Conacher wins Tavares – Okposo sweepstakes (for now)

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After enjoying the luxury of lining John Tavares and Kyle Okposo up with strong wingers in Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson, the 2014-15 New York Islanders enter the season with a tough call to make in finding their dynamic duo a new running mate.

Do you go with a skilled but inexperienced player like Ryan Strome, lean toward the size route with someone like Anders Lee or Brock Nelson or maybe see if a promotion may finally get more out of a guy like Josh Bailey?

Considering how frequently NHL head coaches rummage through different combinations, it’s not wise to make too big a deal out of this, but New York Newsday’s Arthur Staple reports that Cory Conacher is primed to start on the top line with Tavares and Okposo.

Conacher’s big chance

Not bad for a guy who wasn’t qualified by the lowly Buffalo Sabres this offseason after the team claimed him off of waivers from the struggling Ottawa Senators late in 2013-14. Not bad for an under-sized player who will likely be doubted for the entirety of his NHL career (and might ultimately be know as “the other part of the Ben Bishop trade.”)

There’s some solid logic to giving the 24-year-old a shot, though. Despite the classic logic of “A fire hydrant can score 50 goals with Mario Lemieux,” not every player ends up being the right fit for excellent linemates.

Conacher began his NHL career with a flurry of activity, scoring nine points in six January games and 18 in his first 24 while serving as a great fit with Steven Stamkos. That happened in 2012-13, so it’s not like he’s that far from successes, and he was a scoring demon in the AHL to boot (80 points in 75 games with Norfolk in 2011-12, for one thing).

Seriously, just watch him fire home this shot after a great Tavares pass:

While it’s probably fair to assume that he’s somewhat responsible for his struggles since being traded from Tampa Bay in 2012-13, it’s plausible that he wasn’t always given the benefit of the doubt in Ottawa or Buffalo. This is obviously an enormous opportunity for Conacher to prove that he belongs as not just an NHL player, but maybe a top-six forward.

Here are Staple’s projected lines:

Grabovski and Kulemin split

One other interesting takeaway is that Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin seem primed to start on different lines. Also, if Staple is being literal with the way he’s lining up those players, that would mean Grabovski would be on the wing. That’s not totally out of left field considering his spin as a winger with Tavares and Okposo, yet most associate the solid possession player as a pivot.

Whether it’s at center or on the wing, it’s a little surprising to see Grabovski and Kulemin apart, as they seemed like great compliments to each other as solid defensive forwards.

That said, Nielsen often inspires “secret Selke”-type praise, so moving Kulemin with him isn’t exactly outrageous.

Circling back, these combinations could change as early as New York’s first moment of struggles for all we know. Maybe the greatest takeaway is that the Islanders now have a host of choices, which is a “dilemma” they’ve likely been craving for some time.

Video: Flames’ Gaudreau scored another nice one

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Sure, it’s the preseason, but a nice goal is still an exhilarating sight. With that in mind, here are a few of Tuesday’s best tallies; if you saw anything else that really wowed you yet didn’t make the cut, feel free to mention it in the comments.

First things first, Winnipeg Jets youngster Nikolaj Ehlers completed this beautiful bit of passing against the Ottawa Senators:

As much as people rush to (understandably) put “but it’s just the preseason” caveats on the impressive work of Johnny Gaudreau, it’s getting increasingly difficult to deny that Johnny Gaudreau probably deserves to be in the Calgary Flames’ mix:

Two nice ones from the New York Islanders … possibly from John Tavares’ linemates.

First up, a nice individual effort by Kyle Okposo, who almost certainly will be on Tavares’ wing:

Secondly, here’s a blistering finish by Cory Conacher, a darkhorse candidate for what would be a plum job alongside Tavares and Okposo:

Again, there were probably some other great goals on Tuesday, but this is a nice taste of players who look ready for October.

Capuano continues auditions for Tavares line

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John Tavares and Kyle Okposo are expected to play together in 2014-15. Figuring out who will round out the Islanders’ top line has been an ongoing process though.

Cory Conacher, 24, will probably be the fourth player to audition for that role on Tuesday, per Newsday. Brock Nelson might follow despite his natural position being center. Of course, he wouldn’t be the first center to get a shot as offseason acquisition Mikhail Grabovski also skated alongside Tavares.

As coach Jack Capuano noted, the Islanders have a bit of a logjam up the middle, so they can afford to shift one of their centers.

Who rounds out that line is important, but at the same time, the Islanders have to hope that this doesn’t lead to a situation where Tavares and Okposo enters the season without much chemistry with their linemate.

“Everyone I’ve played with brings a lot of offense and can make plays, and that’s great. But everyone plays their own style of game, so it takes some adjustment,” Tavares said. “The more you’re familiar with that, it helps with the chemistry, the more you play together, practice together. So that can help. But the coaching staff is trying to mix things up and I want to be able to play with anyone, just play the way I know I can play no matter who’s with me.”

Tavares can’t wait to end ‘probably the longest stretch I’ve ever gone without playing’

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John Tavares has had a lot of time to prepare for the 2014-15 campaign. Far more than he ever wanted.

Tavares had 24 goals and 66 points in 59 games with the Isladners when he suffered a partially torn MCL during the Winter Olympics. He was forced to miss the last 22 games of the season as a result.

“While the summer’s been good for other reasons, it’s been too long and I want to change that this coming season,” Tavares said, per the team’s website. “It’s probably the longest stretch I’ve ever gone without playing. I’m looking forward to training camp and I want to finish off the summer strong and come into the year motivated with a lot to prove.”

The Islanders as a whole have endured a long summer after they finished 2013-14 with the third worst record in the Eastern Conference. Aiming to avoid a repeat of that disappointing result, they have signed goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson as well as forwards Cory Conacher, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin.

Tavares is encouraged by the moves the Islanders have made and thinks that there will be plenty of competition during training camp. However, he still has to wait another two months before he’ll get to play in his next regular season game.

Isles grab Conacher on one-year, $600K deal

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Cory Conacher might be too young to be deemed a “journeyman” NHL forward, yet he’s experienced quite the taste of that life during the last three seasons. He’ll get a chance to prove he can stick with the New York Islanders after signing a one-year, 600K deal with the team (according to New York Newsday’s Arthur Staple).

Here’s a look at the 24-year-old forward’s path in the NHL since the 2012-13 season:

  • He managed to strike quick with the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring 24 points in 35 games.
  • Really, though, that just raised his trade value; Conacher was the Ottawa Senators’ best takeaway from a deal that landed Ben Bishop.
  • He would only play 12 games for the Senators in 2012-13 and 60 games last season before being placed on waivers.
  • The Buffalo Sabres decided to claim him off of waivers in March. He would ultimately produce six points in 19 contests with Buffalo.
  • The Sabres decided to pass on qualifying him during this offseason, opening the door for the Islanders to sign Conacher to this deal.

Considering this contract, the ride could very well continue for Conacher.

Still, this could also be a remarkably good match. For all the criticisms Islanders GM Garth Snow receives, he’s developed quite a knack for identifying undervalued talent other teams give up on. Matt Moulson is probably the best example of his fine touch with “scrap heap” options, yet the list is fairly impressive.

Much of Conacher’s success might depend upon where he lands in the Islanders’ lineup. If nothing else, he gets a chance to show that he can stick with a team as an under-sized player.