The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the New York Islanders.
Stanley Cup odds: 60-1
Key additions: Jordan Eberle, RW
Key departures: Travis Hamonic, D; Ryan Strome, RW; Mikhail Grabovski, C; Jean-Francois Berube, G
How do John Tavares and the Islanders handle the contract talk?
No matter what happens this season, Tavares and his contract status is certain to be one of the biggest storylines. That’s to be expected, of course, when a two-time Hart Trophy finalist right in the prime of his career heads towards potential unrestricted free agency. But one has to wonder how both team and player are going to manage the daily barrage of questions that are certain to come.
From Tavares’ standpoint, it’d be hard to fathom a scenario in which he fails to be anything but one of the league’s premier offensive talents. He’s a consistent 30-goal threat and he was the catalyst behind the Islanders’ mid-season turnaround last season, scoring 12 goals and 34 points in 35 games after Doug Weight took the reins behind the bench. One has to wonder if the constant Tavares talk will become daunting, draining and a distraction for the rest of the team, however. Teammates have already been asked to comment on the situation from time to time, and it’s sure to persist as the season wears on.
So far, everyone has handled the situation well, and that’s a good sign for the Islanders. That said, it’s going to be up to Weight to ensure that his team stays laser-focused and keeps the contract talk out of the dressing room as much as possible.
In acquiring right winger Jordan Eberle from Edmonton, GM Garth Snow gave franchise center John Tavares a potent weapon and a familiar linemate from when the pair won gold for Canada at the world juniors in 2009. Given how Anders Lee has developed on the left side – he’s coming off a career-best 34-goal season – the Islanders should be able to mount a decent attack. If Josh Ho-Sang sticks around full-time, New York gets another offensive wizard.
The defense is still pretty good, even with the loss of Travis Hamonic, while Jaroslav Halak enters a contract year and has plenty of motivation after last season’s three-goalie debacle that saw the veteran spend a big chunk of time in the minors. Given what Halak has done in the past – he was exceptional for Team Europe in the World Cup – you can’t count him out as he jockeys for starts with Thomas Greiss. With Weight taking over behind the bench, the Isles will get a fresh look at their young players, not to mention Tavares’ full support, as the captain and Weight get along quite well. Put it all together and the Islanders will vie for a playoff spot.
Eberle’s production took a nosedive last year, and he was pretty much a ghost for the Oilers during the playoffs. Perhaps he just needs a change of scenery, and playing with Tavares is an upgrade from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But what if Eberle has just been sheltered by mediocrity? He looked good on bad Oilers teams, then bad on a good one. If he can’t elevate his game, the Isles just took on another bad contract. The loss of Hamonic also stings, since no one on the team averaged more time on the penalty kill last season. That PK unit, by the way, was quite good. Hamonic’s replacement is probably Ryan Pulock, who will help on the power play but doesn’t have Hamonic’s years of experience.
In Halak, the Islanders have an aging goalie who already knows the team isn’t fully invested in him. Should his play slide, or if the relationship sours further, New York will have to depend heavily on Thomas Greiss. In a tough Metro Division, the Islanders finish above New Jersey, but no one else. Oh, and until Tavares signs a contract extension, he’s going to get asked about it every day of the season.
THN’s PREDICTION: 7th in Metropolitan. The Islanders were one of the league’s best teams after Weight took over, but sustaining that level of play across a full season in arguably the league’s best division isn’t going to be easy. The offense is capable, but the defense and goaltending comes with enough cause for concern that entering into the division title or playoff race seems unlikely.