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Core Values: Islanders building around centerpiece John Tavares

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

John Tavares makes things go for the Islanders, but he'll need more help soon. (USATSI)
John Tavares makes things go for the Islanders, but he'll need more help soon. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The New York Islanders have been drenched in disappointment for nearly all of the 2000s. The recently announced forthcoming changes to the ownership structure will bring some optimism, but the team itself is already starting to look more like it is building toward something other than the futility it has grown accustomed to experiencing.

With an aggressive offseason that included trading for the rights to and signing goaltender Jaroslav Halak and signing unrestricted free agents Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, the Islanders seemingly got a lot better heading into 2014-15. The organization also has a strong prospect system that is due to graduate some players to the NHL roster. The playoffs look possible for the Isles this season, which will be the team's last on Long Island.

It's the long-term outlook that remains in question, however. Even with the litany of strong prospects in the pipeline, future success depends on those youngsters hitting at the NHL level. That doesn't always happen, of course.

With that in mind, the core as it looks in this piece is likely to shift a fair amount over the next few years. John Tavares is really the only clear centerpiece, with the rest aside from perhaps Travis Hamonic being mostly interchangeable. It's highly likely that players like Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson take another step toward staking their claim as central players as early as next season.

Knowing that, the "Who's next in line" section may be even more important than the current core.

Core Values: New York Islanders

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C John Tavares (23, 4 years), D Travis Hamonic (24, 6 years), RW Kyle Okposo (26, 2 years), G Jaroslav Halak (29, 4 years), C Frans Nielsen (30, 2 years), C Mikhail Grabovski (30, 4 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $23,907,143 (34 percent of cap hit consumed by six players)

Average age: 27

Total point production in 2013-14*: 79 goals, 132 assists, 211 points (36 percent of team's total production)
* -- Does not include Mikhail Grabovski's 13-22—35 line with the Washington Capitals

About the core

John Tavares: The most important player for the Islanders, Tavares is the centerpiece around which the Islanders can build for years. The team's captain has already put up 315 points in 350 career games since the Islanders took him first overall in 2009. Tavares was in the midst of what looked like would be a career year before suffering a severe knee injury at the Winter Olympics. He had 66 points in 59 games and showed no signs of slowing. His absence was felt immediately. Now with four years on his contract, the organization owes it to the still-improving young captain to put the pieces around him to compete. They aren't there yet and are probably still a few years away, but without significant improvement over the next two or three years, the club may risk losing Tavares when he first becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2018-19 and no one would blame him if he wanted out. The ownership change could make a difference as well. As the team moves to Brooklyn, Tavares is undoubtedly in the long-term plans. The rest is on the general manager to make sure one of the elite talents in the game doesn't get wasted. How he was acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Travis Hamonic: With 252 NHL games under his belt at age 24, the best is likely yet to come for Hamonic. Now the undisputed No. 1 defenseman for the Islanders, his responsibility will be at an all-time high for the organization in 2014-15. Hamonic averaged over 25 minutes a night last season and posted 18 points in 69 games. Despite his excessive usage and the fact that he was seeing a lot of time against top opponents, Hamonic still posted a positive relative Corsi for percentage, meaning the team was posting better possession numbers with him on the ice. As his defensive responsibilities have risen, his production has gone the opposite direction. As he continues to round out his game, he should be able to manage 25 or more points a year, though. If he keeps giving the Islanders effective defense, the points won't matter as much. Hamonic still gets a lot of shots through with 134 on goal last season, which is two more than he blocked. He'll remain an important piece of the defense as a number of strong youngsters start filling out the slots around him. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 53rd overall

Jaroslav Halak should help the Islanders drastically improve in net this season. (USATSI)
Jaroslav Halak should help the Islanders drastically improve in net this season. (USATSI)

Jaroslav Halak: After the Islanders had a league-worst .898 team save percentage last season, Halak was both a welcome and necessary addition this summer. GM Garth Snow took a leap of faith, trading away a fourth-round pick for the pending unrestricted free agent's negotiating rights. It paid off when Halak signed. Halak was passed around last season after 40 appearances with the St. Louis Blues. He was shipped to the Buffalo Sabres in the Ryan Miller trade, then jettisoned to the Washington Capitals. He finished the year with a .921 save percentage and 2.25 goals-against average. Even if he only provides his career .918 save percentage for the Islanders, that's going to dramatically improve the goals allowed this season. Having signed a four-year deal with the team, Halak gives the club a bona fide No. 1 goaltender. There have been some consistency issues for the 29-year-old netminder over his career, but more often than not, Halak has given his team a chance to win. He also has some playoff experience which included a great run in 2009-10 in which he posted a .923 save percentage for the Montreal Canadiens in 18 appearances. What Halak brings is stability in net, which is something the Isles haven't had in a long, long time (SEE: DiPietro, Rick). Halak is no savior, but he's better than average which makes him miles better than the goaltending New York has gotten of late. Halak's full career stat line is 144-85-29, 2.38 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 30 shutouts. That's going to help a lot. How he was acquired: Traded from the Washington Capitals for a fourth-round pick

Kyle Okposo: Okposo finally had the breakout season Isles fans have been waiting for in 2013-14. He averaged nearly a point per game with 69 points in 71 contests including 27 goals. Okposo had career highs in each offensive category. Bolstered by playing with Tavares and for a time Thomas Vanek, Okposo showed he could produce in a top-line role once again after a subpar 2012-13 campaign. The former seventh overall pick has 254 points in 390 games as an Islander, but looked to be at his best last season. The question is if he can sustain it. The Islanders obviously have to hope he can. To expect near a point per game from him would probably be asking too much, but the 26-year-old still has a shot at something better than his 0.65 career average. Having a big, strong forward like Okposo who can produce definitely gives the Isles an advantage. With only two years left on his contract, Okposo can use 2014-15 as an audition for a new extension, which he'll be eligible to sign starting next summer. How he was acquired: 2006 NHL Entry Draft, first round, seventh overall

Frans Nielsen: Primarily known for his defensive capabilities, Nielsen turned in a surprise career year in 2013-14. He shattered his previous career best of 17 goals with 25 and added 33 assists for a point total 11 points better than his previous high. The likelihood of Nielsen matching that kind of production would appear slim as his shooting percentage (15.0) is unlikely to be sustainable. That said, the forward depth is improved from a season ago, so his production may not drop off drastically. As noted, Nielsen is also a strong defensive forward and is primarily matched up in tougher situations starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone and seeing significant penalty killing time. The Isles are often better in possession when he is on the ice and he has been adequate at the faceoff dot. With just two years remaining on his contract, it is unclear just how long Nielsen will be kept around. His $2.75 million cap hit brings the Isles a lot of value for what they're paying, but it also makes him an extremely attractive trade option for other teams should the Islanders find themselves in a position to sell. Until then, Nielsen is a strong veteran who brings a lot of value to the Islanders and could going forward should they decide to extend him before his contract is up after the 2015-16 season. How he was acquired: 2002 NHL Entry Draft, third round, 87th overall

Mikhail Grabovski: In handing him a four-year, $20 million contract this summer, GM Snow is putting a lot of faith in Grabovski. His arrival will allow natural centers Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson to play more on the wing, possibly freeing them up for better scoring numbers. He's likely going to be centering the No. 2 line and with two seasons of 50-plus points, he will be looked on to produce. Grabovski was extremely effective for the Capitals in his one-year stint with the club. Though he missed 24 games, Grabovski posted strong possession numbers on a bad possession team, like he often has, and managed 35 points. Now 30, Grabovski is on his fourth NHL team in nine years. He can be a polarizing figure among pundits, but the contract he was just awarded says a lot about what the Islanders think of him. Should Grabovski manage to excel in his projected role with the club, it improves the Islanders right away and allows the organization the depth to take its time with younger players, particularly recent draftees Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang. The Islanders took an expensive leap, but they might be the team best fit to give Grabovski the space to be his own player and get back to his more productive ways. In 425 career NHL games, Grabovski has 252 points. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 2, 2014

Who's next in line

Big things are expected from former No. 5 pick Ryan Strome. (USATSI)
Big things are expected from former No. 5 pick Ryan Strome. (USATSI)

To me, this is the most important part of the Islanders' organization. There's a lot of potential in the prospects and young players they've amassed and there are a few veteran roster players that very well could jump into more established roles over the next few years. It's important to remember that while this list is a long one, there are no guarantees that all of these players reach their full potential, but early signs are looking pretty good for what could be the organization's ticket out of the league basement.

First off, the Islanders have to be looking for a lot from Brock Nelson, the team's rookie of the year last season, and Ryan Strome, who dominated competition in the AHL before earning his callup to the Islanders. These two former first-round picks have shown a lot of promise already and could be top-six wingers next season.

Nelson had 26 points in 72 games, including 14 goals. He has some real scoring ability and has built some muscle onto his frame over the past few years. Another step forward next season would appear to make Nelson a good bet for 20-plus goals.

Strome is a guy Islanders fans have been excited about for a while. They caught their first real glimpse of him last season and he didn't disappoint with 18 points in 37 games. At the AHL level, Strome had 49 points in 37 games. Expected to be a full-timer at 21 years old, he's a huge piece of the future of this franchise.

The veteran who received the longest consideration for the core was Michael Grabner. Inconsistency over his first five seasons made him tough to slot. Considering his first season with the club was a 34-goal bonanza, expectations have been higher for the speedy Austrian. He managed 64 games last season and had 26 points, but even more should be expected of him. At 26 years old, he still has time to reclaim his position as a high-end offensive performer. He also has two years left on his current deal.

Recent signee Nikolai Kulemin and Islanders veteran Josh Bailey both could have a bigger impact on the lineup heading into this season. They help make the Islanders deeper up front and though neither has been an overwhelming offensive presence, both still have some solid scoring potential.

Young defensemen Calvin de Haan and Matt Donovan should also be ready for more responsibility in 2014-15 after each spent more than 50 games with the big club last season. Each can help out at both ends of the ice and are inexpensive against the salary cap. Donovan will be a due a new deal after next season as a restricted free agent, but de Haan was recently given a cheap three-year extension. That sets up the blue line well as the Islanders build around Hamonic on the back end.

There's even more depth below those with NHL experience. The Islanders held onto the No. 5 overall pick (they could have deferred to next season as part of the Vanek trade) this year and landed the highly skilled Michael Dal Colle. He could push for a roster spot, but there's little need to rush him. They also traded to get a second first-round pick and selected another incredibly skilled player in Joshua Ho-Sang. Both have top-six forward potential and have been major producers in junior. Giving both a little more time to develop seems sensible, though both will likely be given a shot to show what they can do in camp.

The team is also looking forward to the arrival of Griffin Reinhart. The No. 4 pick in 2012 has needed four full seasons of junior hockey, but could push for a roster spot this season. It is more likely he ends up in the American Hockey League and gets the pro reps he needs.

A host of other prospects that could make an NHL impact are led by former first-round pick Ryan Pulock; forward Sebastian Collberg, who was acquired in the Thomas Vanek trade; and defenseman Scott Mayfield, who saw some NHL time last season.

There's a lot of promise in this group and if even half of them reach their full potential, the Islanders are looking pretty good.

Overview

The Islanders may have done enough this offseason to push for the playoffs in 2014-15. The Metropolitan Division is quite the mixed bag heading into the season, so the Isles very well could find themselves in the postseason just by virtue of having better goaltending.

A lot is riding on this final season at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. With new ownership coming in soon, Snow is probably on a short leash and head coach Jack Capuano on an even shorter one. The results are going to have to be there after the team spent the money to get better in the offseason.

Also, the Isles will want to build some optimism before heading to their new digs in Brooklyn in 2015-16. They can do that if the youngsters take another step or two forward and the new additions contribute. Having Tavares as the centerpiece sets the Islanders up well, but there's still a lot to be done.

Some of the holes in the lineup could eventually be filled from that deep prospect system, but there is likely going to need to be more money spent to find more immediate contributors.

Snow has shown a willingness to be aggressive, but he'll have to exercise some caution and maybe a little more patience where there is little room for it. Letting the kids grow up in the system might be better than any short-term fixes they can come up with.

The playoffs are a realistic goal for this season, but there's possibility for something bigger down the road if the Islanders can be smart in their player personnel decisions over the next few years. Over the last decade-plus, that hasn't been a given for this organization.

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