Isles Goaltender Development Found Wanting

The upper body injury that limited Jaroslav Halak to just 40 minutes of preseason action will also keep him out of tonight’s season opener against Chicago.

Injuries happen, and with the Slovak stopper labelled as ‘day-to-day’ it doesn’t seem like an issue that will keep the Islanders #1 sidelined for long. But it has left the club thin on the ground when it comes to goaltending options, casting a light on the slack job the franchise has done developing its netminders in recent years.

Thomas Greiss, who will start against the Blackhawks tonight in the Islanders first game at the Barclay Centre, was a San Jose Sharks draft pick who spent a year with Arizona and then Pittsburgh before signing with the Islanders as an unrestricted free agent this summer.

In Halak’s absence, Calder Cup winner Jean-Francois Berube will partner Greiss. The Islanders claimed Berube off waivers from the Kings last week.

Halak himself was a Montreal draft pick who represented the Canadiens, Blues and Capitals before signing on Long Island last summer.

So options 1, 2 and 3 pulled all come from outside of the Islanders system. Having one, or maybe two, of your first choice trio arrive via free agency or trade isn’t unusual – but all three? Ouch.

Worse still, should Greiss or Berube go down, or completely drop the ball, where does General Manager Garth Snow turn? There is no clear option at this point. Even claiming Berube felt like the action of a club who knew Halak might miss some time but also knew they had no other option.

And that is criminal for an NHL club.

NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley wrote about the importance of having a third option in today’s NHL; with a demanding schedule, injuries and even dips in form it is almost impossible to operate without a competent third goaltender in the system.

The Islanders depth chart might not look bad – with six netminders listed as ‘in the system’ on the clubs official website – but break the surface and the situation is embarrassing for a club that sports a former NHL goaltender as their General Manager.

There simply wasn’t a clear third option before Berube joined.

Of those in the Islanders system, Christopher Gibson, acquired as part of the Michael Grabner trade, has just one year’s pro experience and Stephon Williams, ranked 14th in InGoal Magazine’s Top 50 NHL Goaltending Prospects for 2015-2016, has played just five games in the professional ranks.

Both have potential, but for a club with playoff aspirations it’s a lot to ask of either of these 22-year olds to step up if Halak or Greiss go down. They need time to develop their game – not that Bridgeport is the best place to do that, but we’ll come to that later…

Ilya Sorokin, a 3rd round selection in 2014, is signed to CSKA Moscow of the KHL and Linus Soderstrom remains in his native Sweden with Djurgardens. Europe may be an ideal place to develop for both young goaltenders, but they can’t help the Islanders in the here and now, and like Gibson and Williams are some years away from being legitimate NHL calibre netminders.

That leaves Eamon McAdams, unspectacular for Penn State in the NCAA Big Ten, and SKA St. Petersburg goaltender Mikko Koskinen – whose presence on the list belies the distance between the 27-year old and a place on the Isles bench. It’d be a shock if the Finn ever appears in orange and blue again.

But the real fear here is that the others listed as ‘in the system’ end up like Koskinen, and become the latest names on a long list of failed goaltenders drafted by the organisation.

The Islanders struck lucky with Rick DiPietro – the strongest goaltending prospect in years, a virtual slam dunk to make the NHL. The Winthrop, Massachusetts native was given the clubs full backing – figuratively and financially. Even through his wretched run of injuries the club gave him every chance to reclaim the starting role (maybe they had to with that 15-year mega deal). But when he was drafted 1st overall in 2000, the club thought they were on to a winner – and they probably were until his body began to give up circa. 2008!

But in the 15 years since the Isles drafted DiPietro they’ve also drafted fourteen other netminders – discounting the three drafted in the past two years (McAdam, Sorokin and Soderstrom); six draftees did not play a single NHL game, Koskinen played just four games in 2010/11 and Andy Chiodo, a sixth round selection in 2001, played eight NHL games.

Of the eleven, Kevin Poulin played the most NHL games (49) but failed to convert flashes of quality in to anything substantial. Anders Nilsson is likely to play more games for Edmonton this year than he did in five seasons with the Islanders organisation, having made significant improvements in his game since leaving the club.

Nilsson’s improvement over the past 18 months speaks volumes – and while Islanders fans may sneer, the Swede has been rejuvenated since parting ways with the franchise.

Year on year the Islanders have missed the boat on goaltending prospects. Even if we expand the net (no pun intended) to include young netminders who have joined the club via trade or free agency, say Al Montoya, the record isn’t good. The failure to convert a prospect in to a legitimate NHL goaltender all too present.

The problem? While Mike Dunham is employed as the Islanders goaltending coach there has been no one in Bridgeport. Young netminders are left to figure it out for themselves then, when they falter at NHL level, are cast aside. Poulin may only have been retained at all because there was no other option – the waiver wire derailing that plan when Tampa Bay claimed the Montreal native.

While there is a legitimate argument to be made that many NHL netminders are now interchangeable, the constant need to sign or trade for goaltenders means the Isles are always having to give up assets to plug holes between the pipes – whether that be cap space, draft picks or a player. Greiss earns more than Frederik Andersen – a Ducks draft pick who starts the year as the #1 on a Cup favourite.

At some point the Islanders need to wise up. Every penny counts, especially when players like Kyle Okposo need to be re-signed in the next 12 months. They can’t keep buying in.

Maybe the last two weeks will be the wake up call the club needs, as a minor injury nearly left them in disarray at the back.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on October 9, 2015, in Hockey, New York Islanders, NHL and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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