Backchecking: Isles Face Pressures Moving Into Offseason and Beyond

If you didn’t think Garth Snow was feeling the pressure of last year’s step backward, and this being the final year at  Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum think again. While lots of Islander fans and pundits show there ire toward the embattled General Manager of the Islanders; assuming he is just in-ept and without a plan, there are some who feel he is trying to stay the course on a rebuild even if it is arguably getting long in the tooth.

I can hear the words echo in my mind of the Billy Joel hit… “You have to learn to pace yourself… Pressure. You’re just like everybody else… Pressure.”

Between the Canadian media’s mockery of the Islanders and in effect Long Island, the Islander fans mounting frustrations, and what is being seen as legitimate pressure from ownership for the Islander to not only make the playoffs, but to contend, the job of General Manager of the New York Islanders can’t be too easy. Yet through the writing of this, my opine, Garth Snow has held it all at arms length — and I believe the Islanders will benefit from it. (A hat tip to our GM for his on air remarks about being s_it on. The media and hockey pundits deserved it!!)

The Pain That Was
Attending the pre-season game at Barclay’s last fall, a summer of inaction showed itself. The best players on the Islanders that night — by a long way — were Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pullock. Not the best sign when playing your first game — albeit an exhibition — to a sellout crowd in your future home. That game was as much about preparing for the season as it was about putting meat in the seats from 2015-16 and beyond.

The pain of that game dogged the Islanders all season. Garth Snow can be blamed for it in a big way. He did not address the key holes on the roster and made an error in judgment on players like Nabokov and Donovan in particular. Once Nabokov was lost to injury for long stretches, it put the Islanders in jeopardy, and when in goal, Nabokov did not appear sharp. In the case of Donovan, it simply took him time to grow accustomed to the speed and scope of the NHL game. Counting on the young man to fill the shoes of Mark Streit became too much — and even more so when Lubomir Visnovsky suffered a concussion and lost most of the season.

The Moulson for Vanek deal did not address the key issues the Islanders faced on the blueline and in goal and couldn’t save the team’s season. It was a big gamble that in the end failed. As the GM said in his interview recently, he feels the Islanders really didn’t lose anything in the deal. I can see his point of view. But when considering the return for Vanek when the Islanders flipped him at the deadline, it shows poor asset management. Sebastian Collberg and Joshua Ho-Sang are in essence the return for Vanek. One of the two will need to hit pretty big for it become a legitimate trade. Even more pressure!!

The Pressure That Is
As the 2013-14 season came to an end, the only solace Islander fans could embrace was that it was over, and the sight of pain on the faces of the New York Rangers was pleasurable.

Before the Stanley Cup was awarded, Garth Snow was on a clear mission. He was not going to let the typical excuses create a repeat of this season. He was going to address the problems he saw on his roster.

None of us are in the room, but the guess is that Snow is facing a difficult situation. He has to send his team to its new home with some promise — and some wins! This is both an issue with current fans as well as the fans the franchise will be in need of attracting. Many faithful Islander fans are simply not going to be in a position to purchase season tickets and make the journey into Brooklyn. They would have to leave a Long Island based job no later than 4pm, get home, clean up, hop on the train no later than 5:30 in many cases just to make a 7pm start time. Not sure how many employers will go for that. A team that is winning a little will help sell the season ticket packages in Brooklyn needed to build a larger fanbase and replace the lost sales from Long Island.

The pressure to have success this season is powerful.

The Hope That Will Be
With his mandate from fans and owner alike, Snow went out early and traded for one of the top 3 goalies available in Jaroslav Halak. He wasted little time getting the free agent to be under contract for 4 years — a coup for the maligned Islanders. Here was a premier goalie not waiting to see if there were “greener pastures” elsewhere. Snow gambled in similar fashion hoping to get Dan Boyle to follow Halak to Long Island. This time it did not work out so well. Boyle chose to take less money and go to the hated Rangers.

The Islanders were not finished. By the time July 1 came to an end, the Islanders had filled out their roster with a lot of depth. They added Chad Johnson to backup Halak. A very smart, shrewd signing for the Islanders — giving them a top notch tandem in goal. Adding Cory Conacher and Jack Skille to the forward corps brought in experience to bolster the young core. While TJ Brennan was not the stud blueliner Islander fans were hoping for, he brings some promise if given a chance to come to camp with a roster spot of two available.

Most felt Snow was done with free agency. The Isles had been spurned by Boyle and players like Iginla, Richards and Vanek to lesser deals to play elsewhere.

Snow surprised many when he added stable and capable secondary scoring in the 4-year additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Both players were teamed together and good friends in Toronto — where they had their best seasons playing together. The Islanders undoubtedly are hoping to tap into that friendship and accomplish a few things…

The signings take pressure off of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Last season, and in past years, opponents simply had to shut the Tavares line down, and they had a better then average chance of winning the game. With legitimate secondary scoring available to the Islanders, they can now have a more balanced attack.

These additions also allow the team to bring players like Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee along with proper pace and not have them depended on quite the same way. These young players are capable and hungry and can produce at the NHL level, however, having a little bit of a buffer will allow them to learn as they develop without the pressure that they MUST score nightly.

The Glaring Hole That Can’t Be Overlooked
Thomas Hickey is a surprising name to see high on the list of returning Islander defenders, but the numbers don’t lie. Playing in all 82 games, posting 22pts and a +5 is quite good for a weak defensive team. In 121 NHL games (all with the Isles), Hickey has 26 points and is a +14. Impressive for the 25 year old. He has created a niche for himself on Long Island, and is proving to be a shrewd waiver pickup for Garth Snow.

Travis Hamonic is coming off of a reasonably good season. Being a +2 on a poor defensive team says a lot. However Hamonic’s offensive numbers fell off a little — though as a defensive unit, the Islanders produced little all season. Hamonic was one of the healthier Islander defenders last season with 69 games played.

Lubomir’s Visnovski was counted on to be the veteran power play presence on the Islander blueline and injury cut his season short with only 24 games played. With 11 points the Islanders hope Visnovsky can come back and produce at age 38.

Brian Strait missed time with injury last season. Be it injury or something else, Strait’s game seemed to slip last year, posting a -14. Can he rebound with a healthy more positive season?

Matt Carker got into 53 games this season, and struggled to keep pace with faster skaters. He posted a -10 with 149 penalty minutes.

Young Calvin de Haan came in as an emergency callup last season with Donovan and Aaron Ness struggling. With injuries plaguing much of de Haan’s development it was nice to see that he could withstand the NHL game getting into 51 games, and posting 16 points. At times we saw de Haan’s ability to move the puck, but we also saw some rookie turn-overs that gave de Haan a -7 on the season.

Matt Donovan started out struggling mightly in his NHL career, but as the season progressed and he moved back and forth from Bridgeport to Long Island, the 24-year-old managed a reasonable 14 points from the blueline in 52 games. His is of concern and Donovan will have to work hard to prove he can be on the Islanders opening night roster.

Kevin Czuczman was signed as a college UFA late in the season to offer the Islanders some depth on the blueline considering the teams struggles. Playing in 13 games, Czuczman posted a-5 and while looking OK at times, its clear he will need a little time to possibly develop. At just 23, time is still on his side.

TJ Brennan is a solid signing for the Islanders. Many fans saw it as a throw-away move, but the potential to crack the Islander lineup on a thin blueline is real. Even though production in the AHL is no guarantee, there is the promise that he can produce based on his AHL numbers.

Griffin Reinhart is a young promising top pair defender. He can certainly be on the Islanders opening night roster. He brings size, positioning, smarts and can be part of a top pair that can shut down opponents in time. But he is also young and in experienced and will need to learn.

Rynan Pullock, Ville Pokka, Scott Mayfield — all bring lots of hope and promise. But like Reinhart, and like the young forwards — should they be counted on to fill that glaring hole on the blue line just yet? The Islanders have experienced what throwing young kids into the fire is all about. (see Bailey, Josh, Neiderreiter, Nino) I find the signings of Grabovski and Kulemin as proof that Snow has learned this lesson.

While one of these fine young defenders may be on the opening night roster, I find it more likely that the Islanders will be making a trade prior to the start of training camp to address the obvious hole. Visnovsky is one hit away from the end of his career. Hamonic is steady but overused and over worked, Hickey is solid but won’t be able to carry much offense or be the big body to clear away stronger opposition. Calvin de Haan showed he is capable but still has to prove he can improve on last seasons introduction. Brian Strait continues to struggle with injury and will need to establish if he can stick and be effective.

At this time, the door is wide open in training camp on the blueline. As many as 3 spots could be had for someone who has worked hard in the offseason and can bring his game to the next level.

The Islanders have more depth on offense and in goal then they have had since the Snow rebuild began in 2008. There are 16 forwards on the roster and  that does not include Jack Skille (he has a 2-way deal) In theory, the Islanders have the flexibility to send some players down without having to worry about waivers. Strome comes to mind. However it does appear that Strome has proven that he is NHL ready. Despite needing to add more strength, Strome posted 18 points in just 37 games.

Someone will have to be traded from the forward unit. It could be any number of players — and it even could be one of the younger kids if the return is right. Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson appear to be the kind of home grown talent Garth Snow envisioned when drafting them. After years of development and patience, it would seem odd and uncharacteristic of this GM to trade either. (I don’t believe Snow wanted to trade him but Nino ASKED to be traded). If these 3 youngsters are penciled in on the Islanders roster, it puts several players on notice. So if not one of these youngsters, who?

Josh Bailey is a home grown Snow pick, and despite his struggles, of all of the Snow picks, Bailey may be the one to deal — but the return would have to be powerful enough for Snow to say yes and it could be part of a package as I don’t believe a struggling Bailey coming off of a season of dreadful stretches of production plus the contract gets the Islanders what they need in return. Bailey may have had his best point total at 38 points this past season, but his dreadful dry spell will be a detriment to any deal.

Michael Grabner is a waiver pickup and has value with his skating and penalty killing ability. He could be part of a package though he has shown that he can be streaky as well. Alone he has more value then Bailey — and at this time, more value (in my opinion) to the Islanders. Unlike Bailey, Grabner has a clear roll.

Frans Nielsen is one of the better defensive centers in the game and with the depth the Islanders have could be dangled and would garner the most interest around the league — especially coming off of a career year. It is simply my opinion but if Neilsen is involved in any deal, the return MUST address the defensive hole in a fairly big way. I would not want to see Neilsen moved unless it brings in a 20 something proven defender with a minimum 4 year term on his contract.

Colin McDonald plays a reasonable 4th line game and could be part of a package but wouldn’t yield much on his own. Matt Martin is a solid roll player and could garner attention in a trade as could Casey Cizikas. Eric Boulton wont offer teams too much and could face waivers. New addition Cory Conacher just signed and it seems unlikely he would be traded or waived.

A very difficult decision faces the GM. It appears that short of trading Grabner or Neilsen, Snow will need to part with a player he drafted. (Perhaps that is why many fans believe it could be Grabner on the move). I believe that Snow will be cautious and deliberate with any trade. He won’t just give away the player — whomever it will be. I also believe that any deal will come in late August or early September as the Islanders have a chance to evaluate offers as well as players they have under contract.

It should be an interesting summer!

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Filed Under: New York Islanders


About the Author: A graphic designer who loves the game....and knows that age has slowed him down — but the passion is there. Islanders fan since the 70s, Dad, Husband and Coach of the Flying Tiger's Email: Twitter:

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  1. Chris Martin says:

    I say this with all due respect…..You are as delusional as that other cult member, BD Gallof. First, Snow does not have a plan. If he is incapable of assessing talent, i.e., incapable of getting more of a return for Nino or Vanek, then he is incapable of putting together a 3-5 year plan for rebuilding. The fact that you continually give him a pass and simultaneously revel in the rangers’ cup loss is part of the problem. Did you know there are teams that have rebuilt, become contenders and rebuilt again in the time snow has been GM?
    As an aside, in the past 6 years, the Rangers have made the playoffs 5 times. In that time they have made the 2nd round twice, 1 third rd appearance, 1 conference appearance, and 1 cup appearance. What Islander fan would not trade that for our current crop of underachievers and rebuild potential. Say what you will about Sather, and that whole MSG cabal, they want to win, and the rags have created an atmosphere that attracts free agents.
    What has Snow created?
    Fill in your Answer here…………………………………
    Ill answer for you. Nothing! Empty promises and sleight of hand cap circumvention.
    So, Halak was signed and he is a good goalie….when playing behind a disciplined defensive team. Do we have that? No. We have 250 goals against. And a head coach who claims to have been an NHL caliber defenseman. To add to this misery, studs like pulock and reinhardt will probably not even play this year so the likes of strait and carkner and that fossil martinek can play. Why? because they are cheaper options and to play the two studs would burn a year off their entry level contracts.
    Snow talks of all the talent he has drafted and banished them to their minor league affiliates to save $$.
    And why bring in 5’8′ conacher and trash heap skille ? Wasn’t Bouchard, regin, aucoin reasoner and rolston enough of this type? With the $$ he spent on Skille, conacher and brennan he could have landed a big bruising forward to protect their franchise forward, JT. Remember him? The guy who gets plastered and thrown to the ice and has no one to protect him. Toewes has bickel and JT gets rewarded with a guy who has trouble accessing the adult rides at an amusement park.
    I don’t have time to decipher your entire manifesto, but just a couple of points.
    Frans is not a good defensive forward. His plus minus attests to that, and there was a game that he was a minus 4 in about 15 minutes of ice time. His strengths are on the power play and moving the puck through the neutral zone.
    You say C Mac played reasonable 4th line game. What the hell does that mean? If you truly believe this, then you should stick to being a cheerleader and stop the analysis. There is no way, by any reasonable measure of an athlete, that he played “reasonably well”. First, he was a minus 22. That means he pulled the puck out of his own net 22 more times than he celebrated a goal. Does that mean anything to you? A MINUS 22! and that was on a line with resident tough guy and underachiever Matt Martin. The guy who spends his off season on the red carpet at an awards show.
    Speaking of, Martin scored 43 goals in his last year of juniors with the Sarnia Sting. Another example of what exposure to Cappy can do.
    Bailey, he scored the game winner in a game at Pitt in October, and didnt score again until March. Enough said.
    Grabner, is misused by cappy. He is in the top 10 as far speed, but the guy can’t finish. However, a guy that fast opens up ice for others. Does Cappy exploit this? Does he fashion an offense to put that potential into action? Im surprised a guy like you whose resume includes “coach” would not recognize that.
    Nino, once again you write an article and yet avoid the perils of over preparation. Nino was given an incentive laced contract (counting against the cap) and was put on a line with Martin and reasoner. Then fans like you and cappy wonder why he isn’t scoring. And to rub salt in the wound, he was ordered to go to mini camp for prospects, a whole three years AFTER he was drafted.
    You say Snow won’t “give away a player”??? See Moulson, Vanek, Nino.
    As far as what he says publicly, I submit to you, you don’t really listen. If you did, you would see right through his facade, the way a parent sees through the BS of a child.
    Overall your article is full of blustering, contradictions and out right falsehoods. The bigger problem is fans like you, with you limited knowledge of the game, combined with your tremendous level of ignorance of snake oil salesman like Snow, continually give him a pass. And there are more of you than us…..Sad.