By Daniel Friedman
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Imagine the following:
It's just a few weeks before the 2016 trade deadline, and the New York Islanders are right on the heels of the Washington Capitals for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
They're so close to overtaking the Caps; they can reach out and grab them. And so GM Garth Snow sets out to acquire the reliable top-four defenseman he needs to shore up the lineup and fix a weak spot, one that was voided when Calvin de Haan went down with a shoulder injury.
Only, there's a problem. In fact, there are multiple problems.
Because he went out and swung a reactionary trade for Phil Kessel back in July, he has just a little over $1 million left in cap space, with very limited options to free up more.
If he deals away Kyle Okposo the team arguably gets worse, and gets an insufficient amount of cap relief. That's because the Isles still have to re-sign restricted free agents Ryan Strome, Casey Cizikas, Scott Mayfield and (potentially) Kirill Petrov in the summer.
Meanwhile, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin are set to become unrestricted free agents, and the Islanders would at least like the option of bringing both players back for the 2016-17 season.
In the event he doesn't move Okposo and would prefer to try to re-sign him -- which, given his 70-point pace and chemistry with John Tavares seems to be a no-brainer -- that becomes a lot more complicated because of the cap situation.
If only he'd been more patient. Heck, even without Kessel's production, the Islanders are still in the top five in goals for.
While the above scenario is hypothetical at this stage, it is exactly the type of mess that Snow is trying to avoid.
It's often referred to as "salary cap hell," and it's something that has the potential to really stunt the forward progress of a hockey team. That's quite a seismic shift for an organization that, just a few years ago, was basically inventing ways to reach the cap floor. (Tim Thomas trade, anyone?)
Right now, the Islanders are approximately $9.2 million under the roof. After Brock Nelson inevitably gets his new contract, the team will likely be somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.7-$6.2 million under the cap ceiling. (FYI, Kessel's cap hit this season is $6.8 million, and that's with Toronto retaining $1.2 million.)
Not making a big move now means they'll be able to make a more calculated move later, based on the actual results of their season and definitive strengths and weaknesses of their roster, given how things have played out to that point.
The Islanders can do this, because they have plenty of talent on offense and the flexibility to make timely adjustments should things not start out as anticipated. They don't need to do anything yesterday; this is still a pretty good lineup.
Even if they do plan on adding a player before the regular season opens up, it's probably best to wait until Nelson re-signs to accurately assess how much cap space they have to work with. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Next summer is another issue altogether.
Yes, the salary cap will probably rise by a couple million dollars and, yes, the Isles have contracts coming off the books (Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen and Okposo, to name a few).
Grabner's as good as gone next July, if not sooner. However, I'd like to think the Islanders do have interest in retaining Okposo and Nielsen.
And why the heck wouldn't they, depending on the circumstances? Nielsen's an incredibly versatile player, while Okposo might very well be their second-best forward.
I would think they at least want the option to bring those guys back, even if they end up going in a different direction.
But to trade either or both of them now -- before they even see what kind of year each ends up having or how realistic the idea of keeping them aboard is -- you risk making your team worse and getting it into more salary cap trouble than it's already in for both the 2015-16 campaign and the offseason that follows.
And, at that point, what else can Snow do to clear space? Trade the oft-injured and extremely underperforming Mikhail Grabovski and his $5 million salary that nobody else wants?
Now, if Okposo clearly demonstrates that he's not as effective as he was prior to his retina detachment, and he's a 50-point player asking for $7 million per year, that's a situation where you'd probably explore a trade and would be wise to do so. But let's wait and see if that happens before making a rash decision. I think he's quite capable of being a 70-point guy.
As for his fellow teammates on offense, I think they're quite capable of producing as well.
It's been said that some of the younger scorers on the roster have been inconsistent at times, and that is 100 percent accurate.
Well, the same thing can be said about T.J. Oshie, Brandon Saad and, quite frankly, most top-six forwards outside the elite ranks. People don't like to hear this, but the reality is that scorers tend to be streaky. They have hot stretches and dry spells; that's just the nature of the biz.
I think the Islanders will be just fine on offense, and I also think that, if that ends up not being the case, the season doesn't end in October. You make changes and improve; not everything has to happen in July and August, and certainly not if your salary cap situation is about to get very complicated.
I also don't think that they're a better team than Washington or the Rangers with Oshie or Kessel in the lineup, but that's just me. It's on defense and behind the bench that they simply can't hold a candle to those two clubs.
Snow's best option is to stay the course and not make any rash decisions. It's what has put him and his Islanders on the verge of breaking through, and it's what'll make sure they have a strong chance of finally doing that.
But seriously, remember that Tim Thomas trade? My, how things have changed.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.
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