For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.
Today’s team: New York Islanders. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.
NHL’s 30 in 30: New York Islanders
Finishing 10th overall, the New York Islanders posted a record of 47-28-7 to end up with 101 points, placing them in third place in the Metropolitan division and just three points ahead of the wild card Pittsburgh Penguins. Their home record (25-14-2) accumulated for 52 points. Their away record (22-14-5) was just enough to earn them the points needed to make the dance. The changes made in the off-season at all three positions paid off in the end and the Islanders evolved from a bottom-feeding team to a playoff contender, seemingly overnight.
The 2014-15 Regular Season
When we say overnight, it truly was an off-season reconstruction that turned the Islanders around. Along with the youth movement arriving and making a statement in some key roles, the Islanders became a whole new team with two signings, two trades and a goaltender looking to turn things around (and he did). From a bottom-five team the season before, the Islanders – led by Head Coach Jack Capuano – finished 5th in the Eastern Conference, 3rd in their division and a top-10 spot in the league. General Manager Garth Snow may have been snubbed from a finalist spot and chance at the GM of the Year award, but not too many did what he did and turned a team around in a complete 180. While it wasn’t meant to be in the post-season, getting eliminated in the first round by the Washington Capitals, they had a season to remember.
Leading the charge offensively was John Tavares, who led the team in goals, assists and points and was the only Islanders to hit the 30-goal plateau. His 86-point performance put him second in the NHL, just one point behind the scoring leader Jamie Benn. Ryan Strome hit the 50-point mark in his first full season in the NHL and never looked out of place. He’ll be an key piece to the Islanders future offensively, so it’s important he keeps himself consistent, as the second half of his year wasn’t as fulfilling as the first half.
Josh Bailey continued to face skepticism regarding his role on the team, posting 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in 70 games, but also played with Tavares at times. He’s a good two-way player but perhaps he’s not top-line material like the coach hopes for. Kyle Okposo is one of the premiere players for the Isles but last season he suffered a detached retina, forcing him to miss 22 games. He’s an effective top-line winger with chemistry alongside Tavares, and is also heading into the final year of his contract. His 51 points in 60 games was good enough for second on the team in scoring, which is amazing considering he played almost 20 games less than the other four Islanders players that made up the top-five.
In the off-season, Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski were both added on contracts similar to one another, with Grabovski making slightly more, and both being four-year deals. Always a good possession player, Grabovski added an element of attack to the team, creating more depth and allowing Tavares’ line to get more offensive-zone starts. Unfortunately, his season was cut a little short due to concussion problems. Kulemin provided great two-way play and while his production was limited, Snow should expect more from him when he’s playing full-time with Grabovski, without injuries. The two had their best seasons in Toronto, playing on the same line together. Then there’s Frans Nielsen, an excellent two-way center that got relative defensive-zone starts. His 43 points was good enough for fourth on the team in scoring,
The Islanders defense heading into the 2014-15 season was probably their biggest weakness. Then GM Snow decided that should change and pulled the wool over the league’s eyes, trading for Boston Bruins Johnny Boychuk and Chicago Blackhawks Nick Leddy. In two swift moves, the Islanders defense went from average to Wow. Signing a seven-year deal with the Islanders, Leddy ensured himself to be a key component for the team’s blue-line through his entire prime. He went from fighting and clawing to gain ground on the depth chart in Chicago to playing over 20 minutes a game in New York. Boychuk also received a seven-year extension, only he’s 31, so the Islanders better hope his body can keep up until the age of 38. He plays a big, physical game, which may regress in the next four-five years, but his contribution on the powerplay and defensively has made him a true number one defenseman.
With the new additions, players like Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic saw their ice-time dwindle. While de Haan fell a little lower on the defensive depth chart than he should have, Hamonic received more playing time in the second half of the season. Brian Strait has had a hard time adjusting his game and has struggled for the most part, while Thomas Hickey provides a great complimentary service to the Islanders blue-line. We projected de Haan to play a more important role last season, and with Boychuk, Leddy and Hamonic in the top three spots, de Haan could figure into the final spot of that top-four and receive significantly more ice-time.
While Jaroslav Halak‘s .914 SV% was slightly below league average and his worst finish in the last three seasons, he went from being a 1-b goaltender to a legitimate starter, playing 59 games. In the post-season, he made a slight improvement to .926 and was showing shades of his 2010 self, but this time Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals got the best of him. With no back-up signed for next season, Snow may be tempted to add a strong back-up for insurance, if Halak’s body breaks down. At 30 years of age, Halak has three more seasons let at a reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million.
Pushing towards being a stronger playoff contender, Snow was among the busiest of GMs on trade deadline day. First, he picked up Tyler Kennedy from the San Jose Sharks for a conditional 2015 7th-round pick. He then made a slight upgrade on the back-up position by trading Chad Johnson and a 2016 3rd-round pick for Michal Neuvirth. He also picked up 27-year-old Dustin Jeffrey from the Vancouver Canucks for fringe-NHL’er Cory Conacher, and then closed it up by sending 30-year-old goaltender David Leggio to the Arizona Coyotes for 28-year-old defenseman Mark Louis.
The Off-Season and Free Agents
Heading into the off-season, the Islanders have a total of eleven free agents to decide on. Of the eleven free agents, just four of them are restricted to the team, including forwards Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, defenseman Hickey, and goaltender Kevin Poulin. Forwards Kennedy, Kael Mouillierat, Eric Boulton and Colin McDonald, defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Matt Donovan, and goaltender Neuvirth are the upcoming unrestricted free agent. In terms of non-roster players, Snow will have to decide on five restricted free agents and six unrestricted free agents.
The Islanders have eleven forwards, five defensemen and one goaltender signed, with around $16 million to spend on the cap. Luckily for them, they don’t need to do some major re-tooling like last off-season. Thanks mostly to the wonderful depth of young players like Strome, Lee and Nelson, the forwards group is heavily stacked with offensive players and youth. Their prospect pool looks great as well, headlined by Michael Dal Colle, Josh Ho Sang and Sebastian Collberg.
On defense, there shouldn’t be too much change either, as Hickey is likely the only free agent to be retained. De Haan is likely to receive more minutes in a possible top-four role, while Strait will fall back down the depth chart. There are also rookies in the pipeline that could challenge for a job, such as Griffin Reinhart or Ryan Pulock. If the Islanders seek help in the free agent market, perhaps some veteran depth will be of value to them, like a Barrett Jackman or Francois Beauchemin.
Halak will need a back-up and while Neuvirth would be a great fit, he’s unrestricted and could be gone. Poulin is RFA but not exactly a back-up that is capable of taking over the starter role if an injury takes out Halak. An interesting name is Karri Ramo, who would provide stability behind Halak and can win games on his own as well.
The Draft Table
It will be a rather bland draft for fans of the New York Islanders, as the team possesses no first or second-round picks in this year’s draft. In fact, the very first time they pick in 2015 will be in the third-round, 72nd overall. Their first-round pick belongs to the Sabres as part of the Thomas Vanek trade. They had two second-round picks, but one went to the Bruins in the Boychuk trade, while the other was also a part of the Vanek deal. In all, the Islanders select 72nd, 82nd, 112th, 172nd and 202nd.
Regardless of this being one of the deepest drafts in a long while, the Islanders lack of picks isn’t such a bad thing when you take a look at both their team and their current prospect depth. Their stars are in their prime right now, the current up-and-coming depth has loads of talent and potential to push into the top-six in the next few years and even after that, their prospect pool still has some gems for the future. The Islanders have many years ahead of them with a roster of talent, size, youth and heart, so taking a year off from the draft isn’t too hard on the heart.
Now, if they can find a gem in the later rounds, all the more power to them. Something tells us that even if that happens or not, the New York Islanders are going to be just fine.