It’s been a season that has tested the patience and resolve of even the most optimistic of Islander fans.
A half-hearted attempt of chasing down a playoff spot, sub-par defending that exposed sub-par goaltending, a lack of forward depth and lack of secondary scoring made it a miserable year for a team, who were believed to be ‘one or two pieces away from competing’. Amidst all of this and a lack of leadership and direction off the ice, has of course been an even more pressing issue – the future of captain John Tavares.
Even in this most underwhelming of season’s, JT still managed to post 37 goals and 47 assists in all 82 games, and on July 1, the Islanders’ franchise player will hit free agency as an unrestricted free agent. For those unfamiliar with the complexities of NHL player contracts, he is essentially in football terms ‘on a Bosman’ – free to discuss a contract with any other team and the Islanders unable to demand anything in return for their Canadian star player.
The Islanders could have theoretically chosen to have traded him away midway through the season at the Trade Deadline, but this was a never a realistic option, with Tavares being the figurehead of the franchise and still, on paper at least, looking to clinch a playoff place.
Tavares himself has been the consummate professional throughout this entire process. Even with the unrelenting Toronto media continually trying to talk up a move of the Ontario-born centre joining the Maple Leafs, Tavares has patiently straight-batted questions around his future time and time again – the same clear message each and every time: ‘I want to win things with the Islanders, I am very happy in New York, I’m going to think about everything at the end of the season’.
You cannot blame JT for wanting to explore his options. Since being drafted first overall by the Islanders in 2009, Tavares has played playoff hockey in just three of his nine seasons in New York. Now in the closing weeks of his $5.500,00 annual contract, Tavares will have turned 28 by the time the 2018/19 season starts and not only can he expect he substantial salary increase, he can expect to be courted by teams who are closer to challenging for the Stanley Cup than Islanders.
Tavares appears to be heading into free agency with an open-mind, but as we saw with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos – who hit free agency only to look at the market and decide to extend his stay with the Lightning – getting JT to re-commit with the Islanders is most definitely doable and the onus is very much on the Islanders to convince him to stay.
News earlier this season confirming the Islanders would be moving away from Brooklyn to Belmont, NY, in a purpose-built arena, was a big step off the ice to resolving another long standing issue that had been nagging away at the organisation, and just as encouragingly, things would appear to slowly be shaping up with improving the actual team.
Lou Lamoriello was named as President of Hockey Operations last month in a move which will appease a large number of the fanbase who have been fiercely critical of current GM Garth Snow. Snow at presents remains in post but the arrival of 75-year-old Lamoriello should see his responsibilities diminished.
Lamoriello, a former three-time Stanley Cup winning GM and President with the New Jersey Devils, is in contact with Tavares’ agent on a ‘daily basis’ according to Canadian sports network TSN, and the discussions are around an eight-year contract extension.
Whilst the Islanders have the cap space in which to tie down Tavares, experienced Lamoriello needs to make some smart moves to persuade him the team are improving.
In recent days, Ilya Kovalchuk, a former NHL All-Star from his time with the New Jersey Devils, has been linked with a return to the NHL and being reunited with Lamoriello with the Islanders. At 35 Kovalchuck is a left winger who falls very much under the ‘win now’ category.
He put up a league best points record of 31 goals and 32 assists in just 51 games in the KHL with SKA St Petersburg this season and is said to have a number of NHL teams chasing after him.
TSN say Kovalchuk is looking for a 2-3 year deal worth around $6.25 million per season and if Kovalcuk can have assurances that Tavares is to re-sign, it can easily seeing him becoming an Islander.
Another player with close ties to Lou Lamoriello could solve another issue in the Islanders roster – goaltending.
Jaroslav Halák is another unrestricted free agent and faces an uncertain future after a disappointing season, and his back-up Thomas Greiss looked even more unsteady. That could see Lamoriello make a move for New Jersey’s Cory Schneider.
Lamoriello took Schneider to New Jersey in 2013 and the 30-year-old has four years left on a $6,000,000 deal as well as a no-trade clause, which could be waived if he believes a new challenge will bring the best out of him after a poor season (2.93 GAA, 907 SV%).
Both moves would be an upgrade on the current of roster and coupled with the security of the Islanders having a new long-term home to look forward, could just persuade John Tavares to extend his stay on Long Island.