The New York Islanders enter the mysterious world of the NHL offseason.
Teetering through the NHL offseason is often a miserable, lonesome ordeal.
The problem with the gap between the end of the old season and the start of the new one is quite simple: there’s no pace. Unlike football — where the sounds and smells of the Draft, the contract extensions, the rumors and the training camps are exceedingly palpable — there’s not much to get excited over in hockey, with the exception of some mere arbitration and speculation.
Which makes the interval between the New York Islanders’ Game 5 loss and Opening night matchup extremely interminable.
The great Rogers Hornsby, former Hall of Fame MLB infielder and manager, once uttered the following famed phrase: “People ask me what I do in Winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do: I stare out the window and wait for Spring.”
The aforementioned quote is going to prove crucial as Isles fans speculate about the future of their team. It’s going to be an arduous wait — especially considering how general manager Garth Snow tends to work in secret.
It doesn’t help either that the Isles have a slew of impending free agents, holes and uncertainties.
Among those uncertainties are the questions of which free agents will be retained, which available players will be acquired, and where the hell will Travis Hamonic — if he ever does — land (okay, so now we know that he’d like to stay on Long Island)?
The answer to the first question is awfully complex. It will also require a great deal of patience.
For the first time in a long time, multiple key components of the team will be on the open market. Among those players are Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin. Alan Quine, Shane Prince, Ryan Strome and Casey Cizikas headline the restricted free agent class, while both Marek Židlický and Brian Strait — the team’s two depth defensemen — are poised to adorn a different jersey next season.
It can (and should be assumed) be expected that the Isles will make a push to retain Nielsen (or the Great Dane, as the fanbase likes to call him). Kevin Allen of USA Today Sports described his value in an article in December:
He might be the NHL’s most underrated player. Most opponents understand how valuable he is to his team, but he has always been short on fan recognition. He’s a smart, full-service player who can help his team as a penalty killer, defensive forward or offensive contributor. Every championship team has a player like Nielsen, a guy who simply can fulfill any mission he is assigned. Nielsen is 31, but he still could contribute 50 points if given the right role.
There’s much caprice over the Kyle Okposo situation, though. Okie, 28, has been a stalwart forward since ingressing on the league eight seasons ago.
He’s got tremendous goal-scoring ability and the mentality of a sniper, but has had trouble fitting in since he suffered a retina injury last January. Among the positives are an impressive skating stride and willingness to play a big man’s game, but his defensive game and durability are points of concern.
Arthur Staple of Newsday speculated that Okposo could demand north of $7M in free agency, although his demands are currently unclear.
The Isles’ fourth line is in danger of being disintegrated. Matt Martin, the NHL’s leader in hits for the last four seasons, is also an unrestricted free agent, although it does seem as if Garth Snow will end up striking a deal.
“This was a lot of fun this year. We wanted to go farther. It stings,” Martin said, via Staple. “I don’t know what the future holds. I want to spend some time with the guys . . . It’s been a huge honor to wear this jersey for seven years, whatever it’s been. We’ll see what my agent and Garth [Snow, the Islanders’ general manager] and management figure out. Every year you see free agency, trade, retirement, whatever. I’ve played with these guys a long time, and the uncertainty is hard, but it’s the nature of the business. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Next comes the question of who the Isles will target. It’s hard to be certain because of Snow’s unpredictability and deviousness, but it’s fair to think that the Isles would be in the market for three types of players: a top winger, a third-pairing defenseman, and a depth forward.
Here’s a list of players that could satisfy their needs:
1. Loui Eriksson, RW — Good playmaker with tremendous two-way ability and goal-scorer’s touch. Could work on consistency and occasional passiveness, but all-in-all an excellent two-way winger.
2. Milan Lucic, LW — Big, brawny winger with underrated offensive ability. Red flags include unnatural scoring touch and below-average skating ability. Still a dependable power forward.
3. David Backes, RW — Gritty veteran with shutdown acumen. Has a nose for the net and size to help him along the boards. Often too aggressive with a knack for taking bad penalties. Still, a versatile shutdown forward.
1. Alex Tanguay, LW — Veteran playmaker with the ability to hold onto the puck for long periods of time. Great one-on-one winger, but lack of size and hesitancy to shoot has often plagued him.
2. Colton Sceviour, RW — Hard-working, team-oriented player with pretty good skating ability. Doesn’t own ideal size, physicality or goal-scoring prowess. Solid depth winger.
3. Viktor Stalberg, LW — Big, speedy and versatile. Inconsistent and somewhat soft, so even though he’s 30 years old, one word sums him up best: raw.
There’s a lovely honeymoon between when the first snow surfaces and the first puck is dropped onto the ice. That feeling makes all the waiting, agitation and loneliness feel not so terrible after all.
It stinks, but it doesn’t. The Isles could use some rest — and a change in scenery.
As the saying goes, “champions are made in the offseason.”