March 3, 2015

Isles Address Weaknesses at Trade Deadline with Kennedy, Neuvirth

The New York Islanders entered Monday's NHL trade deadline with very low expectations. After making pre-season trades for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, they didn't have much left in the way of assets and seemed comfortable that these moves were the ones that caused those around them to try and answer. Art Staple even tried to bring Isles fans down from their dreams of deadline moves with his article just days before.

But if there's one thing we've learned about Garth Snow, it's to expect the unexpected. He doesn't like to leak anything, and how he gets his counterparts to comply is beyond me.

Snow surprised even his own beat writers at Monday's deadline after he made a couple of moves to help his club through the rest of this season and heading into the playoffs.

In his first move of the day, Snow sent a conditional pick to the San Jose Sharks for very available forward Tyler Kennedy. The conditions on the pick are rather favorable to the Isles. It's a 7th round pick in either this years or next years draft that will turn into a 3rd if the Isles win the Stanley Cup this season. When you compare this condition to some of the others that came out in some of the other trades it is quite tame.

But it was a great move to add some depth, and Kennedy can certainly provide that for the Isles. In 25 games this year, he's 4-5-9 after having bouts with various different injuries. Kennedy had some time at center earlier in his career but is a winger by trade. In very limited chances this year he has a 44% face off success rate so he certainly doesn't seem likely to help the Isles in that regard.

Throughout his career Kennedy has proven he can be a 35-45 point guy and even in the injury shortened seasons he's kept that pace up. The ability to skate and forecheck is certainly something that fits the Isles mold, and they will likely try and use him in some penalty killing situations. At first everyone thought that was something he could really provide well, but on further review...maybe not. But given the Isles success when a man down this year, it makes sense to throw everything at the wall at this point to see what sticks and they will no doubt try and see how far they can extend Kennedy.

Kennedy (R) helps in Cizikas's absence. Photo by C. Hessel
The other plus side for this is the experience he provides. He came up with the Penguins for the 2007-08 season, as many of us would remember since he along with Ryan Malone were the infamous Islander killers during that time period. Kennedy has 76 career playoff games under his belt and won a Cup with the Pens during his tenure and anyone who's been reading this space or listening to our show the last couple of seasons knows how much I have harped on this point.

The Isles lack of a solid veteran presence up front was something that bothered me, and one of the reasons I was so happy with Leddy and Boychuk was that they had been in some sort of a Finals - conference, Cup - in the past decade. Finally the Isles have a guy up front who has been through that too.

Kennedy comes in when the Isles need some bodies up front, at least until Kyle Okposo, Casey Cizikas and Mikhal Grabovski all return to the line-up, if at all. It seems like Okposo and Cizikas have started skating so there remains optimism they'll be here by the end of the month, but as far as Grabovski goes he's on his second concussion this season. I would put the odds against him right now. Once guys return this will create some competition and likely bounce players like Kael Mouillierat and Colin McDonald sooner rather than later. In the case of Mouillierat this may not be a bad thing, because as decent as he's looked he's struggled a bit on the defensive side more to my liking and has taken some penalties that have cost the Isles dearly.

I like the opportunity for Kennedy here in a chance for a different style of play. The Sharks thought highly enough of him that they sent a 2013 2nd round pick to him at the draft that same year but clearly things haven't worked out as well as either side would have liked. Kennedy gets to join a race for the top of the Metropolitan Division, against teams that he is very familiar with so this could bode well for him. The Isles will have their chances to also bring him back at what was a very low cost to them regardless of what they do this postseason so it seems like a great situation for all involved.

In a way, a depth forward was what you would have expected the Isles to acquire as had been mentioned all along really up until Staple's article came out. So for as pleasant and surprising as the Kennedy move was the other move that Snow made was completely out of left field.

The Isles took a long hard look at their other weakness, back-up goaltender, and decided to change course dramatically. The team sent Chad Johnson and a 3rd round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for UFA-to-be Michal Neuvirth.

Neuvirth had been starting for the Sabres since they sent Jhonas Enroth to the Dallas Stars last month and has been doing quite well given the situation. It is pretty silly to look into the win-loss situation when you're playing on a team that's positioning themselves the way Buffalo has been doing all along, but a .918 SV% in 27 games this season really stands out.

For the Isles this was a huge upgrade for this season, as they've come to realize that Johnson just wasn't getting the job done. Despite a hot start to the season, and a hot spurt within the past month, Saturday's effort against the Carolina Hurricanes probably sealed his fate. After an 8-8-1 run the Isles changed their plan for their goaltending over the next couple of seasons, as Snow pointed out to Staple.

In the case of the Isles it gives them flexibility in more ways than one. Johnson had another year left on the two-year pact he signed with the Isles so in moving him along with the pick it gives the Isles the opportunity to find a back-up that better fits their new direction, be it Neuvirth (unlikely) or someone else. But it gives them a clean break from the $1.3M that he was owed.

Neuvirth provides great depth in net. Photo by C. Hessel
I thought that Johnson looked improved in recent starts after Mike Dunham and company had worked extra hard with him, but there were still signs that things were not as good as they could be in net. Despite the fact his teammates didn't help him out much in Saturday's game he didn't do a whole lot after withstanding the initial barrage of shots from the Hurricanes either.

Not to mention the fact that if something happened to Jaroslav Halak the Isles would have had to run with Johnson as the starter and that was not a pleasant thought at all. Unless you're, well, Buffalo, and trying to do something...uh, different.

Neuvirth is no stranger to starting big games, getting into the second round with the Capitals back in 2011. He was a part of that three headed monster along with Braden Holtby and Semyon Varlamov before Varlamov was dealt to the Avs, and then battled it out with Holtby for a few years before Washington ultimately decided they liked Holtby better long-term and dealt Neuvirth for Halak last season ironically enough, in an attempt to make a push for a playoff spot that ultimately fell short. This season it certainly looks like they made a good choice in putting a lot of faith into Holtby and the Isles have been rewarded for putting theirs into Halak.

And that is the best thing about this move for the Isles, that you know what you are going to get with Neuvirth in net. The Sabres were getting some excellent starting goaltending out of him and the Isles know that when they put him between the pipes they will feel a lot more confident. The Isles had made it clear they wanted Halak and Johnson to split starts down the stretch but it was apparent that it simply could not happen. Now, you know that you have two excellent options to choose from and it will undoubtedly give teams some match-up headaches more so than Johnson would.

In a couple of other minor moves the Isles also sent forward Cory Conacher to Vancouver for forward Dustin Jeffrey and goalie David Leggio to Arizona for defenseman Mark Louis. Louis is a typical guy you'd see at the bottom end of an AHL depth chart on the blueline as he loves to get physical and drop the gloves when needed. Bridgeport wanted to add some more grit and protection down there to Matt Carkner in order to protect Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock in what seems to be a lost season. Jeffrey is a veteran forward who can fit in well with the top lines down there and provide plenty of offense.

The Isles didn't make moves just because the teams around them did. They made moves because they were calculated, and the advanced stats will greatly appeal to that crowd. The Isles have become more and more calculating with their moves and these are just others that fall in line with that but they were good ones. In their attempt to address weaknesses they did a good job, but we'll see how Kennedy does with a more defensive oriented role likely coming his way.

Rather than react, the Isles simply did what they've done all season - worry about themselves and not worry about what the other teams around them did, and got some great discounts on some useful, solid contributors without subtracting much from the current roster that has aspirations of getting beyond the opening round of the playoffs.

- Chris

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