Despite the sting of their playoff elimination, the New York Islanders have much to celebrate and much work to do for next season.
Off The Draw
The sting of Monday night’s Game 7 loss to the Capitals will linger for a long while with the Islanders, but that doesn't mean it’s too soon to celebrate their success.
Put that frustrating effort aside and it’s fair to say that things couldn’t have gone much better for them this season. The team strung together its first 100-point campaign in 31 years. The tentpoles of the rebuilding effort—young players like John Tavares, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee saw growth in their games. New ownership came on board to bring commitment and stability to the organization.
But the best news of the season might have been this: Johnny Boychuk, a top-two defenseman who would have been the most coveted of this summer’s free agents, chose to sign with the team long term rather than test the market.
The significance of that seven-year, $42 million deal can’t be overstated. It wasn’t that long ago that the Isles would have been the choice of absolute last resort for a premium veteran. Now they are seen as a legitimate option for any player who has Stanley Cup aspirations. That tells you how far New York has come in a very short time.
The Boychuk deal—as well as signing battle-tested young veteran Nick Leddy, 24, to a seven-year, $38.5 million extension—could be the watershed moment for an organization that is on the verge of taking that next big step. But in the wake of a disappointing first-round exit, it’s clear that there’s still work to be done this summer to keep the growth and momentum going and prevent a dreaded step back next season.
Jaroslav Halak gave the Isles their first dependable No. 1 since the glory days of Rick DiPietro (2003 through ’08, before a succession of injuries sank his career) but there is a need for a reliable backup, preferably a veteran with experience in the role and who can stay sharp with limited use. Michal Neuvirth won’t be re-signed.
The defense boasts four proven pieces—Boychuk, Leddy, Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan—but there’ll be movement on the bottom pair. UFAs Lubomir Visnovsky and Matt Carkner (who spent the season on IR) are out. RFAs Thomas Hickey and Matt Donovan had their moments, but also revealed their limitations. With Brian Strait under contract for one more year, at least one of them is expendable. Rookie Scott Mayfield, who impressed in limited usage during the Caps series, and 2013 first round pick Ryan Pulock could challenge for roles. Ideally, though, both are returned to the AHL while a veteran stabilizer is added via free agency (Jeff Petry?) or trade (Johnny Oduya?).
With a logjam developing in the system, it will be interesting to see how they handle Griffin Reinhart. The fourth pick in the 2012 draft has most of the tools to become a top-four, but his overall game needs work. They could keep him in AHL Bridgeport for another year or two to work on his skating and intensity, but he might have more value as a trade chip if he's used to acquire a proven top-six forward.
Despite a glut of talent up front, the Isles don’t quite have the right mix just yet. Finding someone who can complement John Tavares on the top line is key. Ideally, that would be a veteran finisher who can go to the net and provide a physical presence down low and bring a little speed to the top line.
RFAs Nelson and Lee need to be re-signed. UFAs Tyler Kennedy, Colin McDonald and Eric Boulton (remember him?) will be let go.
It's possible that Michael Grabner could be dangled as trade bait. His speed and ability to work the penalty kill would have appeal on the market.
Coach Jack Capuano’s not going anywhere, but there is room to second-guess his approach this season, especially during the playoffs when he appeared to be coaching not to lose rather than to win. Benching Lee, a promising rookie who scored 25 goals during the regular season, for Games 6 and 7 and failing to pull Halak during the desperation power play in the waning moments of the series finale are two moves that are being questioned. Mark it down as a learning experience, but Capuano needs to prove next season that he’s not just a caretaker. With Doug Weight rumored to be moving on, a veteran assistant who can bring some punch to the power play and improve the Isles’ face-off record would be a plus.
But in all, there's a lot to like here as the Isles move on to their new home in Brooklyn. It's up to GM Garth Snow to continue his solid work. The foundation for much better things is in place.
The numbers game
• The Capitals and Rangers will meet in the playoffs for the fifth time in the past seven seasons, and ninth in their respective histories. They’ve split the eight pervious series, but the Rangers have won the last two.
• Evgeni Kuznetsov is the first rookie in Capitals history to score a playoff series-clinching goal in a Game 7. The last rookie to do so for any team: Adam Henrique of the Devils in double overtime against Florida in the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
• Tyler Johnson is the first player in Lightning history to produce three multi-goal games in the same playoff series. Only Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards have had three multi-goal outings in the same playoff year for the Bolts.
• Montreal won a division championship and just knocked off its rivals from Ottawa in six games. So why are so many Canadiens fans still calling for the head of coach Michel Therrien?