July 5, 2013

Free Agency Opens - What are the Options?

Happy Free Agency Day to all! Today will prove to be a wacky and wild one once 12 PM hits, seeing as teams have had the last couple of days to meet, erm, I mean express interest in any UFA they wish (without negotiating or many any offers, of course – thanks NHL for pointing that out early in the process)!

At any rate, it’s been a while since I posted in this space with the whirlwind of stuff going on between game 6 and now the start of free agency. I have all intentions of posting about the Isles draft day, but I feel we need to see how the beginning of this signing period goes to correctly identify organizational needs and how the rest of the roster falls into place.

As usual we can expect the Islanders will make plenty of calls but will ultimately be turned away by the top names like David Clarkson and Nathan Horton. However, the Islanders enter this period with a gaping hole next to Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares and another forward spot on the lower lines they would like to fill. Over the years we’ve also seen Garth Snow kick tires on centers as he looks to fill out his depth up the middle, but this year that will be determined by cost and how the team views Brock Nelson as the 3rd line center.

So what forwards will the Isles have their eyes on? Here are a few names to keep in mind:

Brad Boyes: We’ve been there and done that. But with the familiarity, there’s always a chance the Isles could fall back to him. He did put up plenty of points but other areas of his game were lacking, most notably any physical play whatsoever. That part of his game did go up a few notches once the playoffs started however. He’s looking for a multi-year deal with a raise over the $1 million he made for the Isles last season and some middling team with a need may bring him in as the 6th option on a top 2 line somewhere. 

Michael Ryder: The Islanders have liked the player for a while, going as far to court him three years ago when he found himself in this position. He ended up with the Dallas Stars that year, and played pretty well in his time there notching 35 goals in his first year before being shipped back to Montreal after 14 games this past season. Ryder can still score, and is a definite upgrade over Boyes but the difference is not very big. If he were being brought in to play with Tavares, it’d be interesting to see how the team would do that as he and Matt Moulson are similar players in style and speed and we’ve seen how ineffective Moulson is when on the 2nd line. He’ll make close to the $3.5 million per year that he made on his last contract and will get multiple years. 

Mason Raymond: This guy has been in trade rumors for the last three years it seems and yet the Canucks were never able to find a taker for him. The former 2nd round pick has been a decent player but always left people wanting more. He had one good season in Vancouver (25-28-53 in 2008-2009) but aside from that he’s always been more of a checking line guy. He’s only 27 so there’s always talk of the offensive game developing later than people expected, which isn’t an uncommon thing as we’ve seen from current members on this Isles squad. He’ll get plenty of interest on the open market from teams with a 3rd line spot to fill and could probably do an admirable job in the Isles system. He’ll get a deal worth around $2.5 million from someone. 

Jack Skille: Another player who hasn’t lived up to his potential, the 7th overall pick from 2005 is still just 26 years old. He had some promising performances in the AHL in his time with the Blackhawks before getting the call in 2009 but found himself bounced out of town quickly once Chicago took their next steps. A solid grinder who throws his fair share of hits, he doesn’t seem to have much of an offensive game at the NHL level but is a guy I can see the Isles liking because of the style he plays. This would be a short term, pretty cheap deal. 

Clarke MacArthur: He’s only a couple of years removed from some strong seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs but has seemingly fallen off considerably. There was a time when people were comparing him, Rich Peverly and Moulson because of how they bounced around before becoming regular contributors at the NHL level. If we chalk up a slow season due to the lockout then he can still pump in 20 goals, perhaps more depending on who he plays with. The $3.25 million figure he made last season is likely around what he’ll get from teams looking for secondary scoring. 

Jaromir Jagr: Right I know – he’s old, he’s slow, he didn’t score in the playoffs, blah, blah, blah. That’s all well and good but if you watched these playoffs you would have seen some phenomenal shifts from him. Just in the Cup Finals alone I found myself impressed that at age 41 he was still able to hold on to a puck in the corner and behind the net like he was in his prime. That is something that could be an asset for an Islander team that relies a lot upon puck possession, where they can have a more effective dump and chase with Jagr going into corners and likely emerging with the puck. If he’s kept to reasonable minutes – he’s no longer the 25 minutes a night guy he once was - he could be quite a get not only for his offense but for the experience he’d bring to an Islander roster that currently doesn’t have anyone who’s been to a Conference Final or a Cup Final in this century. Would he come here though? Who knows. That’s the beauty of Jagr. No one knows what he feels like doing next. No one saw the deal with Dallas coming from him. There’s talk he’ll be retiring, but if he’s open to playing another year, the Isles would have just as good a chance as any in signing him. It’ll be a one year commitment for some solid money ($4 to $5 million). 

Vinny Prospal: Here’s another forward the Islanders have liked for a while. He’s older now but proved the last couple of seasons in Columbus that he can still play. He’s been more of a winger in his later years but has experience at center as well and playoff experience the Isles would undoubtedly like to add. He’s proved the last two seasons he can still put up 50-60 points and has been a valuable leader for the Jackets. He’s likely to get a short term deal around the $2.5 million he earned last season. 

Matt Cullen: Once again, a player the Isles have liked and been linked to in the past. Teams love his versatility and with the holes at center and wing this might be a great option for the Isles. If they determine that Brock Nelson is not ready for prime time, then Cullen would be a great choice for 3rd line pivot until he is. Can still contribute around 40 points and would provide leadership that, as pointed out numerous times, the Isles lack. He’s had some great playoff runs as well.

That’s a long list of forwards that I could only make longer and with the guys they will likely be talking to, but when it comes to actually making the signings these guys are all realistic for a team that doesn’t usually have the best of luck in UFA. With two spots they sound like they’d prefer to address through UFA there are plenty of options out there to do so. None of these guys are superstars or and not many are 100% ideal fits for what the Islanders need but in UFA not many are. These are all character guys I think a young Islander team can play well with. We’ll see what directions then go in up front.

But the important issue for the Islanders is goaltending. They can add as many forwards as they want, but without a solid tandem in net they aren’t going to get much accomplished.

The options are pretty thin out there. I’m inclined to say the Isles need to add two of these guys to make it work. If they were trading for one of the bigger names out there it wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but if a couple of these guys are being brought in to take over the nets then a better option than Kevin Poulin would likely be needed. In a sense, I’m advocating the three-headed monster similar to what St. Louis and Ottawa did this past season when due to injury they had called up Jake Allen and Robin Lehner respectively and could not send them down due to their play. Ottawa addressed their issue by dealing Ben Bishop at the deadline, so it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to carry an extra in case someone gets hurt. And when you see some of these names and take into account Poulin’s history with injuries, it seems like it’ll be likely someone would go down with something. 

Evgeni Nabokov: We don’t need to say much here. We saw what this guy has done for us the past two seasons. We also learned the hard way that at 38 he can’t be relied on to play 85% of a team’s games anymore. A regular 82-game schedule will help him next year with games not coming in quick succession but the point still remains. In his first year with the Isles he had some leg issues and that concern only increases with age and workload. A fine choice in a 1A-1B scenario, He’ll likely get a slight raise over the $2.75 million he got last season. But will the Isles be willing to pay him that? It’s the reason why he’s on this list in the first place. 

Ray Emery: This option is one that everyone is torn on for sure. In a past life, Ray Emery was a solid but flawed starter, and when you combined that with his off-ice issues and his penchant for being a hot head you’ll understand why Ottawa was quick to buy him out. He was scooped up by the Flyers after that and suffered an awful hip injury that put his career in danger, but he was committed to coming back and was successfully able to do so. Now 30, his life experiences the past four years have put things in perspective and last season in Chicago he played in 21 games, dropping only one decision while winning 17. After considering a deal to return to the Hawks, Emery realizes that his health being the best it’s been in years, he has a chance to sign on somewhere in a 1A-1B scenario and will be coveted. The Flyers and Oilers also have a need for goaltending, and right now all signs point to Emery going for another tour in Philly. He’ll get a definite raise over the $1.15 million he made last season behind Corey Crawford. Will he get a multi-year deal though? It’s doubtful but might be what it takes. 

Anton Khudobin: The wildcard if there ever was one. Khudobin spent several years in the Minnesota Wild organization before getting traded to the Bruins a couple of years ago. There have been rumors of going to the KHL for him but with interest from Edmonton and the Isles he’ll check those out first. He’s had a fine AHL career (68-62-11, 2.53 GAA, .912 SV %) but when you try and translate that into NHL numbers it doesn’t appear to be the best. However, in his limited time in the NHL (21 games, 14 this past season with the Bruins) he’s been outstanding. A team might be intrigued to see more in a 1A-1B scenario. And he might be willing to take a team friendly deal to show what he has. He’d be an ideal add along with Emery, Nabokov or maybe even... 

Ilya Bryzgalov: Yes, I went there. Bryzgalov went from being a coveted goaltender that was outstanding in Phoenix to a mess in Philly and earned himself a buyout on the remaining seven years on his deal. The universe loving Russian is most likely going back to the KHL, but you can see the Islanders possibly being desperate enough to the point where they want to give him a cheap 1-year deal in a situation where he can split time with someone and play with something to prove in this league. 

Tim Thomas: It would be an ironic twist if one of the league’s most controversial figures re-signed with the team he was acquired by last season in one of the leagues more controversial trades. Thomas sounds like he wants to play again and his agent is poking around the teams looking for any goaltending. No one knows what shape he’s in, or what his workout regimen has been like in his year off so this is the only bigger wildcard out there than Khudobin. 

Johan Hedberg: Hedberg’s contract was bought out by the Devils, and the 41 year old is looking for work as his career winds down. A solid back-up for the Devils for a long time, he had a difficult last couple of months last season once Martin Brodeur went down. He can’t carry a huge workload like that anymore but could probably still be useful in the back-up role, as he was early on in the season (as Isles fans will remember well from those early season performances). If the Isles sign him with the expectation that he’s starting more than 15-20 games we are in trouble. He’s not a good option here really unless a true number one is added, and that would only come through trade.

The options in net on the UFA market are thin. A trade would really be ideal here with Ryan Miller and Jaroslav Halak’s names being thrown around. Jonas Hiller could be available from Anaheim but he won’t come cheap. Meanwhile, the Roberto Luongo saga continues in Vancouver even in the life after Cory Schneider. How will he play this year after basically putting his mind in a different city for the last year and change? Will the Canucks really keep that contract past this year knowing about the cap recapture penalties in the future? The Isles may decide that with plenty available on the open market next year in goal (as of right now at least) it’s best they go for a short term fix for now before addressing this for good next offseason. All but Luongo are entering the final years on their contracts.

Newsday’s Art Staple points out that it’s unlikely the Islanders will add anything in the form of veteran defensemen this offseason, which has pretty much been the status quo even after Mark Streit’s rights were sent to Philly. But should the Islanders change their mind and a good deal pop up I think they would undoubtedly look at it. But it would have to be a really cheap deal or even a camp try-out.

So having said that, if they were so inclined here are some options: 

Mike Komisarek: We can file this one under the 'yikes' category. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks he still has anything left or can play at this level, and there’s a strong chance many NHL GMs would agree seeing as how he couldn’t be traded even with Toronto picking up part of the contract. Someone will give him a deal like Wade Redden got back in January, or he’ll get a camp invite. He’s been pretty vocal about being upset it didn’t work for him in Toronto and how he has a lot to prove and is poised to do so. 

Tom Gilbert: Another buyout casualty, Gilbert was always thought of as a solid defenseman back to his days in Edmonton. He has his warts and his salary didn’t give Minnesota any justification for keeping him because of them but he’d be a solid get for a team like the Isles. He can still play top-4 minutes and is mobile. He’ll have lots of suitors. 

Jonathan Blum: This would be a similar kind of low risk move that the Islanders have become known for. Blum was passed by on the depth chart in Nashville a few times over now and was not qualified. He’s only 24 years old and has shown flashes of solid play but with an already strong core of young guys that just added Seth Jones was part of the numbers game. I’d suspect he’ll have a few teams after him with a need for depth on their blueline. 

Ryan Whitney: Overall, his time in Edmonton was miserable and he was all but erased from the team even before the season ended. Injuries have derailed any progress he was going to make as a defenseman after a couple of good years with Pittsburgh and even at the beginning of his tenure with the Oilers. He won’t be back in Edmonton, and no one even traded for his expiring contract when the deadline came. How much interest he’ll get on the open market remains to be seen, but one of his better chances at getting a look in a top-4 scenario would be with the Islanders.

There are a lot of names out there that although unspectacular, could help the Isles in certain areas. It was good to address one issue with a solid young forward in Cal Clutterbuck, but they’ll look to add to him in order to push the depth chart around and move on from the Keith Aucoins and Marty Reasoners of the world.

The Islanders will be active in the sense that they’ll be talking to many players and would ideally like to hammer down a forward and goaltending spot, leaving the rest of the summer to get another forward and a defenseman if they change their mind on that front. But we’ll have to see what gets accomplished here on day one.

The names here aren’t the top guys, because realistically and historically the chances are remote the Isles will meet their prices. We’d all like to wish things are different now with Brooklyn on the horizon and a young team on the rise but this team needs to show more than a six game round one loss before the top guys seriously consider them on Snow’s terms.

At the very least, there are plenty of things the Isles can take a look at that would upgrade the current roster and take another step forward to cement their spot in one of the final playoff seeds. The real issue is goaltending. How will this get addressed? Will Snow’s negotiations with any of the above names force the hand of a trading partner? This is a question that might not even be answered today. We’ll have a better idea of where we stand over the next week as far as the overall roster. 

Happy hunting, and to you dreamers out there…don’t dream too big! You might hurt yourself.

- Chris

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