For the record, I’m not an Islanders fan. It’s not just the bias against the team I have because of the shellacking the team gave the Capitals franchise back in the day. It’s not just bias because of the tri-state area teams I have more of an inclination to follow the Devils or even tolerate what the Rangers are historically. It’s that I love the sport of hockey and among mismanaged franchises in the league the Islanders have to be one of the most frustrating and that makes me want nothing to do with them.
So, why am I writing about the Isles. Well, for starters they are division and long time rivals so as the old adage goes, you have to know your enemies. And, just like my posts about the Flyers, Devils, Rangers, Sharks, Lightening and Wings that appeared in the past I have family and friends that bleed with the Gorton’s Fisherman so the topic comes up enough that I’ve become actually quite fond of it.
This article by SNY gave less real insights than I was hoping for, but it lays on thick the actual salary cramp that the Islanders are potentially facing. Despite a lot of prognostication to the contrary, actual failing to ice a successful product is nothing new for the last few decades but a financial bind is kind of new and interesting point for the franchise.
That being said, I actually think the Isles will underperform against the salary expectation created, but that’s my hot take. I absolutely feel that despite spending MORE money they got significantly worse as a franchise, not just now, but in the forseeable future and here’s why?
Okoposo for Ladd – Ladd came in, ostensibly if memory serves a tick under 6M while Kyle I believe is at 6M so from a salary perspective it is more-or-less a wash – at least as far as the next couple of seasons are concerned. From a production perspective over the last few seasons they have strikingly similar production numbers so the expectation is given the same types of opportunities they should put up similar numbers again this season.
There’s two difference I see. First, the experience Ladd has in deep playoff runs (06 Canes, 9 & 10 Hawks) was probably worth something to the Isles especially in the short-term trying to get some traction in the early playoff rounds. Which is why the Isles were willing take on Ladd even though he’s 2 years older (crossing the “wrong side of 30”) with more than two years more of wear and tear in games played so far, plus will be 37 when the contract runs out (as opposed to 34 when Okoposo’s current one expires) which is the longer term downside to my second point. I didn’t check General Fanager but my assumption would be he’s protected in the expansion draft leaving the only escape hatch a buy-out at some point if age really does catch up.
Martin for Chimera – In terms of where in the lineup both guys fall and what their skills really are, this is what the Isles did. Martin was a fairly consistent bottom six grinder who was good for between 15-20 points. Chimmer’s production wildly swings from being a 15-20 point guy to being a 30-40 point guy. However, it’s very notable that his high point totals are in seasons where he was getting quite a bit of power play time while the lower point seasons he was lacking the extra man experience to take on other roles. In looking at his 5-on-5 from last year, for example, he’s very much in-line with Martin’s production. And, at 37 his deployment will most likely continue being a bottom six-to-4th liner which fits best as Martin’s replacement. What the Isles lost with Martin was relative youth being 10 year’s Chimmers junior.
Neilson for Parenteau – Neilson’s been a more-or-less a 20/30/50 guy the last couple of seasons while Parenteau struggled to hit 20/20/40 in that same timeframe (quality of teammates caveat should be noted). The expectation might be PA reclaims the magic he once had with the Isles but at 33 it’s more likely than not he’s going to get worse not better despite having 200 games less wear and tear on him compared to Neilson. The only benefit here is the investment in PA was definitely cheeper than what Neilson ultimately commanded on the open market and is likely worth the price paid but by no means is Parenteau on paper a one-for-one replacement for Neilson.
Still, the savings in Chimmer/Parenteau ended up with Cizikas. At 25 he’s probably just hitting his peak years and last season he did step up on the “best fourth line in hockey” to pull at 10/20/30 season out of his hat. The question is does he have another gear in him to move up from the fourth line and become a true middle-six centre? I’ve seen nothing that really says so. He’s a negative possession player both raw career 47.6 corsi 48.4 fenwick and relative -4.2 / -3.7 (according to Hockey Reference) and it’s not much prettier when you look at evens only (corsica). Part of this is likely deployment on the forth line (taking 56% of starts in the D-zone, taking spare parts shifts against top lines, and working the PK) but he skated with Matt Martin who put up a 51.1 corsi two years ago and a 49.9 last year and Cal Clutterbuck who remarkably managed a 51.0 corsi two years ago and 48.3 last year. Comparatively, Cizikas is kind of the weak link on that line having never breached the 50% corsi or Fenwick threshold and would now be tasked with even more 2-way responsibilities. Assuming the 30-point season wasn’t an aberration and with better line mates he can match or possibly exceed that would go a long way to helping off-set the other losses.
Lost in some of this is the net effect of losing the “best forth line in hockey” too, since two thirds of it will be realigned (one moving on and one moving up). Chances are the production of the new forth line doesn’t match what the Islanders have been relying on from that line in secondary scoring which would put additional pressure on the middle six to perform much better than they have the last couple of seasons to make up that difference. Then it becomes less about personnel performance and more about will the new second and third lines be more than marginally better than what they were the last two season in order to off-set the loss of up to 33 goals coming off the fourth line’s production?
Yeah, the guys the article says need to step up will definitely have to step up big time.
The biggest problem has been the overdependency on the 4th line to make up for one of the weakest middle-sixes in the league. The lack of consistently improving middle-six skill is why the team seems to have plateaued the way it did and is set up to completely collapse. While JT could use some better top end talent on his line, there are plenty of examples of elite Centers dragging around lesser players on their line successfully but very few examples of successful teams when the middle six is as much of swiss cheese as what the Isles are skating. It’s too easy to game plan overloading the JT line to mitigate it’s ability to score and then feasting on the middle six knowing that as much as the Isles have the best forth line in hockey it’s still just a forth line (or at best a serviceable third line stuck playing forth line minutes) — And this is just addressing the forwards and not the gaping holes that present themselves 3-7 on Defense and the instability of the goalie pairing.
Will the Isles be good enough to hang with the Pens & Caps? Likely not. The top-end talent on both those teams is much deeper than what the Isles will ice. The real question is how much differentiation does it create between the Isles and Rangers / Flyers / CBJ who will by vying for that third spot in the Metro and the two wild cards (there’s a definitely possibility that both wild cards could come from the Metro which would even then still leave one of those teams on the outside). Will they even be able to fend off the likes of attempting to rise from mediocrity that the Canes and Devils aspire to? I dunno that it makes the Isles significantly better in a way that makes them a lock for a spot but it should be enough to easily ensure they’re entrenched in that four-way battle, even though one could possibly argue the Isles got worse moving forward more than they actually got better.