The New York Islanders have a difficult season ahead of them, not least of which the arena uncertainty which has been plaguing the team for a decade. After a tumultuous season in Brooklyn at the Barclay’s Center, many fans are simply concerned with finding a proper home in the New York area. Additionally, much attention has been paid to the impending unrestricted free agency of John Tavares at the conclusion of the season. There is good reason for the fanbase’s focus to be centered around captain Tavares, as he will likely be the domino that needs to fall first. That said, the Islanders have 11 expiring NHL contracts at the end of the 2017-18 season, and if the team fails to make the playoffs again, even more expansive changes could be on the horizon.
It should be noted that the Islanders weren’t entirely quiet this off-season, as GM Garth Snow made some unorthodox but ultimately effective moves with Vegas to shield younger players and ship out injured Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. Perhaps more importantly, regards to retaining Tavares, was the acquisition of good friend and skillful finisher Jordan Eberle to play on the star center’s wing. Travis Hamonic was able to be moved for a hefty return from Calgary, and although the team was unable to draw in names from free agency, their young forwards look capable of taking a step forward this season. Although Snow has certainly struggled at times in his tenure, this off-season went about as well as could be expected. All that remains is to sign RFA Calvin de Haan.
The panic begins to set in when you compare the Islanders’ roster with that of the rest of the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh will again be a contender. Washington got worse but still won the President’s Trophy last season. Columbus almost unquestionably improved their roster on paper. Carolina added depth in all areas of the ice, including Scott Darling in net. The New York Rangers saw a massive upgrade on defense by subtracting Dan Girardi and adding Kevin Shattenkirk. And the less intimidating Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils each added a monumental talent to their forward groups at the draft in Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier, respectively. It’s rather arguably the toughest division in the entire league, and the Islanders will have no guarantees of making the playoffs. If they fail to do so, Tavares may only be the beginning of their issues.
Among the unrestricted free agents after the conclusion of the season are Nikolai Kulemin, Josh Bailey, Jason Chimera, Thomas Hickey, Dennis Seidenberg, Jaroslav Halak and the aforementioned Tavares. The restricted free agents on NHL contracts include Brock Nelson, Shane Prince, Alan Quine, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield. Although no name on either list is truly vital, losing 4 or 5 free agents for nothing at the conclusion of the season could be a disastrous error in asset management. Bailey and Hickey in particular may attract solid interest at the trade deadline, but Snow and management will necessarily be determined to make the post-season. If they are still in contention for a spot, it’s hard to see them shipping any roster assets away as long as they are not mathematically eliminated. This situation will only become more dramatic if the Tavares negotiations are still ongoing.
Plainly, the worst case scenario for the Isles would be that Tavares leaves at the conclusion of the year. But it must also be realized that the longer the process drags on, the more consideration might be paid to the feasibility of moving him. The coming season cannot be the entire focus of the franchise. If minimal progress is made by the new year, the team could see a situation where an important cog on the team might leave for absolutely nothing. Worse, his situation may lead to the sacrificing of other assets in the confusion. The Islanders dealt with this last off-season when Frans Nielsen decided to depart for Detroit, stunning Islanders management. Repeating such a mistakewould be absolutely inexcusable, and if unrestricted free agents are unwilling to re-sign or no longer part of the team’s future, they must be moved in the interest of the organization. The same goes for Tavares. Although losing Tavares would be absolutely crippling, it would be fatal to lose him without recouping any assets whatsoever.