In the midst of a disappointing 2016-17 campaign, the New York Islanders made a change behind the bench yesterday, relieving Jack Capuano of his duties and turning the team over to AGM Doug Weight on an interim basis. The team has also received permission from the Florida Panthers to speak with their former head coach, Gerard Gallant, about taking the reins with the Isles on a full time basis. While the coaching change was surely made with the idea of sparking a second half playoff charge, it’s also quite possible this is just the first of several moves intended to get the Islanders back on the right track.
First and foremost, the goal for the Islanders will be to show superstar center John Tavares that the organization is fully committed to icing a competitive team around him. Tavares is eligible to become a free agent following the 2017-18 season and despite repeatedly stating his desire to remain with the organization that drafted him first overall in 2009, many in the industry feel that unless he views the Islanders as a legitimate contender, he’ll consider other options in free agency. That may pressure the front office into action, both at this year’s trade deadline and during the upcoming summer.
Assuming the new voice – whether Weight remains in charge for the duration of the campaign or the team hires another head coach such as Gallant – is unable to alter the team’s course ahead of the deadline, it’s conceivable the team will look to cash in veteran assets for controllable young talent and/or draft choices. Unfortunately the Islanders don’t possess much in the way of pending free agents that would appeal to other teams. Only Dennis Seidenberg, Stephen Gionta and Thomas Greiss are scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season and none represent the type of asset that would command a significant return in trade.
The team could look to this summer’s free agent class in an effort to improve the roster but with more than $61MM already committed to 19 players in 2017-18, there won’t be much room to do so. It’s also possible the Islanders will look to move a big salary to create needed roster flexibility but other teams simply won’t have much interest in taking on the contract of someone like Andrew Ladd, who has six years and $33MM left on his deal and has struggled with just eight goals and 12 points in 41 contests this season. Mikhail Grabovski, who has been out all season with post-concussion syndrome, and Nikolai Kulemin are also unlikely to generate much interest on the trade market. Dealing any other roster player would only serve to create another hole the Islanders would have to fill.
It’s also fair to wonder whether GM Garth Snow will be the team’s leading decision-maker for much longer. After all, his offseason moves this past summer have not worked out particularly well and new ownership may not be as committed to the longtime Islanders executive as was Charles Wang. Remember, it was Wang who abruptly fired Neil Smith just six weeks into his tenure as GM and hired Snow, then the team’s backup goaltender, back in 2009. It has been reported that the organization’s new leaders, Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, have already been on the hunt for a “big name” executive to lead the team’s hockey operations department. The Islanders on-ice struggles could prompt ownership to transition away from Snow and bring in new leadership.
Clearly the Islanders organization has their work cut out for them and big decisions yet to make. The key question will be whether those decisions are enough to convince Tavares to sign on beyond the expiration of his current contract.