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Black Wednesday Comes to Barclays

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: General Manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders on the phone during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

After the first round of the NHL draft last week, when Garth Snow failed to trade picks to help make up for the impending losses of Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin in free agency, many Islanders fans were already prepared to hit the panic button on the offseason. At the time, it was easy to chalk it up to excessively sensitive fans overreacting because, as we all know, free agency is not usually kind to the Islanders. Now, less than a week later and with free agency still not even underway, the Islanders faithful aren’t just hitting the panic button, instead we’re bashing our faces against it.

Three moves on June 29th, in rapid succession, involved marquee players and two in particular ripped out the hearts of Islander fans: 1)  The Canadiens traded P.K. Subban to the Predators for Shea Weber; 2) The Oilers traded Taylor Hall to the Devils in return for Adam Larsson; and 3) The Tampa Bay Lightning extended Steven Stamkos for eight years at an average of $8.5 million per season.

Of these deals, two were especially hard to swallow. Both the Hall trade and the Stamkos re-signing involved players the Islanders were known to covet. Hall was traded straight up for a single defensemen, and the Islanders, according to multiple sources, were in on Hall up until the Oilers pulled off the deal to send him to New Jersey. The sticking point, apparently, was that the Islanders refused to include Travis Hamonic in the deal.

For me, as much as I wanted Hall—and you can see my column here to see that I was very much on the Hall to the Islanders bandwagon—I think the Islanders made the right call if Hamonic was really the only way to get a deal done. I know that Hall is a former first overall pick and has been one of the premier scoring wings in the western conference over the past three years. But I don’t think fans can underestimate the impact that Hamonic not being traded during the season had in the locker room. As we all know, Hamonic was put between a rock and a hard place earlier this year because of a personal situation. But by sticking it out and—known as a leader in the clubhouse—by helping to propel the team to its first playoff series win in 20 years despite leading for only 45:54 of the 439 minutes and 12 seconds the series lastedHamonic proved himself to be part of the backbone of this franchise. While I have not been in the locker room and have no way of knowing whether, among the blue liners, Hamonic or Nick Leddy or Johnny Boychuk or some other player was more or less impactful on his teammates’ morale, I think it is safe to bet that Hamonic was towards the top of the list if not at the top. And it also bears remembering that Hamonic is signed to a very team-friendly deal, even more team-friendly than would be Hall’s manageable $6 million annually. The bottom-line is that keeping Hamonic, as much as Hall would have injected life into our top line, could have been toxic not just to the team’s defensive depth; it might have caused an all-out mutiny among his teammates.

But what complicates the Islanders not trading for Hall even further—and what may have perhaps fatefully contributed to the team’s decision not to pull the trigger on a Hamonic for Hall swap at the time—was that the Islanders were seemingly likely to pursue Stamkos in free agency. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and we now know that only minutes after the Oilers and Devils finalized the Hall deal, it was announced that the Lightning had re-signed Stamkos.

Stamkos would have been easily the top prize not just in free agency this year; he would have represented the rare instance of a generational player hitting free agency still in his prime. Perhaps, given the fact that until his re-signing, Stamkos’s rumor mill had been relatively quiet about the possibility of returning to Tampa—and in light of reports that the Islanders would be among those teams interested in Stamkos but had not yet contacted Stamkos’s agentthe Islanders were banking on making a serious run at Stammer when they decided to pass on Hall. Regardless of whether a potential pursuit of Stamkos played any role in the Isles’ negotiations for Hall, the loss of Stamkos from the free agency pool ripples well beyond simply depriving the Islanders the chance of adding one of the best scorers in the NHL.

For one, the Islanders, and all the other teams believed to have been interested in Stamkos, are now forced to bid on second-tier players like Okposo, many of whom are proficient scorers but all lacking in the ability to force opponents to gameplan around them. The Islanders have been rumored to be interested in Andrew Ladd and could go after Milan Lucic or a handful of other lower-tier players to try and fill the point-scoring void left if and when Okposo and Nielsen officially go.

And with Stamkos off the market and Hall is out of the cards, there is at least some argument to be made for trying harder to keep Okposo and/or Frans, despite the team’s preemptive goodbye to KO and its seemingly stalled talks with the Great Dane. While Ladd may indeed represent a serviceable replacement for the ~60 points and 20 goals lost by way of Okposo, he turns 31 in December compared to KO being 28. Depending on the relative cost of Okposo and Ladd and how hot the market is for Frans, the Islanders may have to reconsider its hard-line stance on re-upping its own players to preserve chemistry and avoid being left high and dry in the event the team strikes out in the open market.

Assuming both KO and Nielsen are gone, and even if the Islanders do add Ladd or Lucic—like Okposo, Lucic is 28—the Isles will likely have to overpay for the top names because of the thin market this year. Moreover, getting either Ladd or Lucic would represent the best-case scenarios among the free agent pool of forwards, and even still the team will only have succeeded at filling a hole and could get older in the process. By adding a player like Stamkos (or Hall via trade), the difference would be that the Islanders didn’t just patch a hole, they would have gotten better in the course of filling it.

Aside from the impact on the team this year, another, perhaps even more harsh reality, is seemingly looming in the future. That’s because by losing out on Stamkos, the Islanders now must face the real possibility that John Tavares could leave via free agency in two years. Currently, Tavares is signed to an eminently reasonable contract and has been nothing but a good soldier; through losing seasons, tough playoff losses and the move to Brooklyn he has been the face of the franchise and has bled orange and blue.

But now, after watching the team reach its best finish in two decades only to take two steps back personnel wise, it is safe to say that Tavares must be having some doubts about the direction of the franchise and its commitment not just to staying above water but actively pursuing the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup. By adding Stamkos, the team would have been adding one of Tavares’s closest friends in the NHL and been doubling-down on its chase for post-season glory. Making the trade for Hall, to a slightly lesser degree, or trading for P.K. Subban—although that would have been highly unlikely in light of the compensation and his salary cap hit this year—both would have signaled a similar commitment. But instead, the Islanders look like they will at best fill the void left by Okposo with a comparable player who could be slightly better or could be worse. Regardless, it will take time for whomever that player is to build chemistry with Tavares, and there are no guarantees that the first line finds the success that Tavares has gotten used to enjoying (and that’s even after what some would call a down year for the first line this past season).

Maybe Garth still has a rabbit up his sleeve. For Game of Thrones fans out there (spoilers ahead), it shouldn’t totally surprise anyone if a bastard with the last name Snow can come back to life despite a lack of vital signs. But absent some sort of miraculous trade or free agent diamond in the rough, the Islanders are going to be putting heavy strain on untested rookies and perennial role players to step into big shoes. Most alarmingly of all will be if it falls on that rag-tag bunch to hopefully convince the team’s most valuable asset and the face of the franchise that, two years from now, he shouldn’t be shopping for a more desirable sweater.

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