First thing’s first: the New York Islanders overpaid Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin Wednesday, but they’re hardly alone in that regard. The Panthers handed out eye-bulgingly generous contracts as if they were those annoying handbillers who plague the Vegas Strip; the Capitals gambled in a big way on a pair of former Penguins defensemen; and the Calgary Flames gave Deryk Engelland a deal that’s triggered a bidding war among Hollywood movie studios interested in making it into a blockbuster comedy. With supply almost always dwarfed by demand, there’s virtually no way to avoid forking over more money than you’d prefer.
The additions of Kulemin, Grabovski and goaltender Jaroslav Halak make the Isles a better team than they were last season – and given their good fortune of residing in the NHL’s weakest division, they’ve improved their odds of making the playoffs. But until GM Garth Snow addresses his franchise’s sub-par blueline, there’s every chance they could be on the outside of the post-season picture once again next spring.
With Grabovski and Kulemin in tow, the Islanders’ top two lines (which will include captain and superstar John Tavares and winger Kyle Okposo) have speed and skill. They’ve also got a terrific two-way force in center Frans Nielsen and enough youngsters in the system (Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart, Calvin de Haan) to make fans feel great about the future. Yet even the most optimistic Isles fans would have to admit the quality of their defense corps isn’t comparable to any playoff team. The most experienced member of that unit is Lubomir Visnovsky, a 13-year veteran who at age 37 is only going to be less effective. Travis Hamonic (who’ll be entering his fifth NHL season) and de Haan will be solid players for years, but after that, the blueline is lacking in depth and talent. Reinhart will fit in well once he acclimates to the NHL level, but expecting him to step in this coming year and dominate is more than optimistic, and not in a good way. It’s also foolish to imagine Halak can stand on his head night-in-and-night-out to save the bacon of the D-men playing in front of him.
Thus, the biggest question the Isles face is how to improve the defense corps right away. They did sign American League defenseman T.J. Brennan to a low-risk, one-year contract, but there’s a reason Brennan has bounced around the league and was so readily available to them. The remaining blueliners on the open market – including Michael Del Zotto, Sami Salo and Raphael Diaz – aren’t going to be of much help. So the betterment will have to come via the trade market. Center Josh Bailey, a player widely believed to be available, may be part of any transaction, but rival GMs are unlikely to deal Snow a top-four blueliner in a straight-up, one-on-one return for someone who hasn’t exactly blown people away (66 goals and 177 points) in his first 406 NHL games.
In other words, it’s going to take more than Bailey to land someone of import – and it’s entirely possible, if not probable that Snow will be involved in a continuing search for help on defense throughout the season.
Last year, Snow made a priority out of trying to land a top-tier forward to play with Tavares. He tried with Thomas Vanek and failed miserably, but you could at least see he was attempting to address a long-term desire to make Tavares’ life easier up front. But this season, there is no excuse to ignore the Isles’ back end. With Grabovski and Kulemin in tow, Tavares has a more talented group of forwards with which to work. Halak and fellow newcomer Chad Johnson put their goaltending concerns to rest.
From this point until further notice, any attempt to improve the Isles’ fortunes must focus on the ‘D’.