The New York Islanders have made some noise since the end of the 2012 season and heading into this early part of the 2013-14 season, that’s for certain. Nobody can deny that.
First it was the surprising first round playoff matchup against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by a summer of anticipation and hope that the team would carry that to a strong start when the schedule reverted back to a full 82 game slate.
The inconsistency that we have seen so far as the team sits at 4-4-3 obviously did not sit well with management as much as the coaching staff and players, as New York last night traded fan favorite Matt Moulson to the Buffalo Sabres along with two draft picks for Thomas Vanek.
The first reaction around the hockey world and on social media around Islanders country was disbelief and shock. How could the team trade Moulson? Why did we not see this coming? Is Vanek really that much of an upgrade where we also had to include not one, but two draft picks? What about the defense? Goaltending anyone?
Some of those are legitimate questions and concerns, others are not. Let’s break each one down and see if we can analyze the deal a little further…
How could the team trade Moulson?
Matt Moulson will turn 30 on November 1 of this year. He has given his heart and soul to the organization that gave him his first opportunity in the National Hockey League at being a full-time regular contributor, plucking him off the waiver wire from the Los Angeles Kings. He missed one game in four seasons with the club, accumulating 112 goals in 293 games (full season average of 31).
But he is also due to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and will most likely be looking for a contract in the neighborhood of 5mm or possibly more. The initial thought was he was not going to get that from general manager Garth Snow.
Moulson has looked slow as the overall speed of the game picked up. In all three zones, he has had trouble getting to pucks along the boards, does not play a physical style and is not known to create opportunities for himself. Playing with John Tavares absolutely benefited him greatly, as Matt collected 109 of his 131 points scored during 5 v 5 situations with Tavares as his centerman.
At the end of the day, it’s a business and the team obviously needed a wake up call.
Why did we not see this coming?
The writing on the wall is always present when it comes to unrestricted free agents in the last year of their deal. It’s possible the Islanders moved Moulson off the Tavares line earlier in the season to get a first hand look at how he performed on his own.
Bottom line, nobody knows or sees what Snow has in play or what he might do. He has always been very guarded with that information and this situation highlighted that perfectly.
Is Vanek really an upgrade over Moulson?
Vanek has spent his entire 8 year career in Buffalo, playing with such centers as Cody Hodgson, Tim Connolly, Derek Roy and the like. None of whom, if it needs to be mentioned, are in the same galaxy as Tavares. He has proven to also be very dependable, missing just 32 games in those aforementioned 8 years. He scored 250 goals in 585 games for an average of 35 per season.
Based on his previous play and talent he had to work with in Buffalo, it’s clear that Vanek is more of a creator and not an opportunist. He can make his own chances and is a much more fluid skater than Moulson.
What he also possesses is leadership ability, marked by him being named one of the co-captains of the Sabres prior to the start of this season. As an unrestricted free agent also next summer, it will be interesting to see if he signs long-term with the Islanders and at what cost. The safe bet is on Snow re-structuring Tavares’ deal to keep him the highest paid player before moving to a hard sell on Vanek, using Brooklyn as leverage.
As far as the draft picks are concerned, nobody believed the Islanders were going to be a bottom ten team anymore and the word around the league’s most knowledgeable of incoming draft classes has already ranked 2014 as a weak one. The second round pick in 2015 is basically a 50/50 proposition and if we all go back to the Ryan Smyth trade Snow orchestrated, none of those players (Nilsson, O’Marra) are currently playing in the NHL and have had lackluster careers.
What about the defense and goaltending?
We have seen the problems that exist on the backline already this season with a young and inexperienced group missing Lubomir Visnovsky, currently sidelined with a concussion. But those problems extend out to the forwards, as I explained yesterday.
Yes, they need to improve but a total team commitment is more needed at present. Valuable, good, steady defenseman are usually not put on the trade block and if so, are extremely difficult to get due to cost. If fans are willing to part with Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, etc…maybe as that would be the likely starting point for discussions.
The system is extremely deep defensively with Griffin Reinhart, Andrey Pedan, Calvin Dehaan, Scott Mayfield and current Islander Matt Donovan that the need to continue to show patience with this current group is of the utmost importance. Help is on the way and will be here as soon as next season. Even then, it’s unrealistic to expect the youngsters to jump in and start playing 20-25 quality minutes from the onset.
In goal, that will be a situation that could last into next summer, when the free agent market opens up and there are likely to be attractive items on the shelves for Snow to do some shopping. For now, Evgeni Nabokov has proven to be dependable, if not spectacular and Kevin Poulin needs to play more than once every two weeks to establish a rhythm. With Mikko Koskinen in the KHL and Anders Nilsson struggling in Bridgeport, help is not on the way in the immediate future.
Snow has obviously gambled before and done so again here. He has longed for a ‘true’ offensive winger to pair with Tavares from the beginning and seems to have finally landed his man. What it also shows is some fire in the belly of management and the coaching staff that the current state of affairs on the ice will not continue without repercussions. This team needs to live up to heightened expectations and the waiting was over. It shows a willingness to improve the on-ice product in any way possible and also the need to spend will be evident.
There should not be any reason the Islanders will not make Vanek a competitive offer to stay on Long Island and continue his career next to Tavares on a young and rising team with a new arena set to welcome them in 2015-16.
Whether they get Thomas to sign or not, in the end, will not ultimately be up to them.
But in looking at it for what it is at the present moment in time, it was a gamble the Islanders HAD to take to show that mediocrity will not be accepted and neither will the status-quo.