Cal Clutterbuck is on pace to have his highest scoring season as a New York Islander, he’s averaging more ice time than he has in any other year with the club and he was given an alternate captaincy ahead of the campaign.
And even with all that, it’s hard to understand how exactly the Islanders saw fit to have the 29-year-old winger a five-year, $17.5-million extension.
Clutterbuck is undoubtedly one of the best at playing the specific role he plays, which is to say that if you’re looking for a hard-nosed player who’s going to put his body on the line, he’s your guy. Fans love him, teammates assuredly do, too, and he’s exactly the kind of bottom-six player that most GMs around the league would love to have on their team at the right price.
Problem is that it’s really tough to call $3.5 million per season the right price, and that’s exactly what Clutterbuck will be earning come the start of the 2017-18 campaign. That’s roughly the same cap hit as others such as Kyle Turris, Cam Atkinson, Joel Ward and Matt Read will be carrying next season, and that’s only to name a few.
Another worrisome part about the deal is that it’s hard to see how even the biggest fitness freak could maintain their ability to play Clutterbuck’s style into their mid-30s. The wear and tear on Clutterbuck’s body by the time he reaches the back-end of the contract could be substantial. Despite him playing up the lineup right now, he’s better suited to a bottom-six role and definitely will be later in his career. If he loses a step, $3.5 million will be a lot to fork over for a fourth-line winger and it’ll be a deal that’s near impossible to move.
But it goes beyond simply the signing of Clutterbuck, because there has now been a trio of deals handed out by Islanders GM Garth Snow that have been puzzling — and, truthfully, concerning — when it comes to the future of the team.
Ahead of free agency, there was the signing of Casey Cizikas to a five-year, $16.75-million deal. Then came the monster seven-year, $38.5-million contract inked by free agent Andrew Ladd. The Clutterbuck signing is No. 3.
It should be noted that the deals for Clutterbuck, Cizikas and Ladd don’t actually prevent the Islanders from doing all that much in the next two seasons. In fact, as of next season, every single current Islander forward will be locked up to a contract. Come 2018-19, when John Tavares becomes a free agent, the slate is wiped rather clean with the team able to operate with more than $40 million in cap space. Beyond Tavares, the Islanders’ UFAs come 2018-19 will include Josh Bailey, Nikolai Kulemin, Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski and Thomas Hickey.
And $40-plus million can buy you a lot, and certainly it will allow the Islanders to hang on to Tavares, if he chooses to remain with the team. (Not to say he won’t, but a lot can happen between now and July 2018.) All the UFAs, save maybe Bailey and Hickey, will be allowed to head elsewhere, as well. A restricted free agent deal for Brock Nelson could be pricey, but the Islanders should realistically be able to lock him up. As of right now, the Islanders will also be without an NHL goaltender under contract, but there will be stop-gap options available. So, yes, the Islanders should be fine in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
However, things could get dicey after that.
Come 2019-20, the Islanders will watch Travis Hamonic become a UFA, see the end of entry-level deals for Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Joshua Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle and still have more than $12.3 million locked up in Ladd, Cizikas and Clutterbuck. Finding the money to lock up those five players, as well as any others who could be seeking new contracts around that time, will be incredibly difficult.
The cost of those trio of deals goes beyond money and cap space, though, because there’s a serious possibility the Islanders could waste some of the best years of Tavares’ career. If the Islanders can only afford to hang on to the pieces they have without being able to add any veteran or prime-aged players, it gets hard to see how this franchise takes the next step forward, even with Tavares in his prime.
They’ll need a few adds on defense, a few forwards who can contribute and the goaltending situation will need to be figured out. Ilya Sorokin should give Islanders fans hope, but even the best goaltending prospects sometimes don’t pan out in the big league. If the Islanders need to improve in goal when their prospects are hitting their stride, the money spent in the past seven months could very well prevent that from becoming a reality.
It’s big-money, head-scratcher deals like Clutterbuck’s that teams have had to buy their way out of in the past, and it’s scary to think the Islanders could have set themselves up for the same fate three times over. The Islanders' post-season performance was reason for excitement, but now it seems, more than anything, there's cause for concern about what the future could hold.
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