McPhee magic: Caps re-sign Karl Alzner to two-year, $2.57 million deal; Is restricted free agency working?

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If there’s a general manager out there this summer who’s having a banner year and showing just how to get things done smartly it’s Caps GM George McPhee.

After McPhee was able to net a first and second round pick from Colorado for Semyon Varlamov and land a veteran #1 goalie in Tomas Vokoun for one year at $1.5 million, he’s gone and pulled off another coup in how he re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Karl Alzner. While Alzner remained unsigned, the prospect of getting him signed on the cheap and not to a long term deal seemed impossible.

Instead, the Caps locked up Alzner for the next two years for nearly $2.6 million. Mike Vogel from Caps365.com reports that the total worth of the deal is two years for $2.57 million with Alzner getting $1.3 million this season and $1.27 next season.

For a young and promising defenseman who played on the Capitals shutdown defensive pair with youngster John Carlson, Alzner’s deal is a salary cap dream and a steal all at once. With the Caps being in such a salary crunch, it’s all the more helpful to the team’s bottom line. With Alzner’s $1.285 million cap hit figured in, CapGeek.com has the Caps over the salary cap by less than a million dollars with everyone necessary now signed up. Finding a way to get under the cap with relatively so few dollars to chop off won’t be too difficult for the Capitals.

The hero through all this, however, is McPhee. The Caps were poised to have some very tough decisions to make roster-wise once Alzner was locked up to a deal. That contract was presumed to be another long deal with an egregious cap hit after what we’ve seen elsewhere with other defensemen. With Alzner being young (he’s just 22), talented, and still growing better as a player the sky was presumably the limit for his asking price.

Instead, he re-signs for a deal that when it ends he’ll still be a restricted free agent and still able to potentially hold the Caps’ feet to the fire for a big, long-term deal. Through all of this, however, you have to wonder just what the problem is with the restricted free agent market and the absence of offer sheets being signed. There was no better player for an opposing GM to make a run at than Alzner thanks to the Caps salary cap situation and he didn’t see an offer worth signing on to.

That either means other general managers don’t want to go through the hassle and potential negative PR of poaching a player or restricted free agency has run its course as a viable option of obtaining a player. After all, if other teams aren’t going to press the system to force big spending teams to pay for their poor cap management, why even bother with it? Then again, if this silly system is able to make smart GMs show just why they’re some of the best in the league at figuring things out, we’re not against that either.

It’s just crazy to see the Capitals land a top goalie and retain a top defenseman for a relatively small sum of $2.8 million just this season. Either this means McPhee is the smartest guy in the room, or players really are willing to swallow some short time pride to try and win the Stanley Cup before getting paid.

Three questions facing New York Islanders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

1. Build more for the future, or for now?

When you lose a player of John Tavares‘ caliber for nothing but cap space and a roster spot, people are going to pencil you in for a drop-off. After all, Mathew Barzal is one of the players the Isles will point to as a reason for optimism, yet the Islanders still missed the playoffs with Barzal and Tavares on their roster.

The smart thing would be to accept the reality of their situation – particularly after a promising draft including nice picks Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson – and maybe roll the dice for one more blue-chip prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft. Right? Maybe?

Well, the Islanders are sending some mixed signals.

Some of it stems from simple human nature. Lou Lamoriello is 75. Barry Trotz just won a Stanley Cup, was already part of a lengthy rebuild with Nashville, is 56 himself, and about to enter his 20th NHL season. These are front office members who probably don’t have the highest level of tolerance for growing pains.

The Islanders roster boasts some unsettling contracts, some of which were added by Lamoriello.

Leo Komarov is 31 and received a highly questionable four-year contract. Andrew Ladd, 32, somehow has five years left on his ugly deal. Cal Clutterbuck is 30, Johnny Boychuk is 34, and even slightly younger guys (Thomas Hickey at 29, Josh Bailey at 28) carry some risks. The Islanders have more than $19M going to six defensemen who were abysmal as a unit last season, and four of those contracts have at least four more years remaining.

Trotz’s schemes could conceivably help the Islanders at least wade into the East playoff bubble, as a better defense can beget better goaltending. Combine that with more magic from Mathew Barzal and a few other key forwards, and maybe you have a respectable season.

Is that really the best way to handle this situation, though? The Islanders may instead be better off selling off some of their riskier contracts, handing opportunities to young players instead of fading veterans, and generally living to fight another day. Being too good to possibly land a Jack Hughes but too bad to make a real dent is a bad place to be, and arguably more of the same for a franchise that just lost John Tavares.

Embracing reality late could save a lot of future anguish, and accelerate an ascent to levels not seen in decades. Ideally.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

2. Who stays, who goes?

The 2018-19 campaign isn’t just a tug-of-war between players trying not to fade into the sunset versus young players hoping to see the dawn of NHL careers.

There are interesting, prime-age guys whose futures aren’t particularly clear with the Islanders, and the uncertainty should be mutual in some cases, as making the wrong calls regarding terms and money could really put the Isles in a bad spot.

It had to feel comforting for Jordan Eberle to silence many of his Edmonton critics by enjoying the bounce-back season many analytics-minded people anticipated. Maybe Eberle feels a drive to stick with this team, particularly if he can maintain a spot alongside Barzal. That said, Eberle is 28 and only made the playoffs during one season, struggling enough that the Oilers overreacted and traded him. Eberle probably doesn’t want to be stuck in another murky rebuild, and he’s never enjoyed the opportunity to choose exactly where he played NHL hockey. From the Islanders perspective, they must decide if a guy who probably won’t be cheap – why would Eberle take more than a small downgrade from his $6M AAV in a new deal? – is worth keeping around. Will Eberle exit his prime by the time the Islanders are in a more legitimate place to contend?

That’s far the only noteworthy contract year for the Islanders to consider. Anders Lee, 28, has been a wonderful producer, yet he has to prove that he can remain a prolific sniper without Tavares. Brock Nelson, 26, received a one-year “prove it” deal, as did 27-year-old goalie Robin Lehner.

The Islanders would be wise to see how things go with most, if not all, of the players mentioned.

For one thing, management can see where this team ranks, and how the pieces fit together under a new regime and without a foundational star (and with a still-new one taking over).

Lamoriello shouldn’t lag too much, though, as many of these players could command some really nice trade assets. While Eberle’s a little pricey cap-hit-wise and might warrant salary retention, Lee is a huge bargain at $3.75M, Nelson’s at least interesting at $4.25M, and a Lehner resurgence could be awfully appealing for a team wanting goaltending security, considering his mere $1.5M cap hit.

The Isles nailed it when they converted picks to Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Noah Dobson. Imagine if they could pull off a few more strong deals if it’s clear that 2018-19 isn’t their year?

3. How will Trotz handle young players?

The good news is that Barry Trotz is no stranger to developing young players. He did it for years with the Predators, helping Nashville show how you can build a team from scratch (at least when the expansion rules made it way tougher to do so).

There are questions about some of Trotz’s preferences. Consider that at least a subset of Capitals fans were frustrated with Trotz’s occasional reluctance to give young players like Andre Burakovsky the green light, and accepting the risks that come with such a commitment. Is it a coincidence that Filip Forsberg was demoted to the AHL late in Trotz’s Nashville days, while it seemed like he flourished overnight once Peter Laviolette took over? Maybe, but there are skeptics out there when it comes to this area of Trotz’s coaching philosophies.

The Islanders already possessed so-so, aging players who could stand in the way of younger players taking crucial next steps. They added more this summer in the form of Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, and Matt Martin.

Will this adversely affect players who need sink or swim opportunities very soon (if not now?), like Josh Ho-Sang? That could be a shame, as a lot of those veterans are unlikely to be a part of the big picture.

Losing Tavares is brutal, no doubt, but it’s up to the Islanders to bounce back in the best way possible, or really let the pain linger.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

You can make a case for a ton of New York Islanders for the latest installment of “under pressure.”

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

As discussed in a different post, Mathew Barzal faces serious pressure as the new face of the franchise after John Tavares‘ departure.

Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts with a lot of money to gain or lose depending upon how they play, with no guarantee that they’ll be with the Islanders after this season (or even following the trade deadline).

Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz both have secured impressive, lengthy resumes of work in the NHL, yet their work with the Islanders will make an impact on their legacies regardless.

Robin Lehner probably has the most to win or lose overall, and could face a serious degree of difficulty, especially if Trotz can’t fix what was very much a broken Islanders defensive system from last season.

There are a number of factors that make this both a lot of pressure and a high-degree-of-difficulty challenge.

  • One shot.

Lehner received just a one-year, $1.5 million contract to prove himself. The Islanders didn’t make much of a commitment here, so it’s up to Lehner to show that they should bring him back.

  • No guarantee.

On a similar note, the Islanders don’t have a ton of incentive to keep throwing Lehner out there if he flames out, or merely struggles early on.

As much as Lehner stumbled during his final season with the Sabres, Thomas Greiss was even worse in 2017-18. That said, goalies are a difficult lot to forecast, so you never know if Greiss might put it together and land the top job.

(Consider how the Jets invested in Steve Mason last summer, only to see Connor Hellebuyck pass him totally by. It’s unlikely that Winnipeg expected Hellebuyck to be a Vezina finalist and expensive signing, yet that’s how the situation played out.)

  • Clock ticking, at least as a No. 1.

Lehner, 27, is running out of time and excuses. The edgy Swedish goalie has already played in 219 regular-season games (generating a solid-but-not-world-beating .915 career save percentage), and the Islanders rank as his third team. He hasn’t converted opportunities to the types of transcendent moments you want to see from a No. 1 goalie, as he’s appeared in just 49 minutes of playoff hockey during his career.

None of this is to say that Lehner is a failure, or cannot be a starting netminder.

After all, he was fighting off Craig Anderson in Ottawa before joining a Sabres team that has been abysmal for quite some time. Blaming Lehner totally is pretty silly with all of that in mind.

On the other hand, there are only 31 starting goalie jobs in the NHL. If Lehner flounders in 2018-19, he might not get a chance to land the top job at this level again, at least not for a while.

  • Tough task.

Getting adjusted to a new city, team, arena, and fan base is a lot for any player. It must be especially tough for a goalie, particularly since the Islanders could really struggle next season. Lehner may be asked to save the day on a regular basis, which isn’t the most reasonable request even for established starters.

  • Big disparity.

If Lehner shines, he could easily sign a robust contract. When a team believes it’s identified an answer in net, they almost always lock that guy up for multiple years and big dollars.

Falling short could suspend Lehner in limbo. He’ll enter his second consecutive contract year, depriving Lehner of the security pro athletes almost always crave.

Overall, this is a make-or-break year for Lehner, with a ton on the line.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Building off a breakthrough: Mathew Barzal

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

Frankly, the Islanders’ brass would be pretty brash to ask more of Mathew Barzal following his sensational Calder-winning campaign.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Barzal scored 22 goals and 85 points during his rookie year, lighting up highlight reel after highlight reel with his blinding mixture of high-end skill and remarkable confidence. Few players of any experience level would think to attempt the moves Barzal would throw out there, let alone pull them off as often as Barzal did in 2017-18.

You don’t really need to use the “for a rookie” caveat with what Barzal accomplished this past season, although such comments really cement how special his year was. His 85 points rank as the best for a Calder-winner since Evgeni Malkin scored exactly that many back in 2006-07.

Only 12 players scored more points than Barzal, whose 85 tied him with Brad Marchand and Jakub Voracek for 13th overall last season. So, yeah, Barzal set, well, the bar very high.

Expectations will be steep for Barzal, and not just because of his eye-opening breakthrough. With John Tavares gone, people will expect – or the Islanders will simply need – Barzal to be “the guy.” It’s not outrageous to picture Barzal becoming captain very soon, but even if he doesn’t wear the “C,” he’ll be expected to carry the scoring burden. Not the easiest draw for a guy who’s about to enter his sophomore year.

Not that Barzal seems to shrink from the spotlight.

Beyond his dazzling skills, Barzal seems to boast that swagger you look for in a star, and what the Isles might need after losing Tavares.

“I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy,” Matt Martin said of Barzal, via NHL.com. “But he does have a chip on his shoulder. I think he believes he can be one of the best players in the League. And you’re going to have to have a bigger role to do something like that.”

Granted, this doesn’t hinge on Barzal alone.

With Doug Weight gone for Barry Trotz, will Barzal receive the same free range to grow and learn from his mistakes? There’s always that concern that a more defensive-minded coach might hinder a scorer such as Barzal, especially considering that he’s still so wet-behind-the-ears.

(Speaking of behind the ears, Barzal will need to deal with old-schooler Lou Lamoriello, too. The National Post’s Michael Traikos captured the follicle follies that are already taking place with the Islanders. Fun and dumb stuff.)

Will there be excessive punishments in lost ice time or press conference criticisms if Barzal’s chance-taking backfires, as it almost always does for players who take chances? Might Trotz dial Barzal’s ice time back, in general, because of his defensive proclivities?

For all that went wrong with the Islanders last season, Barzal’s deployment went quite well. He averaged identical power-play ice time as John Tavares, as both logged 3:10 of man-advantage time per night. It didn’t take long for Weight to lean on Barzal overall, either; after averaging 15:28 TOI in October, Barzal’s ice time average never slipped below 16:58 in any other month.

With Tavares out, the Islanders could experiment with giving Barzal even more opportunities. There’s no better time than now to find out if 20-minute-type-work suits Barzal.

(That might seem like a no-brainer, but you also don’t want to hurt his confidence, especially if this Isles team ends up being rough next season.)

It should be fascinating to see how Barzal handles being the focal point of this Islanders team. He’ll receive the big-time offensive opportunities, yet he’ll also be the top focus of the opposition. Even if everything goes well, topping 85 points won’t be easy.

If anyone can do it, Barzal can pull it off. He’s simply that good, and he presents an Islanders an opportunity to show that they can put a star center in the perfect situation after failing to do so with Tavares.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2017-18:

35-37-10, 80 pts. (7th Metropolitan Division; 11th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

 IN:

Robin Lehner
Leo Komarov
Matt Martin
Valtteri Filppula
Tom Kuhnhackl

 OUT:

John Tavares
Calvin de Haan
Jaroslav Halak
Shane Prince
Nikolai Kulemin
Alan Quine
Chris Wagner

 RE-SIGNED:

Thomas Hickey
Ryan Pulock
Brock Nelson
Ross Johnston
Christopher Gibson
Devon Toews

This off-season could very well stand as the most pivotal in the history of the New York Islanders, a team that’s been in the NHL since 1972.

(Deep breath) naturally, the move that towers above them all is a franchise-altering relocation, as John Tavares opted to sign with the Maple Leafs rather than sticking with the Isles.

Such a rattling decision would already make this summer one of big changes for the Islanders, yet while that was the main course, there were plenty of other crucial changes.

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

After a brutal 2017-18 season from a defensive standpoint, the Islanders seemed to be the only franchise to offer reigning Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz a deal within range of his market value. It would be tough to believe that Trotz won’t be able to provide the structure that the Islanders sorely lacked under Doug Weight, who was relieved of his duties.

Former Devils and Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello ended up making the decision to replace Weight, and also stripped such powers away from Garth Snow, who certainly received plenty of opportunities to put his stamp on the Islanders during 12 years as GM.

The Islanders struggled mightily in their own end, and were often porous in net, with the greatest measure of blame being a chicken-or-the-egg argument. How bad were their goalies, versus how vulnerable were they made by a Swiss cheese defense?

Either way, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss struggled mightily in 2017-18, putting up the sort of save percentage stats that only would have been endearing during the Islanders’ dynasty era, when sub-90-percent was generally the standard. (Today it’s … uh, not.)

While Greiss stands as one of the NHL’s immovable goalie contracts, Halak is now out in favor of former Sabres starter Robin Lehner. It’s a one-year deal for Lehner, so he ranks as one of the leading wildcards for the Islanders.

As grim as it might feel to look at many facets of the Islanders’ season and summer, there are some good sides.

Most obviously, it sure seems like the Islanders unearthed another star center, one they’ll hopefully surround with better talent than Tavares enjoyed. Mathew Barzal took the NHL by storm last season, generating 85 points on his way to winning the Calder Trophy, the most generated by a rookie of the year winner in more than a decade.

Barzal supplemented all that substance with oodles of style.

For all of Snow’s struggles as GM, Barzal ranked as just one of the examples of his shrewd moves.

The trade that landed the Barzal pick looked like another punchline for the Islanders over Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, something that was accentuated by the Isles winning the Jordan EberleRyan Strome deal. Chia wasn’t the only person who maybe shouldn’t have taken Snow’s calls, as the Travis Hamonic trade looks like another victory for the Islanders, as it helped them land successive promising-looking picks during the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft (more on them in a moment).

The mixture of good and bad is dizzying, although it may also be crucial to soothe some of the agony that comes from losing a foundational talent like Tavares.

Can Trotz and Lamoriello lead this franchise out of some dark days? We’ll begin to find out in 2018-19.

Prospect Pool:

  • Oliver Wahlstrom, W, 18, US NTDP – 2018 first-round pick
  • Noah Dobson, D, 18, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Islanders selected Wahlstrom at 11th overall and nabbed Dobson one pick later at 12, impressing critics with each pick, as you could argue that both could have gone earlier. It’s likely a matter of debate regarding which player should have been selected first, not to mention if Dobson or Wahlstrom actually ranks as the top Isles prospect.

The similarities end there, aside from both being 18.

Wahlstrom is touted as a potential 30-goal scorer in the NHL. He’ll get a year of seasoning with Boston College in 2018-19, but whenever he makes the jump, Wahlstrom is expected to be a lethal sniper who can bring some other nice scoring skills to the table.

Oh yeah, he also generated quite a sensation at age 9.

Dobson, meanwhile, ranks as one of the most promising defensive prospects once you get beyond Rasmus Dahlin and Quinn Hughes. Dobson scored 17 goals and 69 points during a smashing 67-game season in the QMJHL, so the production was certainly there for the intriguing blueliner.

At least two outlets have compared Dobson to Blues star Alex Pietrangelo.

  • Ilya Sorokin, G, 23, CSKA Moscow (KHL) – 2014 third-rounder

It remains to be seen when the Islanders could even coax Sorokin to the NHL, as he’s under contract in the KHL for quite some time. Regardless, he ranks as one of the team’s most important prospects, as the Islanders clearly need an answer in net.

Sorokin’s shown promise overseas, generating no lower than a .929 save percentage in KHL competition since 2014-15.

Consider Josh Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows as the lead Islanders prospects who should be considered “honorable mentions,” at least if you still label Ho-Sang as a prospect (as he’s enjoyed quite a few – though not quite enough – NHL reps).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.