With the Islanders’ season over, a very important offseason for the team has begun. We’re going to look at the current roster, how it performed this past season and where the team is headed.
Today’s first look is at the Isles’ goaltenders — safe to say, a position that was a complete mess from start to finish in 2016-17.
Season in review
General manager Garth Snow’s decision to keep three goaltenders — Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss and J-F Berube — on the roster from the start of the season did not set the year off right. None of the three played particularly well when given the opportunity; Jack Capuano may have sealed his fate as coach by starting Halak seven straight games in November after Allan Walsh, Halak’s and Berube’s agent, sounded off on Twitter about the ridiculousness of carrying three goaltenders.
The Islanders went 1-4-2 in those seven games, with Halak allowing the tying goal in the final minute of two of them. The Isles went on to lose both, handing away two points that could have made the difference at the end.
Snow had this to say when asked if he regretted how he handled the goaltender situation the first three months of the year: “No, not really. I thought our goaltending struggled the first 10 weeks of the season. We had an injury in Bridgeport with Christopher Gibson, who missed almost the whole season. We only had three NHL-ready goaltenders. There was a fear if we put J-F on waivers, we were confident he would’ve been picked up. We would’ve been left with Jaro and Thomas Greiss and two very young goaltenders. That injury figured into some of our decision making. Sometimes people don’t realize injuries at the AHL level impact decisions up here.”
Of course, Gibson was healthy the first month of the AHL season, so there wasn’t that concern right away.
Halak ended up being the odd man out, waived and sent to Bridgeport on Dec. 31. But, surprise! He thrived in the AHL, steadying his game and tuning out the noise and frustration he had at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Greiss had several solid starts in January and earned himself a three-year, $10-million extension, and Berube decently spotted in as a backup.
However, Doug Weight heavily leaned on Greiss as the schedule condensed in February and early March as Berube started to show signs of inexperience and rust having played so sparingly over two seasons. Greiss started 13 straight games at one point and he showed some fatigue. Halak was called back up on March 24, won all six games he started and nearly carried his team to the playoffs.
He also made Isles fans see red at Snow for not calling Halak up sooner as Berube stumbled and Greiss wore down. It was a weird, weird year in goal for the Islanders.
By the numbers
(win-loss record, save percentage, even-strength save percentage, goals-against average and high, mid and low-danger save percentage as defined by the website Corsica Hockey)
Thomas Greiss: 26-18-5, .913 SV%, .920 EVSV% 2.69 GAA, .819 HDSV%, .927 MDSV%, .983 LDSV%
Jaro Halak: 12-9-5, .915 SV%, .916 EVSV%, 2.80 GAA, .811 HDSV%, .938 MDSV%, .968 LDSV%
J-F Berube: 3-2-2, .889 SV%, .896 EVSV%, 3.42 GAA, .725 HDSV%, .912 MDSV%, .961 LDSV%
Compared to 2015-16, all three goaltenders did not perform as well. So Snow is right that the goaltending, which was a surprising area of strength the year prior despite Halak’s injuries and Greiss’ inexperience, struggled this season.
Seeing Greiss’ numbers down all the way across the board — his even-strength save percentage went from .933 in 2015-16, tied for fifth in the NHL, to .920, tied for 21st — is either an ominous signpost for a goaltender with three more years on his deal or a sign that the overuse the final two months of the season is not beneficial.
Halak’s numbers — a small dip in EVSV% from .919 a year ago to .916 this year, obviously with fewer starts — were relatively consistent after all the shenanigans. He is as intense as Greiss is easy-going, and it’s hard not to conclude that Halak’s slow start, even after such a terrific run in September’s World Cup, came from his dissatisfaction with the three goaltenders.
As for Berube, just 13 starts in two seasons makes it difficult to read into his numbers, other than clearly seeing they were subpar this season. At age 25, he may not be ready to be solely a backup; he may not be an NHL goaltender, or he may be a superstar. Impossible to really know after these last two seasons.
Here’s what Halak said on breakup day: “It’s been a lot of ups and downs obviously. I think it was kind of weird, first half of the season. Then being down, playing a lot of games, it was fun to play games again and keep winning. Coming back here, I enjoyed it — it’s a great group of guys here. It was a great run at the end and we came up a little short. It’s disappointing because you set a goal before the season, you obviously want to make the playoffs. We didn’t accomplish that goal, every time you come up short, it’s tough.
“I love the guys over here. I love to play here. If that’s the case I’m committed to be 100 percent ready and work hard. If it’s somewhere else, that’s not up to me. Wherever I am, if I’m here, I’ll try to do my best here.”
Halak has one year left on his contract at a $4.5 million cap hit. He will almost certainly be the goaltender left unprotected in the expansion draft and it’s equally likely he won’t be claimed.
Berube will be a Group 6 free agent, as he is 25 and did not play 28 games this season. He appears ready to move on. “I’m a UFA so I need to go out and see what’s available, what’s the best fit for me,” he said. “I love the group here, I loved my experience outside of the games. This is a really good group and I was happy to be part of it. We’ll see what’s out there.
“It’s a little early to make a decision and say which way I would go. I’m more than willing to come back if I have a bigger role on the team. I’ve done this for two years and I can’t do it for a third, it would really hurt my development. It’s a big summer to go back to basics and try to move my game forward as much as I can.”
The Islanders do have an impressive prospect pool when it comes to goaltenders. Gibson clearly had a setback year, playing only seven games, but he was called up late in 2014-15 and showed some promise. Draft picks Eamon McAdam and Stephon Williams have had time in Bridgeport and the ECHL, and McAdam had a decent first pro season with a 15-8-0 record and .897 save percentage.
Over in Europe is where the Isles are most excited about goaltending. Ilya Sorokin, the 21-year-old who was the Isles’ third-round pick in 2014, had another stellar season for CSKA Moscow in the KHL — a .929 save percentage and 1.61 goals-against average in 39 games.
But the recent NHL decision to skip the next Olympics may have a trickle-down effect on the Isles’ efforts to get Sorokin to the States for next season. With no NHLers permitted to go to the 2018 Games as of now, the Russian stable of goaltenders is thin, and Sorokin may figure in the national team’s Olympic plans. That makes it far less likely he’d be allowed to leave his home country and league.
Linus Soderstrom, the Isles’ fourth-round pick in 2014, burst onto the scene this season in the Swedish League, leading HV71 to the league championship series that began on Sunday. The Islanders are likely to sign him but leave him in Sweden rather than bring him over to the AHL, depending on what happens with their other goaltenders here.
With the uncertainty surrounding Sorokin, it would not at all be a surprise for the Islanders to open training camp in September with Greiss and Halak as their goaltenders. Both have shown the ability to play well for long stretches but health and fatigue are factors. Can they be co-No. 1 goaltenders?
Sure, as long as there’s no third wheel around.