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Why the Clutterbuck signing is a bad gamble for the Islanders

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The New York Islanders made a pretty significant move on Friday when they committed a long-term contract to energy guy Cal Clutterbuck, signing him to a five-year, $17.5 million contract extension.

As far as depth players go, it was an eye-opening contract because it is a big investment in a player that is going to be 30 years old when the contract begins, has topped 30 points in a season only one time (seven years ago), and is similar to the long-term contract the team signed Casey Cizikas — a very similar player — to just a few months earlier.

When the two contracts are added up, that means the Islanders are going to be committing nearly $7 million in cap space through the 2020-21 season to players that — at best — project to be third-liners, and most likely, fourth liners.

That is a big chunk of change going to the bottom of your lineup.

Not every contract is going to be perfectly fair for team and player. Sometimes teams are going to overpay. Sometimes a player is going to outperform his deal. It is a reality of professional sports.

But where this becomes a big gamble for the Islanders is they, like all NHL teams, have a set amount of money they can spend to construct their roster under the league salary cap. Every dollar spent comes with an opportunity cost, because that is a dollar that can’t go to somebody else. In this case, the Islanders seem to be prioritizing their bottom-six over the top of their lineup. This is after all a team that already lost Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen over the summer, both of whom will cost less over the next five years than the Clutterbuck-Cizikas duo. By keeping the latter, you’re essentially choosing quantity over quality.

There is also the fact that the Islanders are one year away from having to deal with the potential unrestricted free agency of John Tavares.

His next contract is not going to be the $5.5 million steal (at least compared to other top players in the NHL) that it is now. When Tavares is eligible for free agency, the Islanders are already going to have more than $32 million committed to only eight players. And again, a significant chunk of that money ($7 million) will be going to two players that are skating in their bottom-six. That could be a problem.

But that’s not even the biggest part of the gamble for the Islanders when it comes to the Clutterbuck deal.

The biggest gamble is the fact that players like him do not tend to age well into their mid-30s (and Clutterbuck will be signed through his age 34 season).

Using the Hockey-Reference database I went back over the past 20 years to find players that resembled Clutterbuck’s career to see how they did after turning 30.

What I was looking for:

  • Players that played in at least 500 games between the ages of 20-29 (Clutterbuck has played 595)
  • Players that averaged less than 0.35 points per game during that stretch (Clutterbuck has averaged 0.31)
  • How many games, and seasons, they played after turning 30 and what their production looked like

This is some of what I found.

  • There were 27 previous players during that time period whose careers compared to Clutterbuck
  • Only 10 of them played in more than 200 games (the equivalent of 2.5 seasons) after their 30th birthday
  • Only six of them played a single game in the NHL after their 33rd birthday
  • 11 of them were out of the NHL entirely before they turned 32
  • There are still five players, other than Clutterbuck, that are still active in the league: Chris Neil at age 37, Jay McClemment at 33, Brad Richardson at 31, Daniel Winnik at 31, and Jared Boll at 30. How far their their careers go remains to be seen.

The defense for signing a player like Clutterbuck to a long-term deal like this is that they bring more to the team than just scoring. And that is fair. Not everybody is going to be a goal scorer or produce points. He seems like a great teammate. People like him. That is all fine.

But forget production here, we are talking about a type of player that generally does not stick long in the NHL after they hit 30. Plus, when it comes to Clutterbuck, this is player that has spent nearly a decade in the NHL playing a grueling style of hockey that is almost certain to wear a player down physically.

Every player in the league, no matter how good they are, starts to slide and lose a step once they get on the other side of 30 because father time is still, and will continue to be, undefeated. The players at the top of the league are still able to remain productive because they had so much skill and so much production at their peak. Even if they start to lose a step, or lose some of their production, they are still able to contribute something. But the guys at the bottom of your lineup that have spent years grinding their way through the league do not really have that step to lose. If they lose a step, they lose everything. If they lose even a little bit of their production, there is not much left.

The reality of a salary cap league is you can not keep everybody you want.

Every team has had to experience this at some point over the past decade. Teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins have decided to keep the players at the top of their lineup no matter the cost and sacrifice around the edges.

The Islanders, by letting players like Okposo and Nielsen leave, and committing to their bottom-six, seem to be trying to build from the bottom up.

It is a gamble. Let’s see how it works.

EA Sports rolls out NHL 18 closed beta, with a lot of 3-on-3 focus

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EA Sports released a closed beta for “NHL 18” today, which gives players on Xbox One and Playstation 4 the chance to test three modes out from July 25 – Aug. 1.*

It sure seems like the beta – if not the full game – will focus on 3-on-3 overtime, and extending that experience beyond the confines of normal NHL action.

For one thing, the established EA Sports Hockey League mode will apparently include 3-on-3 overtime in the beta, and maybe more interestingly, also through full games. EA Sports explains as much:

Bringing authentic NHL 3-on-3 overtime to EA SPORTS Hockey League, you can now choose to play 3-on-3 full matches, opening up more ice for you and your teammates to get creative, pull off big plays, and showcase brand new skill moves. With more space to attack – and to make mistakes – 3-on-3 EASHL is higher stakes with more competition and skills.

Fans of the ailing sub-genre of arcade-style sports video games should take note that “NHL 18” introduces “NHL Threes.” The format hearkens back to the 16-bit days by turning off offside and icing calls, while a penalty will give a player a chance at penalty shot. Interesting. EA provided a little more information about the mode here, and it sure sounds like it could be fully featured upon release. The beta at least provides a taste of that.

(It wouldn’t be surprising if “NHL Threes” apes the previous generations “3 on 3 NHL Arcade,” which became something of a cult classic for some hockey game fans.)

Along with EA Sports Hockey League (note: a mode where you control a single player rather than a full team) and “NHL Threes,” the beta also includes the more vanilla Online Versus Play mode.

While the beta appears to be closed, EA’s NHL account is tweeting out ways to get codes on Tuesday, so it might not be too late if you’re lucky.

Without taking the beta for a test run personally just yet, this sounds like a nice opportunity for people to give the near-complete “NHL 18” a trial before the full game comes out on Sept. 15.

* – Or, as Kotaku’s Jason Schreier recently noted, maybe for a longer period of time.

Streit on Canadiens return: ‘Montreal always had a special place in my heart’

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Whether he’s Andrei Markov‘s replacement or a depth addition, the bottom line is that Mark Streit is slated for his second run with the Montreal Canadiens.

Streit, 39, would be justified in feeling like this signing could really tie his career in a nice bow.

MORE: Canadiens sign Streit

(Amusingly for everyone beyond his accountant, with a reported $700K cap hit for 2017-18, Streit is drawing almost the exact same salary as he did from the start; Streit received $600K in 2006-07 and 2007-08, according to Cap Friendly/Cap Geek.)

Back in 2004, the Canadiens drafted him … barely. He was a ninth-round pick, going 262nd overall in 2004.*

All things considered, Streit jumped to the NHL remarkably quickly, playing more than half a season in 2005-06. He would bounce from the Canadiens to the Islanders, Flyers, Penguins, and now back to Montreal. Despite him pretty well-traveled, the Swiss-born blueliner feels most at home with the Habs, as he told the team website.

“Montreal always had a special place in my heart because I started there,” Streit said. “One thing I really always missed was playing at the Bell Centre. It’s a unique rink with unique fans and a unique atmosphere. If you get the chance to play in front of them every night – with the atmosphere and the life in the city – I think it’s very motivating.”

Streit acknowledged the pressure that comes with playing there, and he’d certainly feel some if Canadiens fans are expecting a player who struggled to even crack the Pittsburgh Penguins’ postseason lineup to replace Markov.

Considering his $700K cap hit, Canadiens fans should keep expectations reasonable, especially since Streit tends to really blossom when people don’t expect much from him.

* – In case you’re wondering, that was a respectable ninth round. Danniel Winnik (717 games played, 265th overall), Grant Clitsome (205 GP, 271), Adam Cracknell (203, 279), and Jannik Hansen (580 GP, 287) all made solid careers for themselves. Not bad for guys who were drafted in rounds that wouldn’t even take place today.

Canada would consider Doan, Iginla for 2018 Winter Olympics

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When discussing the construction of Canada’s possible roster heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sean Burke can be almost frustratingly coy. Still, in leaving virtually every available avenue at least conceivably open, he leaves room for some fascinating scenarios.

It might be tough to top this one discussed on TSN’s Overdrive 1050: if NHL teams pass on signing Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan, perhaps the Olympics could be their swan song?

Yes, there are quite a few “ifs” involved, but it’s an intriguing thought during the dog days of the hockey summer.

Burke likely presented more realistic possibilities in acknowledging that professional players plying their trade in Europe, particularly the KHL, might be the greatest source for talent.

“Most of our players will be guys that come from Europe playing in the KHL,” Burke said to TSN’s Overdrive 1050.

When pondering possible entries, recent international tournaments could be helpful.

Looking at Canada’s 2016 Deutschland Cup roster and who they’re sending to the 2017 Sochi Open, NHL castoffs such as Derek Roy, Gilbert Brule, Nigel Dawes, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Lee, and Mason Raymond all seem likely logical choices. College players such as Cale Makar make things more complicated – both for Canada and the U.S. – as well.

In a separate interview with TSN, Burke noted that he would rather not supply specific names himself. Even in being vague, he provided an additional interesting detail: upcoming tournaments may illuminate what Canada lacks on its roster as much as who could have a leg-up on making the team.

And, if nothing else, they’ll get a good look at some players through a rigorous process.

Wow.

That notion makes you wonder if AHL players will be at a significant disadvantage to make both Team Canada and the United States rosters. As the Associated Press notes, AHL teams look poised to loan certain players, but only for a window of Feb. 5-26.

Burke notes that he’ll want a significant chunk of his roster more or less settled around December, and he already pointed to a preference for those who are playing in Europe.

Now, that doesn’t mean Canada or the U.S. will ignore an obvious AHL talent – if available – yet it sounds like those players would face an uphill battle to making the 2018 Winter Olympics.

That said, a lot can change, especially considering how often injuries can throw a wrench in things.

As much as we’d all love to watch a “best-on-best” tournament featuring NHL players, the alternative is also intriguing: seeing how different teams construct rosters from a variety of other leagues/resources.

And, hey, it could be awfully fun to see the likes of Iginla and/or Doan leading a motley crew of young players and former NHLers. Such a thought might even get Doan to admit that he was out of bounds in blaspheming “Miracle.”

Zibanejad jumps at opportunity to be Rangers’ No. 1 center

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It’s reasonable to assume that the New York Rangers were comfortable trading Derek Stepan in part because they believed Mika Zibanejad could step into the No. 1 center role.

That puts a lot of pressure on Zibanejad, who’s never been the top pivot on an NHL team before. If that wasn’t enough, now he’ll need to justify the first big contract of his career (seeing his cap hit rise from $2.625 million to $5.35 million).

MORE: Rangers lock up Zibanejad for five years

At least he isn’t oblivious to this challenge, and as the Rangers website notes, he’s actually super happy* to raise the stakes.

“I think even before signing, seeing Derek being traded was a little bit of an alert to me that I might get a chance to play a bigger role,” Zibanejad said. “As a player, you always want more responsibility and a bigger role. It’s something that I’m working really hard to make sure that I’m … taking advantage of the chance I’m getting.”

Stepan drew criticism – arguably unfair criticism – from Rangers fans for not being quite the No. 1 center many of them wanted, so it will be interesting to see how Zibanejad handles the challenge/burden.

If you were to grade his first season with the Rangers, you might be tempted to hand him an “Incomplete.”

Injuries really limited him for much of 2016-17, but when he played, he was solid, scoring 14 goals and 37 points in 56 games. Zibanejad had a flair for the dramatic, too.

Still, in full seasons, Zibanejad’s produced nice-but-unspectacular numbers. Two straight 20+ goal seasons to finish his Senators days were helpful, but many of his stats more or less fell in line with Stepan’s production.

Now, at 24, it’s reasonable to believe that Zibanejad’s best days are in front of him. It’s also true that, while he’s received nice opportunities to succeed, he wasn’t quite getting those top-line reps that Stepan received.

In all likelihood, it will come down to expectations. If Rangers fans want Zibanejad to produce at a level far exceeding Stepan, they might be disappointed; the bar for a successful season by most forwards’ standards has changed in the NHL, and Stepan’s mostly made the grade. On the other hand, if expectations are kept in check, Zibanejad could be a very nice fit for the Rangers.

Though he might miss the Derick Brassard comparisons now that the measuring stick changed to Derek Stepan.

* – Seriously, the guy said “super happy” a lot.