Tavares question looms large as Islanders seek goaltending help

New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) celebrates with teammates on the bench after scoring the second of his two goals in the game during the third period of an NHL hockey game in New York, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (Kathy Willens/AP)

It’s difficult to fully convey the gravity of the next couple of months for the New York Islanders. I know. Sounds dramatic, right?

But think about it for a moment.

If re-signing pending unrestricted free agent John Tavares is absolutely mandatory for a club heading into its new arena at Belmont Park in a couple of years, then general manager Garth Snow is officially on the clock. Because losing Tavares, an established superstar having a career season, is a franchise-crippler that would have a ripple effect throughout the Islander roster.

Free agents would take Tavares’ cue and go elsewhere, and internally the team would be gutted, its leader and premier player walking away just as the team steps into a modern, real hockey palace, hopefully for the 2020-21 season. The Islanders have been largely irrelevant for years now. They’re on the cusp of something good here, but without Tavares, it will be more of the same for this franchise.

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So it is Snow’s job to build the team that Tavares decides to play the rest of his career with. So far he’s done a decent job, with an Islanders club that is sniffing around the playoffs as usual. But now it’s with some very good young players like Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier and others.

But here’s the problem: The Islanders have the 29th ranked team save percentage in the league at .894. As a team, the Isles give up more goals per game (3.61) than any other in the NHL.

On Monday morning the Islanders found themselves four points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division, and just one point south of an Eastern Conference wildcard spot, with two teams to leapfrog. Tavares has made the playoffs three times in nine seasons as an Islander. Just once, he made it to Round 2 — two seasons ago — then the team stepped back and missed the playoffs altogether last season.

Snow’s goaltending isn’t just suspect. It is borderline bad, with the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss both having subpar seasons behind a thin blue-line that could surely use an injection of experienced talent.

Of the seven clubs with the lowest save percentages in the NHL, not a single one is currently in a playoff position. So, armed with extra first- and second-round draft picks from Calgary in the Travis Hamonic trade, Snow will have to find a goalie and a Top 4 defenceman if he is to break the cycle of playoff misses or first-round exits that has defined Tavares’ time with the Islanders.

Tavares and his agent, Pat Brisson, of course, have not publicly laid down the gauntlet. This summer however, the 27-year-old will sign the defining contract of his career — either an eight-year deal with the Islanders or a seven-year pact with another team. So, the pressure remains on Snow to show Tavares that this dog-paddling franchise is finally ready to become elite.

The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26. As this week begins, we count six definitive sellers on the NHL market: Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal, Arizona, Vancouver and Edmonton. For the sake of conversation, let’s add Florida and Detroit to that conversation, as they’re both about a three-game losing streak from ‘next year’ country.

So, who can provide the goalie that Snow requires?

There is Robin Lehner in Buffalo, who has somehow fashioned a .910 save percentage behind a loose Sabres lineup. He has played a career total of two playoff games, five years ago in Ottawa. But Lehner is a pending RFA, which at least gives Snow flexibility in the aftermath.

Detroit would quite possibly make Jimmy Howard available, with another year remaining on his deal at $5.29 million. His numbers — .915 and 2.68 — are OK. But is “OK” enough to make the Islanders competitive in April and May?

Montreal might part with unproven Charlie Lindgren, but he has played only 11 NHL games. Arizona, Vancouver and Florida can’t help Snow. Edmonton won’t part with Cam Talbot, and it’s probably not a great time to invest in Ottawa’s Craig Anderson (.889 save percentage), struggling at age 36.

Let’s face it: There aren’t 31 legitimate No. 1 goalies in the league, and the reason why many of the sellers are sellers is because their goaltending (among others departments) hasn’t been very good. And the UFA market this July 1? Forget about it.

Snow has wisely armed himself with the requisite draft picks to fix his goaltending problem at the deadline. Now, he’d better find a goalie worth spending those picks on, or it could be a sad Canada Day this summer for the Isles.

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