July 1, 2014

Free Agent Frenzy - Potential Isles Targets

It's that time of year again, where hockey fans all across the country pray that their teams are the ones landing the top names out on the open marking to better position themselves to make the playoffs - or in some rare cases, maybe even become a contender for The Cup.

The Islanders got off to their start rather early, trading for the rights to free agent goalie Jaroslav Halak in early May and signing him a few weeks later to a 4-year, $18 million deal.

If there is one thing you should take away from the playoffs this year, it's that you'll go nowhere without strong goaltending. Halak may not be the absolute best option the Islanders had over the past two offseasons, but he is a pretty good one. Sean and I talked about him not only in this space, but on the show numerous times. What I liked about the signing was that he's still just 28 and given where the Isles are is a better option for them over Ryan Miller or Jonas Hiller, the other two big names on the market.

And certainly he's a better option than Evgeni Nabokov, who at this point appears like he may not return at all - not even in a back-up role. But I digress. We'll get to that later.

Garth Snow has certainly tried to carry himself in a different manner this offseason but with mixed results. After getting Halak in the fold, he took a swing at bringing in Dan Boyle, who did not sign with the team and will head out on the open market. This was quite a different gamble than Halak, who didn't have much leverage when you consider the small amount of goaltending jobs available and the amount of goaltenders that were looking for, or potentially looking for, new work.

With the Boyle move Snow made it clear that he needs to add a body on defense, and preferably someone in a top-4 role who is very capable of moving the puck. After Halak, a top-4 defenseman is the Islanders most glaring hole. It was not addressed at the draft, so Snow will have his work cut out for him to add one from free agency otherwise he'll have to hope that a good option becomes available via trade.

We'll start with defense since it is the biggest hole and potentially has some more options available to the Islanders, based on need and who they've contacted.

Keep in mind, it would be easy to simply list the top names at each position and say "this is what they should do." But the fact of the matter is we are dealing with a team that doesn't have the management or the pedigree like other teams which already puts them behind the eight ball in regards to free agents. Guys like Matt Niskanen, Mike Cammalleri and Christian Ehrhoff will only likely just listen to the Isles rather than seriously negotiate and consider playing for the team.

Just because the top names are virtually unavailable to the Isles doesn't mean they can't get creative on a few lesser names to fill out a playoff contending team. Whether they do that or not is even up for debate unfortunately, but you'd like to think that given the lack of a first round pick next season there is some urgency on Snow's end to potentially land some of the better options be it through extra money or incentive. If you read between the lines in Art Staples latest piece, this sounds like a long shot at best. But as always we'll just have to see what the day brings.

So, having said that, here are names that you should try and keep in mind as we head into the silly season for the Isles.


Andre Benoit: It's OK, you can admit it - you have no idea who he is. Neither did many others despite having played in the NHL prior to signing with the Avalanche last season. The Avs liked what they saw in Ottawa and gave Benoit a shot. He along with Nick Holden were 1/3 of a defense that seemingly came out of no where to help lead the Avalanche back to the playoffs. He notched seven goals and added 21 assists while logging around 21 minutes per night and sprinkling in some powerplay time but the Avs seem to be willing to walk away from Benoit in the interest of going in other directions to improve one of their weakest positions. The real question here is whether or not he was the real deal. On the surface he seems like a good get, but the advanced stats may suggest otherwise. General Managers seem unsure of what exactly he is, especially coming out of a breakout year as a 29 year old. In a way this situation is similar to Mark Streit's, when Snow signed him back in 2008. Either way, a team will sign him to a multi-year deal at an affordable rate and that could be right up Snow's alley.

Tom Gilbert: Gilbert makes an appearance for a second year in a row on my list, although this time around his story is a bit different. After attending camp as a try out, the Panthers saw enough in Gilbert that they felt comfortable offering him a contract and he delivered for them. He paid them back with solid play for 21 minutes a night, scoring three goals (two on the powerplay) and adding 25 assists. As a youngster he was considered a very mobile two-way defenseman and this past season got back to basics and showed signs of play that made him successful in years prior. Gilbert is likely looking at a 3-year deal in the range of $3 million per season and could be a good two-way guy for Snow to sign.

Dan Boyle: Snow has repeatedly made his push to the soon-to-be-38 year old puck mover and seems poised to do that until Boyle signs on the dotted line somewhere. Although Katie Strang reports that Boyle is considering the Isles as one of the five teams he'd go to, it remains to be seen if he'd really pass up the opportunity to play for a contender, or for a team close to his home in Canada (Maple Leafs). Despite the age and what many see as a decline in play, Boyle can still move the puck with the best of them, put up numbers (12 goals last season) and the fact that he's a right handed shot has many GMs paying attention. He's looking for a two year deal that many teams likely wouldn't offer, but the Isles seem willing to go there. He'll get around $5 - $5.5 million a year but it's a stretch he'll choose to play for a team like the Isles.

Andrej Meszaros: The Isles have expressed interest in this enigmatic player before, and he's definitely taken a step back from where he was in prior years. His time in Philly was very up and down, which falls in line with his time spent in Ottawa and Tampa Bay as well. He had a solid showing last year after being acquired by the Bruins going 2-3-5 in 14 games and registering 13 hits, but many teams will be weary given the history. His situation is tricky. While I'd consider him on a one-year deal, it's entirely possible a team that needs some bodies on D will offer up a 2 or 3-year deal worth $2.2 - $2.7 million for him.

Kyle Quincey: Here's a guy who is a bit of a mystery this summer. He's shown good puck moving skills in the past, however his game has regressed in the years following that strong performance and here he sits on the open market. The Isles may see this as a good situation for him to get back to being more of a two-way guy (30ish points) and figure they could put him in a spot to succeed. He has age on his side (28), but it should give everyone pause that he's regressed during his prime years. Several teams will likely have ideas in their head regarding Quincey, who still played just under 21 minutes a night for Detroit, meaning he can easily land a 2 or 3-year deal for a comparable salary to what he's coming off of ($3.5 - $4 million).

Jamie McBain: Once a player that fanbases all over licked their chops at for the chance to acquire, McBain has fallen off. As his value decreased, Carolina shipped him up to Buffalo for Andrej Sekera and the bottom dropped out. At 26, he's young and is trying to figure out his place in the NHL. If the Isles inability to land top options shows through once again, look for them to turn to a guy like McBain - despite the lack of a solid two-way game - on a one-year, low cost offer to rebound right into the rest of his prime.

Honorable Mentions: Michael Del Zotto, Tim Gleason, Stephane Robidas

The Islanders hole at forward is a well documented story, starting with shipping Matt Moulson out of town for Thomas Vanek, and then being unable to resign the latter and shipping him to Montreal. The Islanders are comfortable having Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson play more prominent roles next season, but have been in the market for one or two forwards - a top 6, and a bottom line guy.

For the sake of keeping this readable, I expanded a search to include a wide range of guys that the Isles could consider in a top-9 role, similar to what they attempted last season.


Ales Hemsky: Of all of the 'top' names that are being thrown about, Hemsky probably is the only one with a realistic shot of ending up with the Isles. His career marred by inconsistency mostly thank to injuries, Hemsky finished the year on fire after a trade deadline deal saw him end up in Ottawa. He scored 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in 20 games and showed that skating can still be a strength. If the Isles are comfortable going long term with a player, they may decide to go in this route but Hemsky seems like he can get a 4 year deal worth between $4 and $4.5 million. It's a long shot at best for a team like the Isles as I'm not convinced they would feel Hemsky fits their plans up front given the guys they already have.

Martin Havlat: Similar to Pierre-Marc Bouchard last season, Havlat is a guy who used to be a star but always seems to be climbing an uphill battle with injuries. The latest bout saw him skate in only 48 games with the Sharks, putting up 22 points. However when he's healthy and on his game, he easily is a 60 point player. He can play either wing and has done that consistently throughout his career. He has not played a full year since the 2010-11 season, but did play 40 of 48 games in the lockout shortened one and performance was rather pedestrian thanks to a lower than normal shooting percentage and not playing overseas. If the Isles decide to go more in the direction as they have in the past (low risk, high reward), there is probably no better fit for team and player. I'll stop short of saying a one year deal would be all it took as it seems Havlat may garner a lot of interest from teams looking for some scoring punch.

Lee Stempniak: It pains me to put him on this list, but the Isles seem confident enough in some of the young forwards they have to the extent where they are rather open to who they bring in for certain roles. Stempniak might fill a leadership void that's left in the top-9 and can chip in offensively. One would hope bringing him in would not mean he'd have a top-6 role, but stranger things have happened here. He's still very capable of putting up around 35-40 points and could be real good in a checking role. He'll be able to land a multi-year deal in UFA for low money per season.

Mathieu Perrault: Many are surprised to see Perrault hitting UFA, although the odds are in the favor of him eventually re-signing with Anaheim. But it appears he'll test the market, and at 26 will have plenty of suitors. There's a catch with Perrault, however - between Anaheim and Washington, although he's put up points neither team put him in a prominent role. He only averaged 14 minutes a night for the Ducks and still managed an 18-26-43 line with just nine of those points on the man advantage. This is a player the Islanders may see potential in, and would be more inclined to give him a shot with more ice time. And given that Perrault finds himself on the market he may be more willing to sign with a team that would just guarantee him the most ice time rather than a bonafide contender. If he goes that far, this would be an interesting name to watch. However, he typically plays center and we know the Isles story there.

Brad Richards: Come on, you knew this one was coming. The moment Staple mentioned Richards name, you knew this was possible. Snow has liked Richards for a long time, going back to when he was available on the trade market in 2007-2008. Snow kicked tires back then, and although there was nothing doing he's always had respect for the player. Now a UFA thanks to the buyout by the Rangers, Richards is looking for a home and may not want to stray too far from where he thought he'd be spending a significant part of the next decade of his life. Lots of people are alarmed, and there is reason to be. However if the Isles are looking to bring him in I'm not convinced it's to play a role up the middle. After landing in Dallas, Richards played wing and looked pretty comfortable there. Of course this was several years ago by this point and Richards has lost a step. But I think he can still be effective from the wing with less responsibilities than he would have at center. An ideal contract would be one or two years, around $4 million a season but given what the market yields for 50 point getters and the need of many teams up the middle despite his deficiencies, a three or four year deal is not out of the question for him - and hopefully that would not come from the Isles.

Mason Raymond: Similar to Gilbert's story above Raymond was a guy who went to camp with the Maple Leafs and got a contract out of it to prove that he can still contribute as a speedster at a 50 point clip. Raymond is definitely going to get a multi-year contract, especially at the age of 28 and if the Isles decide to go for more years in someone this could be a good option for them. He'd fit the system and work well with some of the other forwards they have and could show even more skill similar to what he had earlier in his career in Vancouver. I'd expect Raymond to get around $3 to $3.5 million per year though and for what he provides the Isles may deem that to be a bit rich for their blood.

Honorable Mentions: Milan Michalek, Nikolai Kulemin, Mike Santorelli, David Booth

We know who the Isles will have as their starter next year, but back-up is another story. Actually, aside from Halak there really is nothing immediate in the pipeline. Anders Nilsson has bolted for the KHL, while Kevin Poulin could either be here or not. The Isles have offered him his qualifying offer until they can decide better what to do with him, but right now it seems like their preference is to have him as the #3 guy and down in Bridgeport. So if the Isles wanted to add a true back-up, here are some of the options - as unsurprising as they are given all the chatter that's taken place up until this point.

Justin Peters: I'll start off with him since his name has been mentioned in connection with the Isles, and the interest appears to be mutual. Peters stepped in and performed admirably for the Hurricanes, particularly when Cam Ward went down with injury. He had a nice .919 save % in 21 games last season, in which he faced an average of 30 shots per game. At 27 years old the Isles could theoretically bring him in for a couple of seasons if they felt so inclined.

Thomas Greiss: A favorite of many, Greiss seems to be one of the top names as far as back-ups go because of the total package. He's young, and he's put up solid numbers playing behind some good starters in his career with stints in San Jose and Arizona. Many teams needing goaltending will line up, and his performance for a stretch last season will make a team that needs some competition in goal look longingly in his direction. In 25 games with the Coyotes, he had a 2.29 GAA and .920 save %.

Chad Johnson: Another favorite, Johnson stepped in and relieved one of the NHL's best last season as he appeared in 27 games for the Bruins. A 2.10 GAA and .925 save % have GMs all over salivating. This might mean he'll get over the $1 million mark, and a team like the Isles may be scared away by that.

Anders Lindback: Lindback has been the definition of disappointment since landing in Tampa Bay after some promising performances in Nashville behind Pekka Rinne. After refusing to tender him an offer, the tall Swede finds himself on the open market. Snow has shown a liking to bigger goalies in the past and may want someone with size backing up Halak this season, that is if Lindback is to remain in North America. There may not be many options for him here though, with several quality back-ups available and only so many spots.

Honorable Mention: Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Al Montoya, Ray Emery

So there's some of who I'll be focusing in on today, to see what teams are thinking in regards to some of these players. In general we have an idea of what teams are in on certain players, thanks to the tire kicking period that began on June 25.

Once again we heard how active the Isles were, but we'll see if any of the work they've done comes to fruition. When you look at the body of work and the history, it dictates otherwise. The Islanders are hard pressed to pitch a good future to UFAs given the lack of success over the last several years and some of the off ice items definitely muddy up waters for them.

But either way we'll see if the Isles pitch strikes a chord with anyone out on the open market.

Happy Free Agency Day, and Canada Day to all those celebrating! Happy Hunting!

- Chris

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