Contributor Steve L (Follow on Twitter) with his third contribution to Islanders Insight….
When Garth Snow dealt impending free agent Matt Moulson for Thomas Vanek, it became clear that Islanders management felt an élite left winger to play along John Tavares and Kyle Okposo was one of the team’s missing pieces.
While Moulson was a fan favorite, he was only able to approach a point per game in one season. His three 30 goal seasons were a welcome surprise for a player that Snow fished out of the depths of the American Hockey League, but he’s a one-dimensional finisher who isn’t great outside of the offensive zone. At 30, he’s not getting any better (I don’t mean this to be a hatchet job on Moulson, but it’s important to recognize that he wasn’t the answer, impressive as he is on the powerplay).
Needless to say, the Vanek gambit didn’t work, so now the team is back to the drawing board. Filling the spot to the left of Tavares is the number two priority behind fixing the goaltending situation.
Looking at the system and around the league, there are three likely approaches the Isles can take.
The first and most obvious option for Snow is filling the spot with a free agent. With Vanek and Moulson off the list, there are three names that stand out: Dany Heatley, Mike Cammalleri, and Jussi Jokinen. All three are over 30. These are the short-term, potentially high cost options.
Heatley’s production has tailed off since 2010. It’s worth pointing out that this is in large part due to the fact that he falls below Zach Parise in the depth chart and has been shifted over to the right side receiving minimal playing time.
Nor did a shoulder injury last season. His advanced stats in the last few years also leave something to be desired. However, despite being put in a bad situation, his shooting percentage hasn’t been bad. His biggest problem seems to be that he hasn’t been registering many shots, at least in part because he’s been used in a 3rd/4th line role.
It’s possible that he could split the difference between his current and past output on a line with Tavares and Okposo. Of the three, he’s also probably the cheapest. A one or two-year deal for Healtley at $3 million per season likely makes more sense for the organization than a 5 year, $25-$30 million deal for Moulson would have. It’s not a stretch to envision him replicating Moulson’s output.
Mike Cammallari has had an uneven career. But unlike Heatley, his shooting percentage has bumped up since his trade to the Flames in 2012, ranging from 12.8% to 17.2% in the past three seasons. He puts shots on net about as frequently as Alex Steen, and his advanced stats last season were pretty solid.
He seems like a safe bet for a short-term fix, though likely to come at a higher price.
Jussi Jokinen is intriguing. Currently wrapping up a $3 million per year contract, Jokinen lit up the lamp 7 times in 13 games this playoff season. Intelligent Hockey named him one of five advanced stats all-stars this season (along with one Brock Nelson). While his offensive output hasn’t been all that impressive throughout his career, he plays a solid two-way game and is comfortable alongside elite talent.
Since 2009-2010, his shooting percentage has varied from 9.8% all the way up to 18.8%, though he seems to turn things up in the post-season, where his career shooting percentage is 19.5%. Because of all the positives, he may well end up with the highest price tag of the three.
Signing one of the three above players would be a short-term bridge. That approach isn’t necessarily unreasonable. After all, the Islanders hold the 5th overall pick this year and there is a glut of well regarded left wingers that should be available at that position. Leon Draisaitl who slipped from 2nd to 4th ranked among North American skaters and 5th ranked Michael Dal Colle are the two most obvious choices, though the 6th, 7th, and 8th ranked North American prospects are also left wingers. There are plenty of options through the draft. It’s very plausible that one of those players could be ready to claim an NHL spot within two years.
Moreover, there is a big wildcard in the system: Taylor Cammarata. The 5’7,2013 3rd round pick has elsewhere been called the “Moneyball pick” of his draft class. Cammarata was the USHL’s leading scorer last year, and went to the NCAA finals with the Minnesota Golden Gophers this year, scoring a goal in the last game that they dropped to Union. His 27 points in 39 games was the kind of drop-off from his 93 points in 59 games in his final USHL year that suggest his size could well be a limiting factor as he works towards the NHL. His talent is clear. He outscored Nathan Mackinnon by wide margins during their time together in both midget and bantam hockey. If he’s able to adapt to playing with men, and the Islanders take a left winger in the first round, they could well have two options to fill that spot after Heatley, Cammallari, or Jokinen walks.
The second potential solution is a trade. It’s no secret that Garth Snow has taken a serious run at Max Pacioretty in the past. Given his age, production, and modest long-term contract, he’s an appealing option. His advanced stats are also very good. It’s hard to envision what Garth would have to part with to pull off that trade. Moreover, rumors suggest if he’s traded at all it will not be within the Eastern Conference.
Another left winger who has been tied to many more trade rumors is Winnipeg’s Evander Kane. At 22, the former 4th overall pick has already played in 5 NHL seasons, already registering one 30 goal campaign. He also finished 10th in shots/60 minutes in the NHL (2 spots down from Pacioretty) in 2013) The Jets were thought to be looking for a shakeup, including moving Kane, until new head coach Paul Maurice righted the ship mid-season and gave the Jets a credible shot at the playoffs. That might have quelled the desire for major roster moves, though even late season some pundits were still claiming that the Jets need to trade Kane, though others have cautioned against this, citing his potential to be a 40-50 goal scorer. Rumour has it that Snow did kick the tires last season. If the Jets decide that they could use that $6 million better elsewhere, or if they’re looking to stock up on young talent, it could make sense for them to trade Kane to the Eastern Conference. Perhaps that first round pick, a player, and a prospect would be enough. I’ll just throw out there that Josh Bailey, whose advanced stats are actually pretty good and who came off a career high point total, could also use a change of scenery. If he gets some confidence back and starts shooting the puck, he could well be a serviceable middle-six forward. Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but this doesn’t sound completely impossible – more likely than bringing over Pacioretty, at least. There might be other trade options, but those are the two I’ve heard connected to the Isles.
The third solution is to fill the position from within. That would likely also require them to bring in outside help to fill a second line vacancy – maybe one of the free agents listed above. Brock Nelson looked good in that role, and Anders Lee has been very impressive thus far. However, the idea of keeping Lee, Strome, and Nelson together is also very appealing. That could be a very good second line for a long time. With Grabner, Nielsen, and Bailey on the third line, and Martin, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck on the fourth line, the Islanders would have a very impressive bottom nine. Then again, Nelson, Tavares, and Okposo as a first unit with Lee, Strome, and a free agent (Gaborik, Heatley, Hemsky, Jokinen, Callahan, etc.) could also round out the roster nicely.
Ultimately, I’m weary of big trades at this point. I suspect Garth Snow is as well. It’s not generally his style, and his last attempt didn’t work out. The young talent the Isles have amassed is four pieces away from being a contender – Reinhart and a new goaltending tandem could quickly bring that to one – so my hope is that a blockbuster isn’t in the offing unless the primary pieces going the other way are picks and prospects, which the Islanders can spare.
I’m partial to the first option and drafting Dal Colle, if he’s available (which he should be). Perhaps that’s just my bias for building from within speaking, but I see that as the safest long run option unless they get a bargain on Kane.