With the Islanders season a bit more in the rearview mirror, we’ll take a look starting Friday at how the team stands at each position and what may change between now and training camp in September.
First up, the goaltenders. All three of them.
It was a different sort of season in goal for the Isles. Jaroslav Halak set a franchise record with 38 wins last season; injuries limited him to 36 starts this season and opened the door for Thomas Greiss, the 30-year-old journeyman the Isles signed on July 1 to back up Halak, to emerge.
Greiss followed up a strong regular season — .925 save percentage, 23 wins in 38 starts — with a terrific opening-round playoff performance. He dipped along with his team in the second-round loss to the Lightning, but he was certainly a surprise.
And then there’s J-F Berube, who was essentially the emergency goaltender this season. He got in five conditioning games in the AHL and six Islanders starts, spending the rest of his season in street clothes.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation for any of the goalies,” Berube said. “It’s kind of hard to get your work in with three. It ended up pretty well, we tried to make the best of it. There was nothing that was going to change so we had to work with it and work together.”
Let’s break down each of the three and where things stand.
Halak was the clear No. 1 heading into this season, but remember that he wasn’t in net for the season opener at Barclays Center (that was Greiss), nor the season-ending playoff loss (also Greiss). To be a No. 1 you have to be in the big games and Halak, who turned 31 Friday, is a question mark.
He has two years left on his deal at an average annual value of $4.5 million. He also has an appointment this week with a specialist to see if his apparent groin injury on March 8, the one that ended his season, could be a sports hernia that needs surgery. If so, that sets him back even more as offseason workout time begins.
Halak has also been vocal about his displeasure with the three goalies the team carried.
“I’ve tried to tell them and like I said, this is not up to me,” Halak said. “I like it here, but they just have to decide which way they want to go. J-F is a young goalie, Greisser played well all season long, so we’ll see.”
Reading between the lines it’s not difficult to see there’s a rift between Halak and management. He would not bring back much in a trade — think mid-round draft pick — but if general manager Garth Snow decides to go that route, it would be only to shed Halak’s salary to use elsewhere.
Greiss has drawn raves from Snow, coach Jack Capuano and the rest of the Islanders not only for his surprising play this season, but also his laid-back attitude. He’s a hard worker but doesn’t make demands, plays when he’s told and seems to fit in well with a group that doesn’t have many high-strung types.
And also witness Snow’s words when asked if Greiss could be a No. 1: “He came in and displayed a great work ethic, whether he was playing or backing up. Thomas earned the respect from our players and coaches because of his personality, his demeanor, his work ethic and when he got the opportunity to play, he seized it. He proved to be a No. 1 goalie this season. The challenge is to improve, build off that and get better.”
That’s high praise coming from Snow, who rarely gushes about any individual players. It could also be a signal to Halak that if he returns, he needs to not only change his physical health, but also his mental approach to being part of the organization.
Greiss has another year on his deal at a $1.5 million average annual value and he could end up being a very inexpensive No. 1 next season.
Berube is an intriguing case. The Islanders liked what they saw from the 24-year-old, even in his extremely limited work (Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson called Berube’s four-game stint there in January “man against boys” as Berube allowed only four goals in four wins).
He’s a restricted free agent — coincidentally represented by Halak’s agent, Allan Walsh — who will most definitely be offered a contract. Which means he’ll be in the mix for a job next season.
“I want a bigger role next season,” Berube said. “Past couple years I played 40-45 games, that’s when I perform the best is when I play a lot, but again it’s the management’s decision. I’m just here to do what they tell me to do and I have to make sure I show up ready in training camp.”
Could the Isles gamble on a Berube-Greiss tandem next season? It’s certainly possible.
The Isles’ organizational depth in goal has become a source of pride after being a barren wasteland for so many years — Christopher Gibson beat the Caps in the playoff clincher last month and showed lots of promise in the AHL. Isles draft picks Stephon Williams and Eamon McAdam may be fighting to stay out of the ECHL next training camp.
And overseas are perhaps the two most promising prospects, Russia’s Ilya Sorokin and Sweden’s Linus Soderstrom, both of whom will stay in Europe for at least another season or two.
So down the line, there are options. Goaltending prospects don’t really bring back a big return in trades, however, so the only real move Snow has to make this offseason is what direction he wants to go with the big club.
And, right now, moving Halak may be the simplest solution.