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Islanders mailbag: Goaltenders, defensemen, penalty kill, Tavares and more

What’s to come for the Islanders at goaltender and defense? Arthur Staple tries to answer that and more.

Jaroslav Halak #41 of the Islanders replaces Thomas

Jaroslav Halak #41 of the Islanders replaces Thomas Greiss #1 during the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Barclays Center on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Newsday’s Islanders beat writer Arthur Staple answers questions from his Twitter followers in his latest Isles mailbag:

@czar0406: With Halak on his last year of his contract, Greiss showing he is at best a career backup, and Sorokin staying put in the KHL, where do the #isles go from here finding a true starting goaltender? #StapeChat

@TMon1019: Chances isles go after a goaltender before the holidays?

Apologies to the other 40 or so folks who asked similar questions, but these two seem to represent the prevailing viewpoint. There are other issues to be addressed below, but the predominantly ugly numbers for both Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak have everyone wondering what the Isles will do in goal despite a decent record so far.

Now, let’s dig in a little here: Greiss, despite the 8-3-2 record, has a .903 even-strength save percentage (all goaltender numbers courtesy the invaluable Corsica Hockey). Out of 33 goaltenders with at least 500 minutes played this season, that number is 30th.

Halak, meanwhile, is ninth at .931. That may surprise some readers. Halak’s real flaw is allowing a ridiculous six shorthanded goals on 13 shots, plus a low-danger save percentage (Corsica Hockey does the danger ratings) of .947, which is last among those 33 goaltenders.

So Greiss overall has not been good, and Halak has been consistently better but softer on shots he needs to stop. That’s a bad combination.

Greiss, of course, has two more years at $3.33 million per, which is not exactly movable. Halak is a free agent after this season. If the Isles are to do anything in goal, one of the two veterans has to be moved out. Calling up Christopher Gibson, currently sporting a .908 save percentage in Bridgeport, is the simplest move, but I doubt Garth Snow or Doug Weight wants to revisit the three-goaltender circus.

On the trade front, there are some options, but they likely come at a cost, both financial and assets. The Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard was available last season but is now Detroit’s No. 1. He’s 33 and he has one more season at a $5.29-million cap hit.

Marc-Andre Fleury is in a similar spot with Vegas, having one more season at $5.75 million left. He still has not played since an early-season concussion, however, and he seems to be one of the faces of the Golden Knights, who are maintaining their terrific start. Not sure George McPhee would be willing to break up the good Vegas thing this soon.

Among cheaper options, Jets goaltender Michael Hutchinson could be available, even though he’s needed with the big club now as a backup with Steve Mason injured. He’s young and cheap and has a decent amount of experience.

So that’s where we are. I would expect Halak to play here in Pittsburgh on Thursday and if he’s good, he may get an extended look.

@Werford: Is it too early to start worrying about shoring up the defense, and if not, what moves could conceivably be made to address that issue?

‏ @ahmadtimsah: Any chance we acquire a top 4 defenseman? Clearly the blueline is a weakness.

@AZisimatos: What would you do to improve the Isles’ horrendous defense?

Here’s big issue No. 2. Now, when it comes to giving up too many goals as the Islanders have, this isn’t just on the six defensemen, or the 12 forwards or the one goaltender. To give them up in such a sustained and consistent manner means it’s everyone.

Isles forwards have been flying the zone quickly, likely because offense is what has driven this start. As Weight has noted, everyone gets excited at the prospect of goals and assists. Defense is a little tougher to play when the pucks are going in, since it’s frankly kind of boring and thankless.

This is also a by-product of having so many younger players, whether the three among eight defensemen or three among 12 forwards. Seeing a few of Josh Ho-Sang’s giveaways on Tuesday night or a couple wrong turns by Ryan Pulock or Scott Mayfield may make Weight’s hair gray, but that’s what you live with when you have young guys.

What the Islanders need on defense likely is not a big crease-clearer — that’s not going to help. They really need a puck-carrying defenseman who’s got the skating skills to get out of the zone and up in the play.

Of course, 30 other teams wouldn’t mind a player like that, which is why they so rarely get moved. Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be perfect for the Islanders, but there’s zero evidence he’s available now or what the cost would be.

Weight said after Tuesday’s game he’s near the time when his third-pair defense rotation will have to be settled and the Isles will have a set top six. Pulock has shown some affinity for getting up in the play; Mayfield has had some good moments this season as well. But, as seen on Tuesday, when those two right-handed shots play, the Calvin de Haan-Adam Pelech pair is split up, and that didn’t look so hot.

So perhaps the third pair will be Thomas Hickey and Pulock. Or Hickey-Mayfield. Or Weight was hinting that carrying eight D is too burdensome and a move is coming. We will see.

@BaltimoreSpurs: PK is a big concern at the moment, do you think GS looks to add a 4th line PK’er type? I think the loss of Kulemin was underrated due to his PK play.

The PK has fallen off a cliff the last 2-3 weeks, coinciding with Nikolay Kulemin’s long-term injury. Casey Cizikas has joined the Isles here in Pittsburgh and his return could help – Cal Clutterbuck could use his center back.

If the Isles were looking around for a Kulemin replacement, Vegas’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare fits that role pretty well. He’s got another year at a modest $1.45 million per on his deal and he’s 32, but his underlying numbers are pretty solid and he kills penalties.

As with Fleury, however, there’s no indication Vegas wants to mess with what they’ve got going right now.

@szisles: #StapeChat what is your biggest concern outside of the amount of goals team is letting in the net so far this season? Thanks Art! #isles

Definitely getting five-on-five offense from the blue line. The Isles’ defensemen have 10 even-strength goals this season; Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have six between them. De Haan and Pelech have played quite well as the second pair and they are getting in on goals, but neither has a ton of confidence to fire off shots in the offensive zone or get a rush going.

As noted above, those sorts of defensemen don’t just fall into your lap. The Isles do have two defensemen in Bridgeport with 12 goals between them in Sebastian Aho and Devon Toews, so perhaps there’s a chance one or both of them gets to make an appearance this season.

@smithsnyi: Has the coaching staff though about changing the style of play in order to fix the goals against problem or do they feel it’s a personnel thing?

I doubt that, 27 games in, Weight and his coaches would abandon their system, particularly when it’s producing good offensive results. I sense there are tweaks and reminders, as happened when Weight took over for Jack Capuano last season. Tuesday was a mess, but that has been an aberration this season – their three ugly losses (Columbus opening night, Dallas last month and Tuesday) were really ugly, but the Isles still haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation this season. Too soon to react so strongly.

@andersIee: Tavares said he hasn’t ruled out signing during the season, if the Isles win belmont before the season is over... do you see him signing before the season is over?

I don’t, but it’s certainly more of an option if the Isles definitely are headed to Belmont before the season ends. Knowing what I know of Tavares, I get the sense his only focus is the season and that even taking a day or two away to announce a deal might not be what he wants.

Tavares hasn’t let anything slip, so he could be itching to sign and get it over with. But he doesn’t seem the type, so my best guess is it all waits until after the season.

@marknagel22: How is Tanner Fritz viewed throughout the org? Could he see a shot at NHL level this year or next?

He’s a nice find, a veteran minor-leaguer who’s showing he can produce down there. In some years gone by, he’d be a sure call-up and get a few games at the NHL level as a reward. But the Isles are a deeper team than years gone by, so there’d have to be a spate of injuries for Fritz to get a call. They certainly like seeing him develop, even at age 26.

Keep up with #StapeChat and @StapeNewsday on Twitter all season for more Islanders news and mailbags.

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