Coming off a solid 2015-16 NHL season, we look back and analyze what the most important pieces are to the New York Islanders.
It has been a little more than three weeks since the New York Islanders were eliminated from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was a season of triumph for the Isles, as the team won their first playoff series in 23 seasons.
But with the window between the conclusion of the season and the beginning of free agency now open, one question still remains: Who are the Isles most important pieces?
Here are the five candidates worthy of this honor:
5. Travis Hamonic
“Hammer,” as he’s known by the blue and orange faithful, was a mainstay for the Islanders on defense. He tied a career-high in goals while also garnishing a career low in PIM with 35. While he did score fewer points than in 2014-15, that may have had to do with him spending less time on the man advantage and his shifts starting in the defensive zone.
He also established himself as a shutdown defenseman and was normally lined up against the opposition’s top line.
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He returned for Game 1 of the 2016 postseason after suffering a scary knee injury similar to the sprained MCL that kept him out of the team’s 2015 first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals.
It should be noted that Hamonic’s season was mostly warped by the possibility of him being traded to Western Canada (although he did rescind the trade request following the season).
4. The Fourth Line
If an entire line could win an MVP award, the Isles’ fourth line would do just that.
It’s hard to duplicate the impact of the line dubbed by Don Cherry as “the greatest fourth line ever.”
Both Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck have been the NHL’s hit kings over the past seven or eight seasons, and they can both light the lamp. Martin had career-highs in goals, assists, points, and plus-minus, while also leading the league in the hits department. Clutterbuck had a tremendous season, racking up 15 goals and 23 points including 5-game winners. He found the back of the net twice in the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Casey Cizikas came one point shy of matching his career-high in goals, but posted enviable numbers in all the crucial categories.
The fourth line combined for a whopping 33 goals, 39 assists, 72 points and 811 hits, with the latter being a league record.
The caveat to this is their well-documented struggles in the postseason. They weren’t bad, per se, but they didn’t impact the pace of the games, either.
3. Frans Nielsen
Although his future as an Islander is uncertain, Nielsen’s impact this past season and in seasons prior is unquestioned.
“Fransie” had another tremendous year, posting his second highest goals (20), assists (32), and point totals (52).
He complimented John Tavares on the wing at the end of the season and at the start of the playoffs, sparking an offensive burst that propelled New York into the second round.
He netted tying goals in both Game 1 and Game 3 of the team’s first-round series with the Rats, and the first goal in Game 5. He also added three assists in the playoffs, but cooled off in the second round (as did all of the Islanders).
He is a fantastic penalty killer and two-way forward that has Isles fans drooling at the mention of his return.
2. Thomas Greiss
When Greiss was signed in July 2015, he was expected to back up Jaroslav Halak, the Slovakian netminder who was coming off a thirty-eight win season and was primed for the starting job.
Not only did he solidify the position, but he also started 38 games, posting a 23-11-4 record with the fourth best save-percentage in the league.
In the playoffs, he entered a new level of clutch, churning out a performance that Billy Smith would envy. He made many timely saves and kept the Isles in most of their games.
Heading into a contract year, Greiss is likely making Isles GM Garth Snow think extra hard about who will tend the pipes next season.
1. John Tavares
Despite a December funk, Tavares was easily the team’s best player for the seventh season in a row.
After surrendering the Art Ross Trophy (awarded to the skater with the most points) in the waning seconds of the 2014-15 season, the captain led his team past the first round the following year.
Tavares started off the 2015-16 season strong, but turned into a ghost in December. He eventually snapped out of that funk but couldn’t find his scoring touch and lacked an elite winger at his side. But in late March, head coach Jack Capuano moved the team’s other top scorers (Nielsen and Kyle Okposo) to play with Tavares.
That reignited Tavares at the right time: the Islanders were slumping. “JT” ended up reeling off multiple multi-point games, finishing the regular season with 33 goals, 37 assists, and 70 points.
That line combination and hot streak continued into the 2016 playoffs, with Tavares tallying 5 goals, 4 assists, and 9 points in 6 games against the Panthers.
Tavares added a goal and an assist in Game 1 against the Lightning, but was kept off the statsheet the rest of the way by the second overall pick in Tavares’ draft class, Victor Hedman.
It was a year of ups-and-downs for the captain, but at the end of the day, he managed to reinsert himself into the conversation as one of the best players in hockey.