July 24, 2009

Blake Comeau runs a risk

The signing of free-agent goaltender Martin Biron gives the Islanders 20 NHL contracts, including No. 1 overall rookie John Tavares. They have three restricted free agents -- forwards Blake Comeau and Nate Thompson and defenseman Jack Hillen -- who remain unsigned for the last three NHL roster spots.

At the same time, general manager Garth Snow still is shopping around for an enforcer, and if a scoring winger became available for the right short-term price, the GM might make a move. Any more free-agent signings would have ramifications for the three RFAs, but the one most at risk appears to be Comeau.

Here's why. Thompson has an arbitration hearing scheduled Monday, but he is assured of having a contract. No team can walk away from an award of $1.5 million or less, and Thompson is certain to get less than that amount, which means he will be an Islander next season. Indications are the Islanders are confident they will reach a deal with Hillen in the near future.

But there is a significant difference between what Snow has offered Comeau and what his agent, Kurt Overhardt, is asking. A multi-year, one-way deal offered by the Isles was rejected because of financial differences.

Under club policy, any player who isn't signed by the start of training camp won't be signed the rest of the season. That policy was enforced three years ago in the case of Sean Bergenheim. If the Comeau negotiations drag out to that deadline, he runs the risk that Snow will make a move for an enforcer or a scoring forward sometime sooner. If that happens, Comeau's options would be a two-way contract or a season in Europe.

Faced with a similar situation last year, forwards Frans Nielsen and Jeff Tambellini took the Islanders' one-way contract offers for the chance to prove themselves. Nielsen signed for a bargain price of $525,000 per year but got the security of a four-year deal. Tambellini got two years at $587,500 per. It's believed the Isles' offer to Comeau is reasonably higher than his qualifying offer of $605,000 that was rejected and would take him up to unrestricted free agency in two years.

Comeau is a promising prospect with upside, but the fact is that, in 104 NHL games, he's totaled 15 goals and 25 assists. He has more to prove, and the Islanders are asking him to do it at their price.

ISLES FILES: Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro still is scheduled to begin skating in August, but if you recall, that's when he began skating last season after knee surgery. He worked out on his own throughout training camp, played only the last exhibition game and didn't start until the fifth game of the season. After three games, he was back on the injured list and headed for surgery again. That's the scenario Snow wants to avoid, and it's why he signed Biron when the price was right. The signing eliminates completely any need for DiPietro to return before he is sound and in top playing condition. If he holds up when he returns, then, maybe Biron will fetch a high draft pick from a team desperate for goaltending…Okay, now I really am going on vacation for a while. But other Newsday reporters will be following the Islanders and posting right here. There will be more news this summer, especially at the Aug. 4 Town of Hempstead hearing at Hofstra University's Adams Playhouse. If you have bookmarked this page in the past, the changeover to a new blogging system at Newsday has resulted in a change of address. Here is the new address for Islanders Beat: http://www.newsday.com/islandersblog. Have a great summer.

July 22, 2009

Goaltender insurance for Rick DiPietro

If the Islanders want to cloak Rick DiPietro's health status in mystery, that's their prerogative. But actions seldom lie, and by that standard it's undeniable that their level of concern about the man with the 15-year contract is very serious.

The signing today of former Philadelphia starting goaltender Martin Biron on the heels of the signing of former Edmonton starter Dwayne Roloson is evidence of that. Loaded with high draft picks and a desperate need for scoring, size and toughness, general manager Garth Snow spent the first picks of the second and third rounds on goaltenders Mikko Koskinen and Anders Nilsson. On top of that, he signed AHL veteran goaltender Scott Munroe, and he has Nathan Lawson already in Bridgeport.

That means the Islanders have three goaltenders (DiPietro, Roloson and Biron), the Sound Tigers have three (Munroe, Koskinen and Lawson) and the Isles have at least three prospects in the system (Nilsson, Kevin Poulin and Stefan Ridderwall). Their better-safe-than-sorry approach is a direct reaction to what happened last season when DiPietro pushed to be on the Opening Night roster before he really was ready to play.

He backed up the first four games, started the next three, leaving the third game after one period, and then made two more starts the rest of the season, the last of which was on Jan. 2. After two operations on his left knee last year, it's confirmed he underwent a third procedure on the knee before he was seen on crutches at a rehab facility used by the Islanders in early April.

DiPietro's father, Richard Sr., recently assured that his son is making good progress and that the problem with his left knee finally was "cleared up" after a series of medical consultations that correctly identified the problem. He was uncertain about his son's rehab timetable but was confident Rick won't return until he's truly sound this time.

That's the good news. At the same time, seeing is believing, and Snow has acted in prudent fashion to fortify what coach Scott Gordon identified at the end of last season as the most important concern facing the Islanders.

I spoke to Biron earlier tonight for a story that will appear in Thursday's edition of Newsday. He didn't go into free agency thinking about the Islanders, but when Philadelphia signed Ray Emery and Brian Boucher as its goaltending tandem and he didn't receive the kind of long-term deal he wanted, the Islanders began to make more sense. His agent, Mark Witkin, also represents Roloson, so, he had some insight into the opportunity the Islanders represent in this situation.

Biron never would have signed a one-year deal for $1.4 million with the Flyers, but as he said, "We looked at the opportunity with the Islanders in a different light."

He understands that DiPietro could be ready to come back at any time, and when he does, three veteran goaltenders on the NHL roster will be one too many. No coach can be expected to get regular work for three goaltenders. Yet, Biron took the chance on joining the Isles because he obviously expects to get a chance to showcase himself for the rest of the league and possibly land that long-term deal next July.

"I expect to play for many years," said Biron, who turns 32 next month. "I played the last two years with the Flyers and learned tremendously. We went to the playoffs two consecutive years, reached the conference finals last year and then lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in a long series this year. I feel I'm at the peak of my experience and maturity.

"This situation gives me the best opportunity to play and keep my level of play up…This was something that was good for both sides."

Add another goalie to the mix...

The Islanders have signed goaltender Martin Biron to a one-year contract, the team announced in a statement today.

Biron was 29-19-5 with a 2.76 goals against average in 55 games with the Philadelphia Flyers last year.

"Adding Marty gives us three bona-fide number-one goalies," General Manager Garth Snow said in a press release. "We learned about the importance of stability in our line-up from last year and he now allows us to have another quality starter."

Read between the lines there. Signing another legitimate No. 1 guy like Biron in addition to Dwayne Roloson means the Islanders cannot be fully convinced or encouraged about Rick DiPietro's health and/or progress.

--Katie Strang

July 21, 2009

Radio voices Chris King and Steve Mears silenced

Islanders president Chris Dey last week told radio announcers Chris King and Steve Mears their contracts will not be renewed for the coming season. Madison Square Garden Network made television announcers Howie Rose and Billy Jaffe available for a radio simulcast, so Dey chose to cut payroll by letting King and Mears go.

King, 48, has been part of every Islanders radio broadcast for the past 15 years, including the last 11 years on a full-time basis as analyst and color commentator. Mears, 29, has handled the radio play-by-play duties for the past three seasons.

Although Rose and Jaffe are a superb television team, their style is tailored to that medium, describing instant replays, diagramming plays and conversing about the game. A radio broadcast is more detailed and more wordy in terms of play-by-play description, while the TV crew relies more heavily on the pictures to tell the story.

Madison Square Garden holds the Islanders' television and radio rights and made the simulcast signal available to the Islanders in similar fashion to what it has done with the NHL Buffalo Sabres. MSG is owned by Cablevision, which owns Newsday. Cablevision also owns the NHL Rangers and NBA Knicks, but it maintains both TV and radio broadcast teams for those franchises.

It's still possible King will do pregame and postgame radio shows, and he might even land a full-time job elsewhere in the organization. Most likely, Mears will try to continue his hockey announcing career elsewhere.

Hard to believe that, at a time when the franchise has an opportunity to turn things around with the drafting of John Tavares, it cuts back the number of people who tell the team's story to the public. Who will conduct the postgame soirees at Doolins' Pub after home games at the Coliseum now that King and Mears are out of the picture? They were devoted members of the franchise "family," and no one worked harder at their jobs.

In a story in Wednesday's edition of Newsday, King describes the announcing job he held as his "dream job" and said he would be "thrilled" if he's allowed to remain in the organization in a fulltime capacity. Mears also thanked the Islanders for the opportunity they gave him and said he will miss the relationship he and King developed with the fans.

"I'd like to convey my appreciation to the fans," Mears said. "We had a lot of fun in conversations , in e-mails, on Facebook and talking at Doolins' Pub. I'm happy the team is headed in the right direction. It was great to work with Chris King, and I'm happy to call him and his family my friends."

July 20, 2009

A window into the Islanders' future

The chance to get a first look at John Tavares was the main attraction of the Islanders' recent minicamp, but the real proving ground for him will come at training camp in Saskatoon as he begins his NHL career. For many of the other players, the minicamp was a chance for them to measure their progress and then come back a year from now to see how much they've grown.

While the camp mostly was devoted to drills and system work, it was heartening to see the improved skill level from last summer. Here's a brief rundown of what to expect in terms of the pace of development for many of the players who attended, excluding those who already have signed professional contracts and those who attended on a tryout basis:

Forwards

Casey Cizikas -- Fourth-round center from 2009 draft, who was placed on probation for his manslaughter conviction in Canada, has the chance to get on with his life and hockey career now by spending one more season with Mississauga St. Mike's in the Ontario Hockey League.

Jason Gregoire -- Third round left wing from 2007 is 20 but likely will play two more years at the University of North Dakota.

Anders Lee -- Sixth-round left wing from 2009 will leave behind his high school football career and spend this season devoting himself to hockey with Green Bay in the USHL. He then is expected to attend Notre Dame the following two seasons to continue his development.

Matt Martin -- Fifth-round left wing from 2008 would like to start season in Bridgeport but is holding out for a better deal from the Islanders. If he doesn't sign by the end of training camp, he'll head back to Sarnia for another OHL season.

Kirill Petrov -- Third-round right wing from 2008 suffered a fractured collarbone last season and got into only six games with Ak-Bars Kazan in the Kontinental Hockey League. He has three years remaining on his KHL deal and, hopefully, will play a major role for Russia at the World Juniors and a larger role in the KHL.

Rhett Rakhshani -- Fourth-round left wing from the 2006 draft is the senior captain at the University of Denver and likely will join the organization after his college season ends. Could finish the year in Bridgeport.

Doug Rogers -- Fourth-round center from 2006 heads back to Harvard for his senior season. Probably needs a big season to be signed.

David Toews -- Third-round right wing from 2008 likely will play at least two more years at the University of North Dakota. Needs to overcome injury problems to earn a regular role in the lineup.

Corey Trivino -- Second-round center from 2008 should win a major role on depleted Boston University team that lost several players to graduation. Trivino is stronger and has recovered from knee injury last season and should begin to show scoring potential. Figure at least two more years of college hockey.

David Ullstrom -- Fourth-round winger from 2008 will begin his first season in the Swedish Elite League. It's expected he will make the jump to North American pro hockey in one more year. Should play for Sweden at World Juniors.

Defensemen

Calvin de Haan -- Surprise No. 12 overall pick in June is expected to spend the next two seasons with OHL Oshawa, working to gain strength and experience.

Matt Donovan -- Fourth-rounder from 2008 moves from a successful season in the USHL to Denver University, where he will be a freshman. Should play at least two seasons of college hockey.

Travis Hamonic -- Second-rounder from 2008 heads back to Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League for one more season. He must be signed by June 1 next year and certainly could join Bridgeport at the end of the season.

Blake Kessel -- Sixth-rounder in 2007 figures to spend the next two seasons at the University of New Hampshire after a so-so freshman year.

Anton Klementiev -- Fifth-rounder in June got visa to leave Russia in time for final day of minicamp. He plans to play for OHL London for the next two seasons.

Aaron Ness -- Second-round pick from 2008 had a successful freshman season at the University of Minnesota and likely will spend the next couple of seasons there maturing and working on his strength and his shot to complement his skating and skill.

Jyri Niemi -- Third-rounder from 2008 missed minicamp with an injury but returns to Saskatoon in the WHL for his final season. Like Hamonic, he must be signed by June 1, 2010 and might join Bridgeport at end of season. Expected to play for Finland at World Juniors in Saskatoon.

Jared Spurgeon -- Sixth-rounder from 2008 missed minicamp after undergoing shoulder surgery but will play his final season with WHL Spokane. He's in the same situation as Hamonic and Niemi as a player who must be signed by June 1, 2010.

Goaltenders

Anders Nilsson -- Third-round pick in June is expected to move up to the Swedish Elite League as a backup this season with the plan of becoming a starter the following season before moving to North America.

Kevin Poulin -- Fifth-round pick from 2008 returns to Victoriaville for another season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

BLOG UPDATE: Starting Wednesday night, Newsday will be making the move to a new blog operating system. The launch date has been pushed back a couple of days, but a change definitely is coming soon. Considering all the complaints I have received in the past from regular Islanders Beat commenters about problems created by those who post vulgar comments that disrupt the generally good hockey talk, I am happy to say the new system will require anyone who wishes to submit a comment to register. This should go a long way toward eliminating some of the electronic graffiti we have experienced in the past, and I hope I will be able to spend far less time attempting to police the comments section. To the many people who have maintained a commitment to discussing the Islanders with passion and respect for the opinions of others, I thank you and ask that you lead the way in registering to be a part of Islanders Beat in the future.

CONDOLENCES: Recently, one of the regular commenters here shared the sad news that a fan we all know as "Cincy" suffered the passing of his wife. I know that I speak for all the regulars here in saying that we send our condolences and heartfelt good wishes. We've all missed the intelligent and insightful commentary from "Cincy" but recognize from all that he brought to the blog what a good person he is and how hard this time must have been for him. Be well "Cincy."

VACATION NOTICE: I will be stepping away from the blog to use up my vacation and comp time before the start of training camp. However, others at Newsday will pick up the slack here while I am away, and I'm sure I will check in from time to time if there is any major news to report or comment about. Wishing you all a pleasant summer ahead and thanking you for your continued support.

July 18, 2009

Islanders release preseason schedule

2009-10 preseason schedule (All times EDT)

Mon., Sept. 14 -- Isles vs. Vancouver at Terrace, B.C., 10 p.m.
Wed., Sept. 16 -- Isles at Edmonton, 9 p.m.
Thur., Sept. 17 --Isles at Calgary, 9 p.m.
Sat., Sept. 19 -- Isles vs. Calgary at Saskatoon, Sask., 9 p.m.
Sun., Sept. 20 -- Isles vs. Edmonton at Saskatoon, Sask., 9 p.m.
Tues., Sept. 22 -- Isles vs. Los Angeles at Kansas City, 6 p.m.
Wed., Sept. 23 -- Devils at Isles at Nassau Coliseum, 7 p.m.
Tues., Sept. 29 -- Isles at Devils at Prudential Center, TBA

July 17, 2009

Nate Thompson arbitration set

Forward Nate Thompson, a restricted free agent who asked for arbitration, will get his hearing on July 27. The decision must be rendered within 48 hours. A team then has another 48 hours after the decision to accept the contract awarded or to walk away and declare the player a free agent. Arbitration awards are for one or two years.

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