Islanders take risk with Cizikas

Johnny Boychuk, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin

Islanders goalscorer Matt Martin celebrates with teammates Casey Cizikas and Johnny Boychuk during a home win over the Devils. AP Photo by Kathy Willens/Getty Images

Earlier today, the Islanders announced that they had agreed to a new contract with restricted free agent Casey Cizikas. They re-signed the checking center to a surprising five-year deal worth $16.75 million. Previously, the 25-year old Cizikas made $1.2 million in ’15-16 with a cheap cap hit of $1 million. Now, his average will be $3.35 million thru 2021.

That’s a enormous increase for a solid role player. Cizikas has been a fixture anchoring the Isles’ fourth line. Playing with grinders Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, Cizikas has found great chemistry under Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano, who isn’t shy about using them. In some games, they were a third line who brought a lunch pail work ethic to their shifts by taking the body and delivering a strong fore-check.

In its second year together, the trio combined for 33 goals with Clutterbuck scoring 15 times while Martin had 10 and Cizikas eight. Originally an Isles’ 2009 fourth round pick, Cizikas continued to excel. In 80 games during the season, he had eight goals with a career high 22 assists and 30 points. He ranked third in face-off percentage winning 48.9 percent behind John Tavares and Frans Nielsen. Most came at even strength where he went 383-and-370. He also was a fixture on the penalty kill going 83-and-113 while contributing a shorthanded goal and three shorthanded points.

The question for Islanders’ President and GM Garth Snow is does this signal the end of Martin’s stay in Brooklyn. The NHL’s league leader in hits finished with 365 to go with new personal bests in goals (10) and points (19) with 119 penalty minutes. Since debuting in ’09-10, he’s become a fan favorite due to his physical play and toughness. He combined with Clutterbuck for 25 goals and 653 hits. The 27-year old Martin can become unrestricted next month. How much of an increase will he want after earning $1.3 million?

With the Isles’ attention on trying to re-sign key UFA’s Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, Martin could wind up elsewhere for more money. In a recent interview on NBC with Bruce Beck, he spoke about what the team did in the past. It would seem that a popular player who plays with the passion he does should draw interest from other teams. A possible fit could be the rebuilding Maple Leafs, who will be in on Steven Stamkos. They love toughness. Martin would be a good fit to ride shotgun if they sign Stamkos. He’s also from Ontario.

By committing so much to Cizikas in years and salary, it would seem the Isles are preparing for either Nielsen or Okposo to leave. They’ll be hard pressed to bring back one. Okposo is four years younger but could command north of $6 million. His ’15-16 salary was $4.5 million with a cap number of $2.8. Nielsen earned $3.5 million with a cap hit of $2.75. They’re both valuable. Okposo plays with Tavares while Nielsen normally centers the second line and doubles on the power play and penalty kill. He’s also over 50.0 percent on draws.

If I were to guess, I think the Islanders would like to have Nielsen back due to his versatility. He can play in any situation and is that underrated second line pivot that supplies secondary scoring. The issue is who will become Tavares’ running mate. They’re still waiting on Ryan Strome, who took a step back. Anders Lee is coming back from a broken left fibula. Brock Nelson had a good season scoring 26 goals but had a disappointing postseason with only one goal.

The organization is hoping highly rated prospect Michael Dal Colle can be part of the team in ’16-17. He scored 35 goals and 45 assists totaling 80 points with Oshawa and Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). In nine playoff games with Kingston, he tallied six goals and 12 helpers for 18 points. In three games with Bridgeport, he had an assist. Dal Colle is a big scorer who could be that missing piece. It’s just a question of when.

Josh Ho-Sang should also be in the mix. The controversial 2014 first round pick finished with 82 points (19-63-82) with Niagara of the OHL. He added six goals and 20 helpers for 26 points. He had 26 points (5-21-26) in 18 playoff games. Will he come into training camp more focused or remain a headcase?

2015 first round pickĀ Mathew Barzal is also a center with a bright future. He totaled 88 points (27-61-88) in 58 contests with Seattle of the Western Hockey League (WHL). In 18 playoff games, he scored five goals with 21 helpers for 26 points. Figure him to spend one more year in Seattle before joining the Islanders.

Whatever happens the rest of the summer, the Islanders should continue to be heard from due to their large pool of talent.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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