July 1st marked Christmas Morning around the NHL. However, for the New York Islanders, it is normally a holiday we do not celebrate. We leave the milk and cookies and a note for Santa, and we have our tree decked out, but Santa never comes. The chimney is empty and no presents are left when we wake up the next morning.
In fact, last year, we woke up to find the milk, cookies, and Christmas tree gone at first light, as Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake, Tom Poti, and Viktor Kozlov bolted the first chance they got. This off-season, General Manager Garth Snow has kept expectations at a bare minimum, preaching the new, post-Mike Milbury mantra of building through the draft and promoting from within. It makes sense when you have Kyle Okposo waiting in the wings. It does not if you think Andy Hilbert belongs on the third line.
We barely put up the tree this year, electing to spare the tinsel and the ornate decorations around the house. But, Snow surprised us. He made a nice play for defenseman Mark Streit. Yes, he overpayed for the Swiss assassin, but a) we had the room under the cap and b) you have to overpay to convince most people to play here in the short-term. Snow followed up the Day One Streit surprise with the affordable signing of class-act Doug Weight to a one-year deal. Weight will be reunited with Bill Guerin in an attempt to recapture the magic of the 2006-07 season, where Guerin scored 28 goals with Weight riding shotgun. The deal (1 yr, $1.75 mil) is incentive-laden, as it should be.
However, the question is: are the Islanders done shopping this off-season? Snow is intimating that he is finished for all intents and purposes. I think he should make a couple other moves. The Islanders have 24 players under contract, and only 23 can be protected from the waiver draft before the season begins (remember the waiver draft in which we poached Chris Osgood in 2001?). EDIT: 17 of the 24 players currently signed are signed to one-way contracts (source: On The Islanders Beat blog by Greg Logan on newsday.com), so no players have to be exposed to the waiver draft yet because the 7 players to qualifying offers may still be two-way deals, allowing the Isles to stash them at Bridgeport.
Here are my suggestions:
1) One more top-six forward. Coming into the off-season, we needed a playmaking center (Weight) and a finisher to play among the top-two lines. Snow has to fit this into the overall "building from within" plan, but a short-term deal for a veteran or a trade for an under-30 building block would be a huge win. But, even with the rebuilding plan, someone has to score and the organizational depth does not exist to compete nightly without some more outside help. Cap space can be a commodity in trade as the season approaches, so this may not happen right now. Outside of Okposo and possibly Rick DiPietro, is anyone really untouchable right now?
2) Get Team Tough(er). Coach Ted Nolan is all about grittiness, but the Islanders are not team tough. There are quite a few UFAs who were available this off-season who are "shift disturbers". Teams can no longer carry one-dimensional pugilists, but guys who get under the other team's skin, like Sean Avery (signed by Dallas), Bobby Holik (signed by New Jersey), and Daniel Carcillo (RFA) could be (or could have been) had. Georges Laraque is still out there and would be a deterrent for the liberties taken against our club for the last few years. Carcillo may not be worth an offer sheet, knowing his penchant for taking dumb penalties and flying off the handle.
3) Take a shot at a young RFA. The Islanders have set themselves up well. They have cap space to burn, a lot of draft picks made in a stacked draft, and the determination to stay young and improve. They can afford to let loose with some draft picks. How about making a play for Jay Bouwmeester (http://www.nhl.com/nhl/app/?service=page&page=PlayerDetail&playerId=8470151)? He is a franchise d-man and it would cost the Isles some serious first-round picks in the next 3 years. But, would any of those future first-rounders measure up to Bouwmeester (12 and 15 goals in his last two seasons)? Plus, J-Bow has had 389 games of NHL experience at the young age of 24 and has received some instruction from the color analyst for the Florida Panthers...Denis Potvin. Other RFAs listed in the top 50 Free Agents by The Hockey News (July 1, 2008 issue) have mostly signed with their previously-contracted club (Shea Weber, Corey Perry, Mike Green, Jeff Carter, Andrei Kostitsyn), but there has not been a single word on Bouwmeester. Could this be in Snow's plans?
Whether the Islanders continue to "kick the tires" for any of the other free agents this off-season, you have to like what Snow has done this year. He has truly learned from last year that Islander fans need Christmas in July instead of picking off the leftovers in August.