Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the New York Islanders…
There are a couple different ways to look at the Islanders with the 2016-17 campaign fast approaching. On the one hand, they just claimed their first playoff series win since 1993, ousting the Panthers in six games. If nothing else, that’s progress.
On the other hand, their roster has gone through some considerable changes over the last two months. Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo are gone, taking 116 points from last year with them. To put that in perspective, John Tavares led the team with 70 points last season. And now that Nielsen and Okposo are gone, the returning forward with the next highest point total is Brock Nelson — with 40.
To offset those losses, Garth Snow went out and snagged Andrew Ladd, who won a Cup with the Blackhawks and spent the better part of the last six years near the top of the Winnipeg Jets’ scoring list. So it’s not like the Isles spent the entire summer doing nothing more than losing players. But they will definitely look different this time around.
Is New York heading for a tandem in net?
There was a three-year stretch where Jaroslav Halak was routinely carrying a goals against average right around 2.10 with St. Louis. And hockey fans out east undoubtedly remember the amazing run he delivered for the Canadiens during the 2010 playoffs.
His first two years with New York have been fine, but not necessarily anything spectacular. And he missed a big chunk of last season due to injuries. That allowed lifetime backup Thomas Greiss to take the reins and make a name for himself. By the end of the year, he had actually played in five more games (41, compared to 36) than Halak, and started all 11 playoff contests.
What does that mean for 2016-17? It’s sounding more and more like the Islanders plan on playing both guys a lot, potentially riding the hot hand for as long as they can. That could help each netminder stay fresh for when the playoffs roll around, though a) then they’d be entering the postseason without an established No. 1 again and b) nothing is guaranteed in the scoring-rich Metro anyway.
NOTABLE SUMMER LOSS
Kyle Okposo (to BUF)
In a summer of change in Brooklyn, Okposo’s departure is still the biggest news. His 64 points last season were just six fewer than Tavares and, looking outside of New York, that total actually equaled the production of Steven Stamkos. Okposo may not be a truly elite weapon, but he’s been undeniably productive lately.
To that end, he managed 184 points in 210 games over the last three years, including 67 goals. And, at age 28, he shouldn’t be experiencing a drop-off anytime soon — other than a potential decline from adjusting to life without Tavares.
Mathew Barzal (drafted: No. 16 overall in 2015)
New York averaged 2.77 goals per game last season, good for 11th in the league. And there’s already another wave of talented offensive weapons on the way. Barzal is the headliner, as an excellent playmaker with great on-ice vision and the ability to handle the puck very well.
Many scouts believe Barzal ultimately projects as a decent No. 2 center at the NHL level. And while that might not quite be enough for some clubs, it’s just fine for the Isles because they already have Tavares entrenched in that top slot anyway.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Johnny Boychuk ($6 million)
One of New York’s biggest accomplishments in recent memory came just before the start of the 2014-15 campaign, when the organization was able to acquire both Boychuk and Nick Leddy in the span of a few hours. That instantly retooled the blue line and — not coincidentally — the Isles have been to the playoffs both years since.
Granted, it may seem a little strange on first glance that Boychuk carries the biggest cap hit on this roster. But that’s partially because Tavares is still a relative steal at $5.5 million per year. That’s going to change in 2018 though, so they may as well enjoy it while it lasts.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
This one’s big, in that it essentially forces New York to make a decision between the pipes soon. And there are a number of ways this could play out. If the Islanders are struggling, maybe Greiss becomes expendable at the trade deadline this season.
If they’re playing well, they’ll likely want to hold onto him for a potential playoff run — though they risk losing him for nothing next summer. Of course, if he’s the main catalyst for why they’re playing well, that complicates things even more, because Halak is still around through the end of 2017-18.
Fortunately, they also have Jean-Francoise Berube and newly added Christopher Gibson in the mix as well. Because everyone needs 700 goalies on their roster.
Ladd was going to face some pressure no matter what his contract looked like, after New York lost Nielsen and Okposo. But the fact that the Isles didn’t sign those guys, yet still found a way to turn around and give Ladd a seven-year deal worth $5.5 million per season means that much more responsibility will fall on his shoulders.
The crafty vet will be 37 when that contract expires, so New York is expecting a bigger return on investment now than in 2023. Ladd has experienced postseason success before though, can still contribute on the scoresheet and spent six years as the Jets’ captain. So he does bring a variety of positives to the table.