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Islanders offseason hinges on forwards

Nielsen, Okposo, Martin can enter free agency July 1

by David Satriano @davidsatriano / Staff Writer

SYOSSET, N.Y. -- Although the New York Islanders won a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time in 23 years, they have a lot of work to do if they want to be a contender.

That may be difficult with forwards Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin able to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. 

"It's going to be a little bit interesting I think," Nielsen said Tuesday when the Islanders cleaned out their lockers. "It's the first time (in free agency). It's a weird feeling not knowing if you're coming back or not."

Nielsen is the Islanders' longest-tenured player, picked in the third round of the 2002 NHL Draft. Okposo is next, a first-round pick in 2006, and Martin was drafted in 2008. All three said there were no talks between his agent and Islanders general manager Garth Snow during the regular season.

"I made a lot of memories here," Martin said. "It's where I grew up as a player and in a lot of ways as a person. ...we'll see how it all unfolds. I don't know what is going to happen, but I guess I am prepared for whatever the outcome may be."

The Islanders almost certainly won't be able to sign all three because of the NHL salary cap, and there will be a lot of teams interested in Okposo's offensive ability, Nielsen's two-way play, and Martin's grit.

Video: TBL@NYI, Gm4: Okposo gives Islanders an early lead

"I really hope they are back," captain John Tavares said. "Those guys have been so crucial for me. I don't think people realize how much I lean on those guys just to talk to. They are such great people, great leaders. They made such an impact on our team."

The Islanders finally advanced past the first round, defeating the Florida Panthers in six games. Their season ended with a five-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

"You could see the pride and enjoyment of the moment for our fan base, how much they've been through," Tavares said. "A lot of us have been here for a good amount of time now, but certainly not 23 years, and they've been through that. It's great to reward them and we just wish we could have given them more. Hopefully next season we can build on that."

WHAT THEY SAID: "I love being an Islander. It's my home here. My family loves it. We enjoy living here. I obviously enjoy my teammates and I love them; I love this organization. I said it the other day, being an Islander is one of the best things I do with my life and I could not be more eager for next year's training camp." -- defenseman Travis Hamonic, who rescinded a trade request Tuesday after a health issue with a family member stabilized.

Video: Hamonic Rescinds Trade Request, New York Islanders

THE BURNING QUESTION: The Islanders will transition to new majority owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin on July 1, the same day free agency opens. Snow and coach Jack Capuano likely will remain at least until then.

The next biggest question is what the Islanders will do with their goaltending situation. Jaroslav Halak entered the season as the starter but was outplayed by Thomas Greiss almost immediately. Halak dealt with several injuries and was limited to 36 games, the fewest he played since 2012-13 (16 with the St. Louis Blues).

Greiss appeared in 41 games during the regular season, finishing 23-11-4 with a 2.36 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. He started all 11 playoff games, going 5-6 with a 2.46 GAA and .923 save percentage.

When healthy, the two had to compete with Jean-Francois Berube, who appeared in seven games. The Islanders used a three-goalie system, scratching one of the three for each game.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm1: Greiss makes last-second stop on Palat

"Obviously having three goalies is not ideal for anybody," Halak said. "I'm sure it was also tough for J.F. not being able to play the whole season or being able to play too much… I think obviously this is out of my control … I can control the way I play. I don't control how many goalies we have in practice. That's going to have to be done somewhere else."

Greiss admitted he wants to be the No. 1 goalie.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "It definitely helped, especially the playoffs. I think that's where you show what you can do. … [being a No. 1 goalie] is what you work for all the time. As soon as you become complacent, relaxing and happy with being a No. 2, you aren't going to play well, not even as a No. 2. Everyone is looking to be a No. 1"

INJURIES: Halak didn't play after sustaining a lower-body injury March 8. Forward Anders Lee sustained a broken fibula April 7 and missed all 11 playoff games. Forward Mikhail Grabovski (upper body) last played March 15.

On Tuesday, forward Josh Bailey said he sustained a concussion against the Panthers in the first round. Forward Nikolay Kulemin said he dealt with several injuries but wouldn't get into specifics.

WHO COULD GO: New York has a number of unrestricted free agents highlighted by Okposo, Nielsen and Martin.

Forwards Steve Bernier and Eric Boulton, and defensemen Marek Zidlicky and Brian Strait, will be UFAs. Bernier played in six playoff games, Zidlicky in five, and Boulton and Strait did not play. Zidlicky (53 regular-season games), Strait (52), Bernier (24) and Boulton (6) each were a healthy scratch more often than not. It wouldn't be surprising if none are re-signed.

Forwards Casey Cizikas, Ryan Strome and Shane Prince, defenseman Scott Mayfield, and goalies Berube and Christopher Gibson are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

WHO COULD ARRIVE: Tavares has played with too many wings. The Islanders need at least one, and maybe two, top-six wings, especially if Nielsen and Okposo, who combined for 42 goals, depart. Brock Nelson had 26 goals and could be given a bigger role. Ryan Strome had eight goals in 71 games, one season after he had 17 in 81 games.

Video: TBL@NYI: Nelson beats Bishop with a gorgeous backhand

With Hamonic rescinding his trade request, the Islanders defense received a boost heading into next season. Depth on the back end was a problem all season and a defenseman for the third pairing is something they could look into.

Defenseman Ryan Pulock (15 regular-season games) should see more playing time. Forwards Alan Quine (who scored in overtime in Game 5 of the first round) and Bracken Kearns, who each played two regular-season games with the Islanders and spent most of the season with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League, could crack the top 12 forwards.

2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Islanders have five selections in the draft. They have one pick each in the first, fourth and sixth rounds, and two picks in the seventh round. New York traded their third-round pick to the Ottawa Senators prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline for Prince and a seventh-round pick.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Tavares is under contract for the next two seasons. Hamonic, perhaps their most reliable defenseman, isn't going anywhere. The Islanders also finally got over the hump of winning a first-round series and adjusted to their new home in Brooklyn as the season progressed.

"I'm proud of the effort that the guys put in," Capuano said. "We did take a step. It wasn't good enough but I feel like we got a lot of room for growth on this hockey team as individuals and players to try to reach the goal of winning the Stanley Cup."

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