:47:53 PM
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The New York Islanders snapped a five-year playoff drought in 2012-2013, which raised franchise expectations, leading to disappointment last season when the Islanders fell out of playoff contention.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at an Islanders team that has accumulated some young talent, yet has a difficult decision to make.

When the rest of the Metropolitan Division got off to a mediocre start, the Islanders sensed opportunity and made a trade to acquire Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres. It was an aggressive move, but potentially costly because, not only was Vanek moved again when the Islanders were out of contention, but the Islanders also owe the Sabres a first-round pick in either 2014 or 2015. Considering the potential franchise players (Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid) at the top of the 2015 Draft, there could be temptation to keep that pick, surrendering the fifth overall pick in this year's draft.

The natural leap there, however, is that the Islanders organization would be making a choice with the expectation that next season's pick would have more value than this year's pick and the fifth overall pick seems pretty valuable. If we listen to what Garth Snow told season-ticket holders, the expectation is that the Isles will make the pick this year.

Another consideration for the franchise is that there have been talks to sell the club and a change in ownership can always be a factor in a team's front office decisions. In most cases, that tends to lead to more aggressive decisions, as new owners want to put their stamp on the team, but that may take some time before it's going to a) happen at all and b) make a difference in the team's management.

Aside from those factors, there should be some urgency for the Islanders to take advantage of John Tavares' best years. Tavares will be 24-years-old by the time next season begins and it's high time that the Islanders provided him with the supporting cast necessary to be a playoff team.

That doesn't mean a total face-lift, but it means upgrading their goaltending (a recent trade for Jaroslav Halak's rights is a step in that direction), finding Tavares a new left winger and, if they're really feeling ambitious, perhaps bringing in a veteran defenceman to handle top-four minutes.

In past years there has been more of a defeatist sense with the Islanders, who have made the playoffs once since 2007, but it's not quite that way this year. There is talent, both on the roster and on the way, and some optimism with the franchise's upcoming move to Brooklyn.

For that optimism to hold, however, the Islanders could use a productive summer of roster improvement.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Garth Snow/Jack Capuano

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
John Tavares 79.81 59 24 42 66 49.7% $5.5M
Kyle Okposo 77.58 71 27 42 69 50.0% $2.8M
Frans Nielsen 73.13 80 25 33 58 50.7% $2.75M
Ryan Strome 67.03 37 7 11 18 52.0% $863K
Michael Grabner 66.65 64 12 14 26 50.8% $3.0M
Josh Bailey 65.88 77 8 30 38 52.4% $3.3M
Brock Nelson 64.96 72 14 12 26 53.2% $900K
Cal Clutterbuck 63.47 73 12 7 19 48.8% $2.75M
Colin McDonald 61.18 70 8 10 18 47.2% $638K
Matt Martin 59.65 79 8 6 14 44.9% $1.0M
Eric Boulton 56.82 23 2 2 4 36.8% $650K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Casey Cizikas 58.74 80 6 10 16 43.9% RFA $793K

John Tavares is one of the game's premier offensive players, ranking fourth in points per game (1.03) over the past three seasons. He suffered a knee injury at the Olympics, ending his year early, and his point production was driven more by high-percentage shooting than in years' past, but he's hitting his prime years, so the Isles need to find him a left winger and figure out how to surround him with a supporting cast that can make the most of his talents.

When the Islanders opened the 2013-2014 season, Kyle Okposo was coming off a season in which he scored four goals in 48 games and was facing competition from free agent addition Pierre-Marc Bouchard to fill the departed Brad Boyes' spot at right wing on the top line. Fast forward to the end of the season and Okposo finished as the Isles' leading scorer, even putting up 10 points in 12 games without Tavares before suffering his own lower-body injury. After handling a first-line scorer's role and putting up his career-best season, expectations will be much higher for Okposo next year.

One of the reasons that the Islanders are free to turn Tavares loose offensively is that Frans Nielsen plays such a reliable two-way game. Nielsen scored a career-high 58 points last season and put up positive possession numbers despite facing the toughest assignments and starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone. Was underrated and underpaid for years, now seems to be known and acknowledged enough to merely be underpaid.

Highly-touted prospect Ryan Strome split his first pro season between the AHL (where he had 13 goals and 49 points in 37 games for Bridgeport) and the NHL, where his point production was mediocre, but his possession stats were excellent -- a sign of potentially good things to come. Strome's emergence as an offensive threat will help ease the pressure on Tavares and give the Islanders the scoring depth they need to be a legit playoff team.

Few, if any, can get around the ice as quickly as Michael Grabner, who seems to create breakaways with ease, yet he didn't finish at a particularly high rate last season and he's never been much of a playmaker, so he hasn't been able to duplicate his 32-goal, 52-point rookie season of 2010-2011. It would be great if Grabner was a 30-goal scorer, but a consistent 20-plus would be okay too.

It hasn't been the smoothest path for Josh Bailey, since being drafted ninth overall in 2008, yet there are three forwards from that draft (Steven Stamkos, Jordna Eberle, Derek Stepan) to record more than his 177 points since. He managed just eight goals last season, yet still hit for a career-best 38 points. It still seems as though there is room for him to have more favourable percentages that will lead to an offensive breakthrough, but only if he can consistently generate shots like he did during the 2012-2013 lockout season.

22-year-old Brock Nelson didn't get a lot of publicity, but had a strong rookie campaign nevertheless, delivering excellent relative possession numbers, and earning more ice time as the season progressed. As he matures, Nelson could be a fine complementary scorer and two-way forward; it's a matter of finding the right spot for him.

It's going to be difficult for Cal Clutterbuck to live up to his end of the Nino Niederreiter trade, but that's not Clutterbuck's fault. He's not a high-end skill player, but hits a lot, scores a little (a dozen or more goals in four of the past five seasons) and can be a useful bottom-six winger.

Colin McDonald didn't stick in the NHL as a regular until he was 28-years-old, but he's held a regular spot in the lineup for the past couple seasons. McDonald is an inexpensive fourth-line option, but doesn't warrant a bigger role if the Islanders are going to be a playoff team.

A tough guy who has scrapped 45 times over the past four seasons, Matt Martin has struggled to put up decent possession numbers, which makes it tough to justify his ice time, but it's remained a constant, in the 11-12 minute range per game in four-plus NHL seasons. Martin has accrued a league-best 1266 hits over the past four seasons, leading the league in each of the past three.

Veteran enforcer Eric Boulton is way overmatchedat the non-pugilistic part of the game, which does justify how little he plays for the Islanders, dressing for 38 of 127 games over the past two seasons. With Martin and Clutterbuck already providing a physical element, there doesn't seem to be as much need for Boulton's presence.

Casey Cizikas is a 23-year-old centre with good speed, and a physical game, but he's also struggled in possession terms. It may be a function of his linemates (most frequently, Martin and McDonald), but if Cizikas is going to rise up the depth chart at some point, then he'll need to improve that aspect of the game.

A lot of the improvement up front for the Islanders can come from young players like Strome, Bailey, Nelson and prospect Anders Lee, who showed well late in the season, but there is also an opening on Tavares' left wing that needs to be filled, a spot that has been held by Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson in recent years. Free agents Mike Cammalleri, Jussi Jokinen or Marian Gaborik might be a worthy addition and allow the complementary young forwards to develop at a more reasonable pace.

However, if a veteran isn't signed up front, some combination of Bailey, Nelson and Anders Lee could be adequate down the left side.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Lubomir Visnovsky 69.22 24 3 8 11 54.1% $4.75M
Travis Hamonic 65.19 69 3 15 18 50.2% $3.857M
Thomas Hickey 64.09 82 4 18 22 50.6% $675K
Brian Strait 60.70 47 3 6 9 44.3% $775K
Matt Carkner 56.58 53 0 3 3 49.5% $1.5M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Calvin de Haan 67.19 51 3 13 16 52.2% RFA $870K
Matt Donovan 65.59 52 2 14 16 53.8% RFA $875K
Radek Martinek 60.30 13 0 3 3 52.1% UFA $600K

A 37-year-old defenceman who missed 58 games due to concussions last season, Lubomir Visnovsky may nonetheless be an important part of the Islanders' blueline next season, if he's healthy. He's always been a really good puck-moving defenceman who turns in sensational relative possession numbers.

He hasn't gained much ground offensively, since scoring 26 points in 62 games as a rookie, but Travis Hamonic is a beast on the blueline, facing tough assignments and logging more than 25 minutes per game last season. He's the cornerstone of this group and at a bargain price.

A funny thing happened on the way to Thomas Hickey being a massive bust, taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2007 Draft. Since landing with the Islanders, Hickey has been a positive possession player and handled more ice time late in the year, once Andrew MacDonald was traded. He doesn't have ideal size, and his point production is modest (26 points in 121 career games), but Hickey now has a foundation on which he can build his NHL career.

The Islanders took a similar waiver-wire approach with Brian Strait as they did with Hickey, hoping that another team's cast-off would work out. Strait hasn't fared quite as well thus far, but is reasonably priced to fill a role as a seventh defenceman.

Matt Carkner is a bruiser, though one that isn't trusted to handle a regular turn on the blueline and, when he does, it tends to be against lesser competition. So long as the Islanders want someone to tangle with heavyweights, Carkner is more than capable in that regard. Having both Carkner and Boulton seems like two big bodies for one need.

After injuries slowed his progress, Calvin de Haan quickly worked his way into the Islanders' lineup last season and was not only effective, but he had solid possession numbers while paired most frequently with Hamonic, which meant more difficult matchups. A smart blueliner who can move the puck, de Haan ought to play a big role next season after playing a big role down the stretch.

Matt Donovan has been very productive in the AHL, putting up 119 points in 160 games, and had strong possession numbers for the Islanders in 52 games last season; strong enough that he deserves a regular turn on the blueline.excellent possession numbers. If he can improve his skating, he could be a real threat as soon as next season.

While the Islanders could certainly use another veteran hand (Tom Gilbert? Mark Fayne?) to stabilize their defence, it's also feasible that they could add a top prospect, like Griffin Reinhart, to the mix and depend on the development of young players, and possibly a healthier season for Visnovsky, to get improved results.

Free Agent Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Jaroslav Halak 67.85 52 29 13 7 2.25 .921 UFA $3.75M
Evgeni Nabokov 63.76 40 15 14 8 2.74 .905 UFA $3.25M
Kevin Poulin 56.33 28 11 16 1 3.29 .891 RFA $577K

The Islanders have already made a move to address their goaltending, dealing a fourth-round pick to the Washington Capitals for pending free agent Jaroslav Halak. Should the Islanders get Halak signed to a new contract, he will represent a notable upgrade over Evgeni Nabokov. Over the past three seasons, Halak has a .921 save percentage, compared to .910 for Nabokov. If Halak faced, say, 1500 shots, that would (with those percentages holding steady) result in a 16.5-goal difference.

There's also no guarantee that the Islanders will get Halak signed, so they could be forced to look into other options (Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller, James Reimer), but Halak was clearly their preferred option.

Part of the reason that the Islanders need more stability in goal is that their pair of 24-year-old prospects -- Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin -- haven't been up to the task. In 72 career games, they've combined for an .899 save percentage, which isn't nearly good enough. It's also a small enough sample that there is room for at least one of them to develop into a bona fide NHL goaltender.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Griffin Reinhart D Edmonton (WHL) 4-17-21, +20, 45 GP
Ryan Pulock D Brandon (WHL) 23-40-63, -4, 66 GP
Anders Lee LW Bridgeport (AHL) 22-19-41, +1, 54 GP
Ville Pokka D Karpat (SML) 6-21-27, +32, 54 GP
Sebastian Collberg RW Frolunda (SEL) 3-6-9, -2, 40 GP
Scott Mayfield D Bridgeport (AHL) 3-15-18, even, 71 GP
Adam Pelech D Erie (OHL) 9-45-54, +52, 60 GP
Johan Sundstrom C Bridgeport (AHL) 8-10-18, -10, 40 GP
Anders Nilsson G Bridgeport (AHL) 2.81 GAA, .901 SV%, 29 GP
Mike Halmo LW Bridgeport (AHL) 18-20-38, +11, 56 GP

The fourth overall pick in 2012, Griffin Reinhart is a big defenceman who can skate and make smart decisions. He hasn't been as consistently aggressive as might be expected for a blueliner with his size, but it's pretty fair to consider that Reinhart will have a chance to earn a spot on the Isles' blueline next season.

Drafted 15th overall last summer, Ryan Pulock has a rocket shot from the blueline and put up 210 points in four WHL seasons. He's the power play quarterback of the future and that ability gives him a higher ceiling than some of the others in the organization.

Power forward Anders Lee impressed in a late-season audition with the Islanders, scoring nine goals and 14 points in 22 games, while putting up

A second-round pick in 2012, Ville Pokka had a big year in his third season in the SM-Liiga in Finland (to say nothing of winning gold in the World Junior Hockey Championship), and the Isles still need to get him signed before June 1st. Given his play, the leverage likely rests with Pokka, as he looks like a quality blueline prospect.

Drafted in the second round in 2012, Sebastian Collberg was the main piece that the Islanders received from Montreal in the Thomas Vanek trade. He has skills, but is on the small side and, as one might expect, has had more success in junior than in the Swedish Elite League to this point.

Big and nasty blueliner Scott Mayfield had a decent first year as a pro, earning a five-game trial with the Islanders late in the year. He can use more seasoning, but his physical game is something that ought to endear him to the Islanders.

Adam Pelech was a third-round pick in 2012 and he's a steady, smart defender. With some time in the AHL, he could develop in a shutdown role.

Taken in the second round in 2011, Johan Sundstrom had 50 points in 99 AHL games since arriving from Sweden. He has good size and held his own in a checking role for 11 games with the Isles late in the year.

6-foot-5 goaltender Anders Nilsson counts as a prospect since he's played more AHL than NHL games, but he and Kevin Poulin are both battling for the backup job and, to this point, neither one has been able to grab it firmly.

A scrappy winger who was signed as an undrafted free agent, Mike Halmo has made solid progress in his first two pro seasons and got into 20 games for the Islanders last season. He managed one point, but had solid possession stats.

The Islanders have taken some home-run swings in the draft, with selections of skilled Russians Kirill Kabanov and Kirill Petrov, though it's entirely possible that neither is going to ultimately end up playing for the Islanders.

Islanders advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
5th (could be relinquished to Buffalo) - Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl, Michael Dal Colle

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Islanders have approximately $37.0M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 15 players.

Check out my possible Islanders lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: First-line winger, top-four defenceman, goaltenders.

What I said the Islanders needed last year: Three top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman, starting goaltender.

They added: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Brock Nelson, Peter Regin, Matt Donovan.

TRADE MARKET
Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, Cal Clutterbuck, Lubomir Visnovsky, Brian Strait.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

John Tavares (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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