There are many ways to evaluate the New York Islanders’ controversial addition of Thomas Vanek in a blockbuster deal Sunday night, but let’s start with this one: Why, in the name of Billy Smith, did they not also insist on getting goaltender Ryan Miller in the deal? Vanek, playing with John Tavares, will be a potent scoring combination, but Tavares, playing with Matt Moulson – who went to the Buffalo Sabres in the deal, along with a 2014 first-round pick and a 2015 second-round pick – was already a potent scoring combination.
Tavares-Vanek has to be far superior to Tavares-Moulson to justify the Islanders’ acquisition cost, given that both of the principal players in the deal are unrestricted free agents following this season.
It’s an interesting gamble by Islanders’ general manager Garth Snow, but spicing up an offence that was already good enough (35 goals in the first 11 games) didn’t meet the team’s primary need, which was shrinking its goals-against average. And while Evgeni Nabokov has been a serviceable goaltender ever since the Islanders landed him as a waiver claim from the Detroit Red Wings, if New York legitimately wants to make some playoff noise one of these springs, they’ll need to shore up their goaltending – and what better way of doing that than going after Miller?
Miller, like Vanek, is unlikely to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier didn’t get into specifics about where talks stand on Miller, only to acknowledge that goaltenders tend to be harder to move because there are fewer landing places for them in the NHL compared to position players. So you’d have to assume that either a) the asking price for Miller was too high; or b) the Islanders don’t believe their goaltending issues are as acute as others might think, and didn’t pursue Miller as part of their negotiations with the Sabres on Vanek.
Moulson has been a reliable NHL goal scorer for four seasons now, all of which coincide with Tavares’s arrival in the league. The two have been close friends for a long time and the chemistry that they developed on the ice was thought to be rooted in their off-ice relationship. How will Moulson adapt to playing without Tavares?
The onus will be on him to prove that he can be a good player in his own right, on a Buffalo team that features Cody Hodgson as their No. 1 centre. Of course, if it doesn’t work out, there’s nothing to prevent the Islanders from bringing Moulson back next year as an unrestricted free agent.
The Islanders are 4-4-3, and coming off a one-sided loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday in which Nabokov’s backup, Kevin Poulin, got the start. The Metropolitan is the worst division in hockey, with only the Pittsburgh Penguins boasting a winning record. Chances are, only three of their eight teams will make the playoffs, and if the Islanders aren’t one of them, then the draft choice acquired by the Sabres will be a lottery pick and could produce another high-end prospect, which is what Regier seems to be stockpiling right now.
For Buffalo, the deal is for the future; for the Islanders, it is a transaction ground strictly in the here-and-now. The Islanders haven’t exactly rocked the NHL with aggressive moves these past half-dozen seasons – Nino Niederreiter for Cal Clutterbuck was their splashiest off-season transaction – but this one signals a shift in thinking. They are no longer the rebuilding Islanders. They believe they are playoff contenders and more. We’ll see.
THE RICK DIPIETRO WATCH: Speaking of the Islanders and curious moves, it will be interesting to see if the Carolina Hurricanes’ unabated run of goalie injuries will turn out to be Rick DiPietro’s ticket back to the NHL.
You remember DiPietro, the former Islander goaltender, right? The poster boy for ’caveat emptor?’ The Hurricanes have signed DiPietro to a tryout contract with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, and he was scheduled to join them this past weekend. Depending upon how he looks – physically and otherwise – DiPietro could be playing AHL games later this week. If the Hurricanes determine he has something left, they may sign him to a contract, given that both starting goaltender Cam Ward and backup Anton Khudobin are currently out with injuries.