Few teams have endured more alarming starts to 2016-17 than the Islanders, who have limped to a 4-6-0 record. Is this franchise close to a total rebuild?
It’s early. So early. Far too early to declare any team out of the playoff hunt for 2016-17. Early enough that any dramatic proclamation could have a pundit wolfing down bites of crow in a matter of days.
Still, I’ll take the plunge and say it: the New York Islanders are in massive trouble. Not just for this season, but for this era of relative competitiveness. Many things are going wrong, and they aren’t necessarily short-term problems.
THE SUMMER SUBTRACTIONS HAVE TRUMPED THE ADDITIONS
First off, GM Garth Snow’s off-season was questionable. The Isles lost several key contributors from a decent run that got them into the playoffs three times in four seasons. That included right winger and regular John Tavares running mate Kyle Okposo; versatile, play-in-all-situations center Frans Nielsen; and Matt Martin, bludgeoning left winger on hockey’s best fourth line with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. The replacements: left winger Andrew Ladd, right winger P-A Parenteau, left winger Jason Chimera and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg.
Ladd has been one of the league’s better power forwards and leaders for the past decade. He’s 30, however, with clearly declining foot speed. That didn’t stop Snow from shelling out a whopping seven-year, $38.5-million contract, loaded with signing bonuses and movement restrictions. Ladd’s contract already looks like a buyout-proof albatross. He’s opened his Islanders career with no goals and one assist in 10 games. Gulp. He’s currently a $5.5-million third-liner.
Parenteau? Waived and now a New Jersey Devil. Chimera was at least a short-term investment, but he’s 37, and he’s been almost as bad as Ladd early on, with no goals and three assists. The Isles’ subtractions easily trump their additions. Nielsen and Okposo both ranked among the team’s top five in 5-on-5 Corsi relative last season. It’s no wonder, then, the Isles have tumbled from 18th in the NHL in 5-on-5 team Corsi percentage to 28th. They’re getting owned in the shot attempt game. They’ve started the year 4-6-0, and they’ve played just three road games.
THE YOUTH MOVEMENT HAS STALLED
The Isles’ personnel losses could’ve been stomachable, of course, if their prospects were ready to contribute or given proper chances. Top blue-chipper Matt Barzal has slick hands and a great ceiling but has played just two games so far, frequently scratched, sometimes when healthy and other times because of illness. He can still get seven more games in before the Isles must decide whether to return him to major junior, but it sure looks likely right now. Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang couldn’t crack the opening-night roster and ended up at AHL Bridgeport. Top ‘D’ prospect Ryan Pulock, blessed with a booming slapshot, is out more than a month with a lower-body injury.
It’s still possible Pulock, Ho-Sang, Dal Colle and Barzal make contributions this season, and each has many years left to realize his potential. The young forwards have to find a spot on a pretty clogged depth chart, however. Other Isles forwards once deemed to have sky-high ceilings, like Ryan Strome and Anders Lee, have regressed since their breakout 2014-15 campaigns. Lee and Strome have combined for three goals at the 10-game mark of 2016-17. Only Brock Nelson has continued to ascend among that group. Suddenly, what looked like a stacked forward corps has questionable upside.
THE THREE-GOALIE SYSTEM DOES NOT WORK
Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have combined for a .902 save percentage, each starting half the Islanders’ games. It’s tough enough for goalies to find rhythm and confidence in a 1A/1B setup, but that’s not even what we have in Brooklyn. Jean-Francois Berube remains up with the team instead of getting starter’s reps in the AHL. He hasn’t appeared in a single game this season. Worse yet, whichever goalie doesn’t play between Halak and Greiss has to share a net with Berube for practices and game-day skates. It’s no wonder we haven’t seen any Isles goaltender emerge as the bellcow this year. The wonky setup inspired Allan Walsh, agent for Halak and Berube, to voice frustration about the arrangement over Twitter.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman then reported the Isles are playing it safe with the three-goalie arrangement, protecting against injuries and not wanting to lose Berube to waivers. But doesn’t having two solid NHL-caliber goaltenders constitute depth? There’s a trade market for goaltending help right now, albeit some teams would have to get creative with their salary cap management. We know coach Kings Darryl Sutter publicly slammed Peter Budaj’s performance after Tuesday’s loss 4-0 loss to Anaheim. That’s what happens when a team relies on its third-stringer to play the No. 1 role. Could the Kings figure out a deal for an Isles goaltender? It may depend on how serious Jonathan Quick’s injury is. His timetable has him returning around January, but let’s remember (a) the injury was to his groin; (b) he relies on flexibility and athleticism more than any other goalie in the sport to be effective; and (c) he opted for a non-surgical solution, which could get him back sooner but also could delay his recovery much more if it doesn’t work and he requires surgery after all. Long story short: the Kings could be a fit if Quick stays on long-term IR
Another potential fit is the Carolina Hurricanes, who have gotten terrible netminding so far from Cam Ward and Eddie Lack. The Ottawa Senators might have been a fit before they acquired Mike Condon Wednesday. Don’t count on Dallas, whose GM Jim Nill told me in the summer he intends to give his $10.4-million tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi every opportunity for redemption this year. A Dallas goalie trade would likely come later in the season and involve a bigger name like Ben Bishop.
Still, we know at least a handful of teams have interest in Halak or perhaps another Islanders goaltender. Why wouldn’t Snow make a move? What good is three-goalie insurance if it’s messing with said goalies’ games? A team executive told me all three Isles goaltenders entered 2016-17 knowing the current arrangement wouldn’t work but assured by Snow he’d deal one of them. None of them actually wanted to leave Brooklyn, the source indicated, but they knew one of them had to go for the sake of all their careers. The alleged promise has not been met so far by Snow, to the detriment of the team.
THE JOHN TAVARES CONTRACT LOOMS
Steven Stamkos’ pending unrestricted free agency dominated hockey news in 2015-16. He was the most important UFA in the sport’s history given he would enter 2016-17 just 26. After hype galore, ‘Stammer’ returned to Tampa. The reasons: where do we start? The Lightning are among the NHL’s deepest teams, and their high-impact players are young, which suggests they’ll contend for the Stanley Cup for many years to come. They have Steve Yzerman, off to a masterful start as a shrewd NHL GM. They have tax breaks in Florida. Given all the problems with the Isles franchise outlined above, what awaits Tavares in the future? He’ll have a good shot at a deal paying him north of $10 million annually no matter where he goes. Suitors will trip over each other to woo him. Will Tavares want to re-sign with an Islander team saddled with some bad veteran contracts, a team whose young kids are developing slower than expected and whose goaltending situation is a mess right now? Not to mention the awkward commute as a result of the move to Brooklyn? It’s no slam-dunk. And losing Tavares would remove that crucial piece of the Jenga tower. Everything Snow built would implode, prompting a brand new rebuild.
Fear mongering? Maybe. Too late to fix things in Brooklyn? Hardly. But the Isles’ future looks far grimmer than it did a year ago.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin