After a good start to this season, the New York Islanders are in trouble.
Following their 5-2 loss on Thursday to the Boston Bruins, the Isles (50 points) sat three points out of an Eastern Conference wild-card berth.
Winners of just three of their last ten games, the Isles have been overtaken by the Philadelphia Flyers. The Carolina Hurricanes sit just two points behind.
Shaky goaltending and a porous defense are to blame for their recent decline.
As of Jan. 18, goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss combined for a league-worst 3.66 goals against per game. The Isles also have the second-worst penalty-killing percentage (73.3) and have given up the second-most shots against per game (34.6).
If the Islanders weren’t among the league’s highest-scoring clubs, they’d be near the bottom of the standings. If their goaltending and defensive woes continue, however, not even their high-octane offense will save their postseason hopes.
There’s more at stake for the Islanders than reaching the playoffs. Their performance could become a critical factor in contract negotiations with superstar center (and pending unrestricted free agent) John Tavares.
While Tavares recently said he hopes to stay on Long Island, he could question the club’s direction if they miss the playoffs again. That could raise doubts in his mind over whether his long-term future belongs with the Isles.
General manager Garth Snow can’t risk losing his franchise player because he didn’t try to improve his roster. If he isn’t already shopping around for help, he could be in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Improving the goaltending won’t be easy. Pickings are slim in this season’s trade market.
Detroit Red Wings backup Petr Mrazek could be available. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, but the decline in his play likely means he no longer has a future with the Wings. However, he’s no upgrade over Halak and Greiss for the Isles.
Wings starter Jimmy Howard could be a better option. While he carries a $5.29-million annual salary-cap hit, he’s only under contract for one more season. He also carries a 10-team trade list, and the Islanders might not be on it.
San Jose Sharks backup Aaron Dell is due to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. But with starter Martin Jones struggling of late, the Sharks seem unlikely to move Dell.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently mused over the possibility of the Isles’ targeting Robin Lehner of the Buffalo Sabres. He subsequently reported a source said to “stop wondering” about it.
If Snow can’t find a goaltending upgrade, improving his blueline is a must. Injuries have already taken a toll, with veteran Johnny Boychuk (lower body) still sidelined and Calvin de Haan (shoulder surgery) done for the season.
Fortunately, there are several notable defensemen potentially available.
The Ottawa Senators are reportedly looking to get younger and could cut payroll. That could make Dion Phaneuf available. He’s signed through 2020-21 with an annual average value of $7 million. He also carries a list of 12 preferred trade destinations, which could take the Islanders out of the running.
Another option could be Arizona Coyotes blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson. With the Coyotes floundering in the Western Conference, perhaps they’ll be open to moving him. He’s more affordable ($4.1-million cap hit) than Phaneuf and has only one season remaining on his contract. His modified no-trade clause, however, could be a stumbling block.
San Jose Sharks veteran Paul Martin was recently demoted to the minors. The 36-year-old only recently returned from offseason ankle surgery. If Martin plays well at the AHL level, he could be an affordable acquisition. He’s signed through next season at an average annual value of $4.85 million, but the Sharks might be willing to pick up a portion to facilitate a deal.
If Snow wants a playoff rental player, Mike Green of the Red Wings, Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Erik Gudbranson of the Vancouver Canucks and Ian Cole of the Pittsburgh Penguins are due to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Only Green carries no-trade protection.
The Islanders also possess some trade chips that could prove enticing to rival clubs.
In his Jan. 9th “31 Thoughts” column, Elliotte Friedman reported Brock Nelson had surfaced in the rumor mill. The 26-year-old forward has just 14 points in 47 games, but he’s tallied at least 20 goals and 40 points in each of his previous three seasons.
The Isles also have an additional selection in each of the first two rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft, as well as a conditional second rounder in 2019.
Snow could use one of those picks for a rental defenseman. If he has his eye on longer-term options, perhaps he’ll package Nelson with a first- or second-rounder.
It’s clear Snow can’t afford to stand pat. Whatever move he makes in the coming weeks could have significant short- and long-term consequences for the Islanders.