Edmonton Oilers’ Dustin Penner, right, keeps Minnesota Wild’s Marek Zidlicky, of the Czech Republic, at bay during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Let’s be honest. As important a hire as Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations is for the New York Islanders, many of us could barely even utter his name before “John Tavares” returned to the forefront of any Isles thoughts.
That’s just going to be the status quo until we find out if Tavares re-signs with the Islanders or if he ventures elsewhere and breaks thousands of hearts on Long Island.
So, there’s no sense denying the all-world elephant in the room. Lamoriello could do great work for the Islanders if, say, he decided to be full-on GM, but a Tavares departure would still make this front office move a footnote. On the other hand, things would be downright intriguing in Brooklyn if Tavares returns (whether it has anything to do with Lou or not).
As much as we’d like to accurately forecast the Tavares sweepstakes, the truth is that few truly know what will happen. Hey, it’s possible that Tavares himself might still be mulling over his decision.
With or without their best star in ages, the Islanders have a lot of work to do. In a way, it seems like Lamoriello is being asked to do a repair job much like he did with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were able to get rid of pesky contracts and add some key components under his watch.
Get the notion
During today’s press conference, Lamoriello was his usual guarded self, not revealing much about the futures of GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight.
The thing is, Lamoriello could make plenty of inferences, even from the outside.
Really, you could argue that everything starts and stops with Snow. He’s been given rare leeway for a GM considering his 12-year reign, especially considering that the Isles have only won a single playoff series with Tavares and since their glory days. (We’ll get to the messy salary structure soon.)
Snow selected Doug Weight to go from interim and then full-on head coach, and while the interim run almost included a playoff berth, the past 2017-18 season was a disaster. Sure, shabby goaltending didn’t help, but how much of that falls on Weight’s shoulders? This Andre Burakovsky quote should shake any manager to the core:
Lamoriello’s not shy about taking over the GM seat, so you wonder if Snow’s days are melting away. He cannot wait too long to make a decision about Weight, as this is the time of year when you enjoy a greater number of opportunities to find coaching replacements. What’s Dave Tippett doing these days?
(Waits for Jacques Lemaire jokes[?].)
Oh yeah, and Lamoriello also must prepare for the 2018 NHL Draft. That could be awfully interesting since the Islanders boast picks 11 and 12, with the latter choice stemming from the Travis Hamonic trade. This figures to be a whirlwind couple of months for Lamoriello and the Islanders organization.
If you’re convinced the Islanders will retain Tavares and thus feel little sympathy for this team, just take a look at their salary structure at Cap Friendly. Yikes.
During his time in Toronto, Lamoriello helped the Maple Leafs jettison bad contracts from the Phil Kessel days, whether that came via LTIR loophole maneuvering (just ask Joffrey Lupul, though he’ll eventually delete his response) or savvy trades. It says a lot about Lamoriello’s skills that the Maple Leafs didn’t need to retain salary in getting rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s ghastly contract in 2016, yet the Senators were forced to eat $1.75 million of his cap hit in February.
It’s strange to see a 75-year-old executive serving as a rebuilder/repairer of franchises, particularly after he guided the New Jersey Devils for a generation, but the Isles could benefit from his “cleaning” services. There are some odious contracts, so we’ll see if Lamoriello can conjure some magic to move beyond mistakes like the deals handed to Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck.
(It turns out Lamoriello cleans up more than a team’s facial hair choices. Cue Monty Burns and Don Mattingly.)
One rare good thing about the Islanders’ salary structure is a gimme: Mathew Barzal‘s on his rookie deal through 2019-20, so Lamoriello doesn’t even need to worry about extension negotiations during this summer. Worst-case scenario, they’ll still have at least one spellbinding star at center.
Re-signing Tavares stands as priorities one through 91, but there are other choices to make.
Brock Nelson stands out as the most prominent forward alongside noteworthy defensemen (including Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, and Ryan Pulock) who are slated for RFA or UFA statuses. There are some key players approaching contract years in 2018-19, with Jordan Eberle and underrated (and underpaid) scorer Anders Lee headlining the list. Lamoriello must mull over which players to keep, for how long, and for how much.
If Tavares’ situation is the elephant in the room, then goaltending is the massive hole in the wall.
It’s tough to imagine any team taking on Thomas Greiss ($3.33M cap hit through 2019-20) after he submarined his team’s chances a lot like Scott Darling did in Carolina, so Lamoriello’s tasked with finding ways to reduce the damage. He at least has options; the Isles might get more out of Greiss by improving the system around him (replace Weight, or hope Weight improves?) or possibly looking to a different goalie coach. Perhaps Lou would even opt for a sports psychologist?
Either way, Lamoriello must also target another goalie, whether that guy is deemed a true backup, the new starter, or a platoon partner for Greiss.
(Again, a dream scenario would be to somehow move Greiss and get better in net without losing too many other assets, yet that might require Lamoriello to actually become a wizard. Or maybe he’d just need to get Peter Chiarelli on the phone?)
That’s quite a brain-full, right?
The scary part is that this is a simplified version of the choices that await. Lamoriello will need to ponder the franchise’s past failures. Did poor pro scouting inspire questionable additions such as Ladd, at least at his price point? Is this team doing enough to develop its draft picks?
Lou Lamoriello faces a ton of questions, with many of them standing as challenges even for a decorated, experienced executive. In some cases, he’ll need to make some key calls soon, and it should be fascinating to learn what the future holds for the Isles.
Of course, the biggest call actually falls to John Tavares, maybe more than all of the other ones combined.
WASHINGTON — For the third time in four years the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves facing one of the ultimate situations in the sport.
A Game 7 in the Conference Final with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
It is obviously a familiar situation for most of the core group as 11 players on the roster, as well as head coach Jon Cooper, have been in place for all three of these recent runs. They split the previous two Game 7s, beating the New York Rangers in 2015 on their way to a Final showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks, and losing a one-goal nail-biter in 2016 against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now they find themselves in a winner-take-all game on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) after dropping Game 6 in Washington on Monday night. It was a brutally physical, electrifying game that saw Capitals goalie Braden Holtby pitch his first shutout of the season and the Lightning find themselves trying to chase a more desperate team for much of the night.
It was probably a disappointing effort on the part of the Lightning after winning three consecutive games to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. To be fair, it is awfully difficult to beat any team four games in a row, especially when you get to this point in the season when only the best of the best are still left standing. But anytime you have a chance to finish a team and deliver a knockout punch you want to take advantage of that. Sometimes you can’t control the result. Sometimes no matter how well you play things are not going to go your way on the scoreboard. Stuff happens. But you can control the way you play and the latter part was a big part of Cooper’s post-game presser on Monday night, as well as the situation it leaves them in.
“We didn’t play with near the desperation they did,” said Cooper. “Was it a fairly even game? There is no question. But what were the hits, 39-19? Somebody was engaged and somebody was not. That is a choice, and you can spin this anyway you want. You can say, ‘well good for Tampa they were down 0-2 and they pushed this to a Game 7.’ Or you could say ‘wow they blew a big opportunity to close this series out.’
“In the end there is a Game 7,” he continued. “It is at home. If you said to me you just have to go 2-2 at home in this series and you are going to win it, we will take that. We won two on the road, now we have to go home and make sure we take care of business there. Shame on us if we don’t.”
While home ice is all well and good, it isn’t necessarily something that has been a huge advantage in these playoffs, and especially not in this series where each team to this point has lost two of the three games in their own building.
“I think if you look at the statistics in these playoffs, pretty sure the playoffs the road team has won more than the home team,” said Cooper, who was correct in his assessment of playoff records, where the road teams own a 41-37 mark.
“You have an advantage of home. you get to squeak your matches a little better, there is face-offs, there is 20,000 people pulling for you. If you’re going to give me a game, and I have no idea what the results are going to be, but if you’re going to give me a game I’d rather play it at home than on the road. They earned that during the regular season and now we need it. Now we need to use it to our advantage.”
Still, the question remains as to why the Lightning, the top team in the Eastern Conference that had just pulled off three wins in a row, played so flat at times in a potential close out game. Cooper was asked on Monday night if he thought his team was maybe relying too much on the fact it knew it had Game 7 sitting in its back pocket and thus didn’t have the same urgency as the Capitals.
“I don’t know, is that human nature? Who knows,” said Cooper. “I guess in the back of your mind you know it’s going to be there. But did our guys try and win a hockey game? They did.”
He continued: “But with this time of year with only three teams left with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup your urgency level, your determination level, they have to make you so uncomfortable, that is what pushes you through. There were times we played like that, there were times we didn’t. It’s so hard to win and this group has been through these games before. Maybe winning three in a row and clawing back into this series, we were on life support, maybe it’s taken its toll on us. Maybe we exhaled a little bit. But I will tell you one thing, I’ve been so proud to coach this group over the past five years, every time they have been pushed against the wall, they have pushed back. It has been awesome to coach them, we are being pushed again, and now it is time to push back.”
These two teams are very similar in a lot of ways, so it’s probably kind of fitting that they find themselves in this situation where one game decides who moves on.
While the Tampa Bay organization has won the Stanley Cup once in its existence (and been back to the Final within the past four years) this particular core — which is an outstanding one! — still hasn’t done it. They, too, have been painfully close only to have it fall just out of reach. After losing the Final to Chicago in 2015, they came back the previous season and let a 3-2 series lead slip away against Pittsburgh after missing an opportunity to close out the series on home ice. They had a 3-2 series lead this time around, missed an opportunity to close it out again with a game that probably was not their best effort, and now find themselves in another Game 7 with a trip to the Final on the line.
Both teams have a ton of pressure to come through and break through the glass ceiling that has been sitting above them. It should make for an outstanding game on Wednesday night.
If you look at NHL GM gigs like flipping a home, then some jobs call for a massive renovation, and it must be fun to deal with a “fixer-upper.” But what about when someone wants you to turn an already-expensive house into a mansion?
That’s essentially what’s being asked of longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton as he takes over the Minnesota Wild job from Chuck Fletcher.
Wild owner (and former Predators owner) Craig Leipold at least had a sense of humor about his demands during the press conference that introduced Fenton as GM.
“Our goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. But, no pressure, Paul,” Leipold said, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo.
For those who are waiting to interject with a comment along the lines of “Yes, but every team talks about winning the Stanley Cup in these situations” … well, that’s true. Sometimes you can root out some semi-useful information in reading between the lines during these moments, though.
Take, for instance, the video clip below. On one hand, Fenton wants to “move the puck” and play an uptempo style that virtually every team discusses (aside from a relative outlier here or there, like Peter Chiarelli wanting “heavy and hard hockey”). On the other hand, there are some interesting kernels to consider. Fenton at least seems open-minded to making things work with head coach Bruce Boudreau, which is certainly a fair question since he wasn’t a bench boss handpicked by Fenton. Multiple comments also indicate that the Wild hope to ascend to the level of contender rather than going into a rebuild, as “finishing touches” indicate.
If anyone’s ready for a GM job, it’s Fenton. He’s been rising up the Predators organization since 1998, earning glowing reviews from Nashville GM David Poile. There’s a reason he’s been on plenty of GM candidate lists for years.
Minnesota could especially benefit if Fenton observed how Nashville flourished after making courageous trades such as the P.K. Subban – Shea Weber swap. Not everyone has the stomach for such risks, but those gambles often separate contenders from pretenders.
There are a number of reasons why Fenton might fail, or at least could struggle. Let’s dive in.
Jumping right into the deep end
The 2018 Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us. The draft isn’t far away on June 22, and free agency is right afterward. Wild fans have to hope that Fenton’s experience in scouting and his familiarity with the Central Division will come in handy, as this next stretch is a true “trial by fire.”
[A deep dive on the mess Fletcher left behind. It’s a mixed bag at best.]
It’s up to Fenton to try to land pending RFAs Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba to team-friendly deals after each player enjoyed easily the best seasons of their NHL careers. Over the years, the Predators have piled up some really nice contracts for players they developed, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Bargain extensions often come down to timing, however, as you can see in Ryan Johansen getting a Getzlaf-like deal. Fenton faces two challenges in getting Zucker and Dumba signed to affordable contracts, whether that means going short-term or trying to bring the annual price down by handing out more term.
If “finishing touches” boil down to small tweaks and savvy shopping in the discount aisle, that’s fine.
Something more drastic could be highly difficult to pull off …
… Because the Wild are in a true meat grinder of a Central Division.
Consider this: Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was being comically hasty in discussing his team becoming a “dynasty.”
That said, when you consider how young and talented that core is, you never know. At minimum, the Jets are structured in a way where they’ll be on-paper favorites against the Wild for the foreseeable future.
Fenton will need to make beautiful music to get his Wild to outmatch his old boss in Nashville, while it’s possible that the Blues and Stars are the ones who are “finishing touches” away from legitimate contention. You can’t totally count out the Blackhawks either (what if Corey Crawford was healthy all season?) and the Avalanche seem like they’re onto something.
One could envision Fenton making the right moves and the Wild still stalling in this first-round limbo. The Central Division is that tough, and there’s a genuine fear that Minnesota simply doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to break through.
There’s a school of thought that the Wild might be better off rebuilding, or if that’s too extreme, maybe a brief “reload.”
Minnesota definitely has some talent, and the Wild can look like a contender on better nights. Still, that series against the Jets felt telling; you wonder if they’re doomed to be stuck at good when they need to be great.
There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.
Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).
The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.
With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.
In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.
As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.