As San Jose Sharks fans keep a close eye on the insane race for playoff spots in the Western Conference, there are probably a few also keeping an eye on what is happening on the other side of the country. The Sharks management certainly is, with the Feb. 26 trade deadline quickly approaching.
For the Sharks, one player stands out.
This player plays for the New York Islanders, whose general manager is Garth Snow. The Isles sit in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, and their lead over their in-town rival New York Rangers is essentially non-existent once one takes into account the game-in-hand the Rangers have.
More importantly, the Isles sit tenth in the Eastern Conference. The playoff race only accommodates eight when it ends in early April.
The Rangers are not the only team which can catch the Islanders in the Eastern Conference standings. The Florida Panthers are also sneakily close, trailing by six points but with four games in-hand.
To make the playoffs, the Islanders will need to pass at least two teams and hope neither Florida or the Rangers pass them up. Even the best-case scenario isn’t all that happy — face the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a likely first round playoff exit.
The player which stirs the Sharks interest is John Tavares. His current deal ends this season and he can become a free agent in July. He’d easily be the best free agent to hit the open market this offseason – it’s rare a player of his caliber hits free agency in any offseason. Though Tavares has said he’d like to stay with the Islanders, few are convinced.
Tavares has a first-hand understanding of the situation in Brooklyn (the Islanders’ less-than-happy home) and various other places on Long Island linked to the team. Playing home games in a venue with 5,000 or so empty seats doesn’t leave a good impression. The Isles are an organization facing many uncertainties.
Snow wants Tavares to sign a long term-deal with the Islanders. The other possibilities are Tavares leaving via trade (this month) or via free agency (July). Snow also knows the odds of retaining Tavares aren’t as good as he wishes they were. He is in a tough spot.
Ask the Washington Redskins of the NFL about the risks associated with keeping a top player who might leave town. They have a quarterback named Kirk Cousins. Cousins established himself among the league’s better quarterbacks while playing for one of the league’s lesser organizations.
A year ago, it seemed likely Cousins would opt for free agency when his contract expired. Though NFL rules allowed the Redskins to keep Cousins this season, it made no sense for the team to keep him unless they could get a long-term deal done. Trading him was a painful but rational option. The organization chose not to trade him. He’ll be leaving town soon enough.
The Tavares Gamble
The Redskins gambled and lost. They got one additional season of Cousins, posted a 7-9 record, and will see him exit with a very small return instead of a very large one (the NFL awards compensation draft picks, though it’s not much). It was a massive miss by the organization.
It is rare to see players at the level of Cousins, and potentially Tavares, hit the open market. What happened with Cousins should serve as a warning to the Islanders. It won’t be good to lose Tavares, but it’d be brutal to lose him for nothing.
The selling points for Tavares to stay with the Islanders are modest.
He’s only been on the winning side of a playoff handshake line once in his career and it isn’t likely to change this season. The odds the Isles make the playoffs are well under 50% — 28% according to one site. Looking down the road, the division is strong and the Isles will be hard pressed to move up. Top-tier free agents are likely to be put off by the Isles lack of a quality home venue; a new venue is at least a few seasons away.
Does Snow risk the ’all or nothing’ approach or take the significant assets he can get for Tavares in a trade? It is an unhappy dilemma, one the team can’t afford to see through rose-colored glasses.
Why the Sharks?
If Snow is to get premium value in a trade, it will come from a team who sees Tavares as more than a rental for the rest of this season. This means a good team with a long-term need for Tavares and sufficient cap space to re-sign him.
The Sharks are such a team and there are not many in the league with this profile. Looking across the entire NHL landscape, the Sharks represent the best fit for Tavares. The Sharks need a replacement for an aging (and now injured) Joe Thornton. But they also have key high-end pieces and quality depth. Even without Tavares, they are likely to make the playoffs this season (75% according to the same site referenced earlier).
Whether Tavares is interested in San Jose is unknown. He might be put off by the high taxes or a media market which doesn’t put a premium on hockey. Maybe he doesn’t like nice weather, rugged local mountains, good seafood or expensive real estate.
However, if Tavares looks favorably at San Jose, it’s the team which probably gets Snow and the Isles their best return in a trade.
In the Western Conference, parity prevails. Both the playoff race and the playoffs which follow are wide open. Should Tavares join a contender in the Western Conference, it would make that team the favorite for a run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Tavares decision will affect the Isles for a decade, and Snow can’t afford to make the wrong call. The Redskins will pay dearly for their missed call on Kirk Cousins — the Islanders will pay dearly if Tavares walks away for nothing in return. If Snow thinks its best to remove this risk, he can do it. But the clock is ticking. Less than two weeks remain before the trade deadline.
With so much at stake, one can imagine Sharks fans looking not just at their own team, but at the team based in Brooklyn. Because a key part of their future might be playing there now.
• With Thornton absent from the Sharks line-up Brent Burns is wearing the ‘A’ designating him an alternate captain along with Logan Couture. Joe Pavelski is the team’s captain.
• The last three Sharks games have all seen third period comebacks. The Sharks led against the Vegas Golden Knights but lost in regulation. They fashioned comeback victories against the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks, the latter in overtime. In total, eleven third period goals were scored in these three games.
• Jannik Hansen was a healthy scratch for a month before Joel Ward’s injury against Vegas opened up a line-up spot. He seems to be making the most of his opportunity, with quality efforts in the last two games. He assisted on Barclay Goodrow’s goal against Edmonton and was promoted from the fourth line to Joe Pavelski’s line against Anaheim.
• A few weeks back, we wrote about Sharks fans mixed feelings towards Timo Meier. Meier was selected ahead of the Islanders’ outstanding rookie Mathew Barzal, prompting the mixed feelings. We pointed out Meier’s growing value to the Sharks and that it was too early to regret passing on Barzal. Barzal continues to dazzle; he posted his third five-point game of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But Meier continues to play a key role for San Jose. He earned the first star in the Sharks 3-2 comeback win against Anaheim.
• Defenseman Joakim Ryan had the first two goals of his NHL career against Edmonton in a raucous, entertaining game on Saturday. He also earned first star honors. Ryan leads the Sharks in plus/minus. He is paired with Brent Burns who is last on the team in the same stat.
• The Sharks are 19/20 in penalty killing over the last nine games. The lone goal allowed was an empty net goal. Despite being on the penalty kill, the Sharks skated 5-on-5 in the closing minute against Vegas. It was a risk worth taking, even if it didn’t work out.