July 3, 2014

Isles Busy on First Two Days of UFA: Add Grabovski, Kulemin, Johnson

Although the first day of free agency didn't go the way as many had planned, by the end of day two the Islanders entire body of work looked much better and made many who were gloomy at least smile a bit as the Isles showed some life.

The Isles filled one of their bigger holes on the first day when they signed goaltender Chad Johnson to be Jaroslav Halak's back-up for the next two seasons. Johnson will make $2.6 million over the life of the deal.

Johnson was second best of the options on the market in my opinion, coming just behind Thomas Greiss who took a one-year deal with the Penguins. In Johnson the Islanders get a goaltender who put up awesome numbers (17-4-3, 2.10 GAA, .925 SV) playing 27 games in a very good Boston Bruins system. It'd be unrealistic to expect Johnson to put up similar numbers with the Islanders, but he's still a good get as a 28 year old and can have a very good year for the Isles depending on what the defense looks like and how many games he gets.

On defense the Isles added a wildcard in TJ Brennan. He looks like he could translate as a good powerplay option for the team, but it's hard to judge based on the limited NHL time he has seen. The Isles are giving him a one-way contract after putting up a 25-47-72 lines with 115 penalty minutes for the Toronto Marlies and winning the award for the AHL's top blueliner. The Isles are only spending $600K on Brennan and will try and see what he can provide. The fear at first was that the Isles were looking at giving Brennan a shot to be the top-4 guy they were looking for, but that appears to have changed slightly after day two.

The Isles continued adding depth on the first day with Cory Conacher inking a one-way deal, and Jack Skille and Harry Zolnierczyk getting two-way deals.

Conacher is small forward who has shown an ability to put up points playing with top players in the past (Jason Spezza and Steven Stamkos to name a few). Tampa had traded him a few years back in order to land Ben Bishop from the Senators. Conacher played for both the Sens and Sabres last season putting up a 7-19-26 line before not receiving a qualifying offer from Buffalo. Originally it was though that Conacher would be given a more prominent role, but given the other signings it seems like he's slotted in more of a bottom line role. The Isles like the depth he helps provide though and the fact that he's shown an ability to put up points in the past means that he can slot in anywhere in a pinch if need be.

Skille and Zolnierczyk provide some great depth that the team sorely lacked be it down in Bridgeport or up with the big club. Skille is no stranger to this role, and was pretty effective in it for the upstart Blue Jackets this past season. He can provide grit from a lower line and even chip in with some offense and can be a good option along with Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin - should they both be on the team once the summer is over. Isles fans remember Zolnierczyk from his stints with the Flyers and Penguins, where he provided some sandpaper and was a pain to play against. He has good wheels and will definitely be an asset to the organization. Should both players find themselves in Bridgeport, they will be looked at for leadership. The team is very young down there and this is an area they sorely lacked in. Bridgeport could be primed to make some noise next season with the combination of good young players and these solid vets.

Day two is what brought all of the excitement as far as the Isles are concerned. After missing out on all of their top targets, they decided to go in a different route.

Realizing that he needed to add some scoring punch to his line-up, Garth Snow got a package deal of players that helps the case of making a trade for defensive help.

Snow inked center Mikhail Grabovski and winger Nikolai Kulemin to 4-year contracts. Grabovski will earn $20 million for the duration of the contract, while Kulemin will get $16.75 million.

Right off the bat we'll get this out of the way - the contracts are over payments. But that's all that needs to be said here in regards to this. As far as the Isles, and their fans should be concerned? Who cares.

Teams in the Isles position need to overpay for NHL players, and these are two guys worth overpaying for.

Grabovski is the name that everyone knows, after starring with the Toronto Maple Leafs a few years back. After trying to put him in a role that didn't fit his style, Randy Carlyle convinced Leafs management to buy him out (which was met with lots of criticism) and he took a one-year deal with Washington to show that he's still an effective 2nd line center, and it worked out. In just 58 games, Grabovski put up 13-22-35 and demonstrated some good puck possession advanced stats. He'll fit right in with the Isles and provide a more balanced top 6.

Kulemin is the wild card, and many fans are unfamiliar with him. Aside from putting up 30 goals a few seasons back playing with his friend Grabovski, Kulemin has not done much offensively. But what he's lacked in offense he's made up for in defensive play and 'sandpaper.'

Kulemin is a solid 2-way player, and for fans who wanted to see the Isles make a run at Benoit Pouliot this is a good second option. He plays a similar style to Pouliot, although a bit less offensively talented. With Pouliot getting $4 million a season from the Oilers, Kulemin seems to be just about in line with that.

For me personally I'm more excited about the Kulemin signing. I've long liked this player, just as Snow has. He's been in rumors for the last few years and Snow surely showed interest there in discussions with the Leafs. In a different role, Kulemin should be able to produce at a higher offensive clip than he has the past three seasons.

Pairing Grabovski and Kulemin up together really helps expand options for Jack Capuano. In theory Ryan Strome can slide in beside them while Brock Nelson can fill the hole on the top line. Grabovski and Kulemin should get more offensive zone starts that they weren't getting in their finals years in Toronto and be put in positions that better justify their skill levels. This allows the Isles to have Frans Nielsen slide in as the 3rd line center, giving the Isles a very deep crop up the middle.

With the Islanders having many forwards on one-way deals now, it's pretty clear where this is all heading. Conacher was signed for a reason, one would think - and not just to ride the pine more often than now.

It seems pretty clear that it's hard to see long term spots for guys like Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner, as well as Cizikas and Martin as mentioned before. The Islanders began to scratch Martin at points last season when it became clear that the hit king was not helping them as much to win games as in the prior lockout shortened year. In my opinion his game had regressed to the point where it was starting to become a redundancy and the Isles may deem that as something they can part with while another team would place value on it.

Grabner looks to be the most likely to be dealt however, and would have some value to plenty of teams - especially those with a log jam at defense. The Islanders aren't likely getting as much offense out of Kulemin, but he helps replace some of the defense up front they would lose in a potential Grabner deal. Kulemin is also not afraid to throw hits of his own (153 last season) should the Islanders part with a physical player from the bottom six.

Matt Donovan seems to be a prime trade candidate, as well as someone from the list of prospects of Adam Pelech, Ville Pokka, Andrey Pedan and Scott Mayfield. It seems like with the addition of Brennan it kind of muddies the future for Brian Strait and Matt Carkner as well.

All in all it was a good day for the Isles and they took a step forward into molding this into a playoff team. Depending on the potential defensive acquisition, this team could really stand a chance to make some noise. But we'll see what they come up with and how it unfolds. It doesn't seem like Snow is too keen on some of the options that are out there for him, and he'll wait it out until he sees something he likes - or until a team becomes more willing to trade someone, perhaps a more surprising target he could be after who's name we are not hearing in rumors.

Either way, stay tuned - and be proud of the work the Isles have done here. It didn't look like there would be much to be content with, but Snow showed some patience and improved his roster. For that, I'll tip my cap to him as I was one of those ready to pounce on him for more of the same. Now I'll wait patiently to see what his defense looks like.

- Chris

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