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Tavares and beyond: Lamoriello has hands full with Islanders

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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.

Cleaning up

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.)

Other calls

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.

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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.

Seattle one step closer to NHL after arena plan approved

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SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle City Council unanimously approved plans for a privately funded $700 million renovation of KeyArena on Monday, clearing one of the last major hurdles in the city’s bid to land an expansion NHL franchise.

The 8-0 vote was the last step needed to strengthen Seattle’s expansion application and it means a team could be playing in the new building during the 2020-21 season.

The next phase in the arena/franchise process comes next week when Seattle Hockey Partners, the ownership group attempting to land the expansion team, presents before the NHL Board of Governors’ Executive Committee.

”It’s a good moment. I think it’s the beginning of the journey. It’s not the end of the journey. We have a lot of work to do, but at least now we get to go do the work,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, which is undertaking the renovation of the building that opened in 1962.

The vote ended a debate that began in the mid-2000s when Howard Schultz, then the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, said the city-owned KeyArena needed renovations. The lack of luxury amenities and a challenging lease agreement ultimately led to the Sonics leaving following the 2008 season and moving to Oklahoma City, where the franchise was rebranded as the Thunder.

Numerous arena plans have been presented since but none had gotten to this point. And while the vote didn’t provide healing for fans hurt by the Sonics move, it did create the likelihood that the city will land an NHL team soon and could one day see the NBA return.

”This is just a great deal for the city. … This is world class. This is a legacy project,” City Council President Bruce Harrell said.

For now, the NHL is the priority. The pitch to the Executive Committee next week should be mostly straightforward. Seattle is the largest market in the United States that doesn’t have a winter professional sports team. The local economy is booming and season ticket deposits for the prospective team were cut off at 33,000 earlier this year after a swell of interest.

”I don’t think we have to say much,” said Tod Leiweke, President and CEO of Seattle Hockey Partners. ”I think it speaks for itself. An 8-0 vote, a process that concluded when many people said it just simply couldn’t be done. We said we were going to put our best forward and today the city helps us do that.”

The goal is to have the building ready by the fall of 2020 so a team could start that season. Hitting that target will depend partly on when construction can actually begin. Part of the agreement with the city requires that an NHL franchise be acquired before arena construction can begin. Whether conditional approval from the NHL or a recommendation from the Executive Committee is enough to begin that process may depend on the city.

Either way, Tim Leiweke said every minute is precious in getting the project done in essentially two years.

”But there is no reason that we can’t hopefully get a little bit of momentum next week and convince people that a November, push-dirt, get in there and start working, works,” Leiweke said.

The final scheduled event for the arena in its current state is an Oct. 5 NBA exhibition game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. At some point after that, the keys will be turned over to Oak View Group.

”Now we really get to dream about the National Hockey League, we get to dream about a presentation next week, we get to dream about the return of the NBA. Let’s go,” Tod Leiweke said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Latest round of roster decisions should make Islanders fans angry

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We have spent some time here this offseason chronicling the adventures of the New York Islanders as they attempt to rebuild their roster in the post-John Tavares era. It has mostly revolved around them plugging the roster full of assorted fourth-liners and depth players on long-term contracts, having them join the other fourth-liners and depth players that are returning … also on long-term contracts.

There are a couple of problems with this approach.

First, it creates a roster that is just not particularly good or deep by NHL standards. Fine people that play hard, go about their business as professionals, and can each probably carve out a niche for themselves in the NHL. But also not a collection of players that should be making up a significant portion of your roster.

Second, all of those long-term contracts and additions mean those veteran players are all but guaranteed roster spots, making it even more difficult for younger, potentially more impactful players to make the roster. Younger, potentially more impactful players that might be able to make your team better.

We saw the latter point play out on Monday with the latest round of roster cuts from the Islanders as they continue to trim their roster toward the 23-player opening night group. Among the cuts on Monday were 2016 first-round draft pick Kieffer Bellows, 2018 first-round pick Noah Dobson, and the talented Josh Ho-Sang, who seems to have been unable to gain the trust or win the approval of a new coaching staff and front office.

Along with them, there were also other young players Sebastien Aho and Michael Dal Colle assigned to the American Hockey League.

In speaking with the media regarding the decisions, general manager Lou Lamoriello had nothing but praise for his young players:

“Well I thought they played extremely well,” said Lamoriello. “They have a bright future, all they have to do is continue to grow. Bellows certainly showed up well — better than I thought he would. But right now we have to make some decisions with the people we have here, and we have to give the ice time to them. It’s best for him to go to the minors, play a lot, play in key situations and just grow as a player.”

And on Ho-Sang:

“I thought he was excellent,” Lamoriello said. “I thought he worked hard, I thought he gave us everything he had. He’s worked on his game without the puck. He’s just got to go to the minors, he has ability, just go there and get over all these issues, that I haven’t seen, that transpired in the past, he’s been excellent in camp. Just go grow there and get better. He’s young.”

At that point Lamoriello was asked if he wanted to have a more veteran roster to open the season, something the team will now no doubt have. He downplayed that, before coming out and saying that none of the players being sent down deserved to be in the NHL over the veterans that are on the roster right now.

“I don’t think it’s a case of wanting to see a veteran team, we have a lot of players under contract,” said Lamoriello. “We have to find out who they are and if they can play before any major decisions are made. So you have to give an opportunity. I think to ourself and our coaching staff we are still learning about them. They have contracts, that’s why sometimes the business gets into it. But these players who are going down, they don’t deserve to be here right now. They haven’t played that well that they should be taking a job away from the veterans at this point.”

That response leads to an important question — Why?

As in, why do you need to find out what you have with a bunch of these veterans? At this point in their careers everyone in the NHL should know exactly what every single one of those players is, and what they are capable of. This should be true whether the coach or GM has had them on their team or not.

Leo Komarov is 31 years old with 327 games in the NHL.

Matt Martin is 29 years old with 590 games.

Tom Kuhnhackl is 26 years old with 168 games.

Valtteri Filppula is 34 years old with 876 games.

Luca Sbisa, just signed on Monday the same day that Dobson and Aho were sent to the AHL/Juniors, is 28 years old with 495 games.

These are just the players the Islanders brought in this offseason from outside the organization, almost all of whom seem to be overkill in their roles when you consider the team already had Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Ross Johnston (who got a four-year contract over the summer) on the roster.

There are no secrets with any of these players. At this point in their career you are getting exactly what you have seen from them over the past several years.

All of this leads to another why question — why don’t the young players deserve to be there over some of the veterans that have a stranglehold on a roster spot to open the season?

Maybe Ho-Sang didn’t have a great camp (though, that’s not what Lou himself said) and struggled in the one preseason game he did play in. But over the past two years on the rare occasion when the Islanders have allowed him to play at the NHL level, he has done the one thing too many of the players on the roster haven’t been able — and won’t be — able to do.

He has produced.

He had 12 points in only 22 games a season ago, which is more than Kuhnhackl had in 69 games for the Penguins. It is the same number of points that Martin had in 50 games for the Maple Leafs, and more than he had in 82 games the previous year (Martin, for his career, has averaged 15 points over 82 games). It is only seven fewer points than what Komarov had in 74 games for the Maple Leafs. It is more than Johnston had in 38 AHL games a year ago, and double what Johnston produced in the NHL in the same number of games. It is only five behind what Cizikas had in 64 games.

No, it is not all about points. And maybe Ho-Sang does still have areas he needs to work on away from the puck.

But are those shortcomings going to hurt the Islanders more over the course of the season than the offensive shortcomings that half of the roster has? When you already know what almost every player on that roster is capable of?

But okay, fine. He didn’t earn a spot on the roster this year. What is the excuse for sending down Bellows, who was quite literally the most productive — and arguably best — player the team had in camp and the preseason? In three exhibition games he had two goals, an assist, 12(!) shots on goal, and a 52 percent shot attempt share during 5-on-5 play.

Look at it another way: Mathew Barzal had one goal, four assists, only six shots on goal, and a 53 percent shot attempt share in his preseason performance a year ago. Barzal was the same age that Bellows is now, and had a similar pedigree in terms of where he went in the draft and his production in the Western Hockey League. He also did not play a single game in the American Hockey League. Barzal not only made the Islanders roster a year ago, he went on to put together one of the best rookie seasons in league history, win the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year, and almost instantly make himself the new franchise cornerstone.

That is not to say that Bellows was destined to duplicate Barzal’s rookie year. But it is also preposterous given the comparison, as well as the players that are still on the roster, to say he does not “deserve” to at least get a look at the opening night lineup.

But to put it all even more simply: If you’re an Islanders fan players like Ho-Sang or Bellows might have just been something to look forward to and get excited about at the start of the year. In time they will be there (well, Bellows will — at this point it might just be best for the Islanders to give Ho-Sang a fresh start somewhere else because nobody there seems to want to play him), but look at where this organization is right now, at this moment, with the season just a week away. You just lost your best player from a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points. It is a team that is probably going to be bad and miss the playoffs again. Now instead of maybe having a couple of young, talented forwards to give you some optimism — including at least one that should have played his way onto the roster — you get to instead watch a bunch of grinders try to scratch and claw their way a 1-0 win every night.

It remains to be seen where the Islanders go in the Lamoriello era, and with all due respect to everything he has accomplished in the NHL as an executive, things are not off to a promising start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Brian Gionta retires after 16-year NHL career

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Brian Gionta announced his retirement from the NHL on Monday, officially putting an end to an incredibly successful 16-year career.

The 39-year-old Gionta made the announcement in Buffalo, where he will be taking on a small, unspecified role with the team that will allow him to remain involved with the sport.

Gionta spent three of his 16 NHL seasons in Buffalo (he was born in Rochester, New York) and was the captain of the team each year. Along with his time in Buffalo, Gionta also spent a significant portion of his career with the New Jersey Devils (the team that drafted him) and Montreal Canadiens.

He did not open the 2017-18 season on an NHL roster and instead spent time preparing to play for the United States Olympic team. Even though he did not record a single point in his five games, he was able to land a contract with the Boston Bruins to close out the regular season where he appeared in 20 regular season games, scoring two goals and adding five assists before appearing in just one playoff game.

For his career, Gionta scored 291 goals and 595 total points in 1,026 games. He was a member of a Stanley Cup winning team with the Devils in 2003 and represented the United States at the Olympics two different times (2006 and 2018).

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most absurd mascots

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Summer is over and with the regular season approaching next week, why not one more fun edition of the PHT Power Rankings. This week we look some of the most absurd mascots — and mascot stories — in NHL history. 

The Philadelphia Flyers unleashed their new mascot, Gritty, on the world on Monday and it would be very fair to say that it caused quite a reaction.

For as wild as it might be it is still, at its core, a typical mascot — goofy looking, ridiculous, and something to mostly laugh at. It is not the first, nor will it be the last, such creation.

Still, it is pretty ridiculous even by NHL mascot standards.

So let’s take a look at where it ranks among the most absurd mascots in NHL history.

1. Boomer (Columbus Blue Jackets) 

At the start of the 2010-11 season the Columbus Blue Jackets attempted to introduce a secondary mascot that went by the name, “Boomer.” When talking about ridiculous mascots there is Boomer, and then there are the rest. Boomer is simply in a category all his own.

He was supposed to be an anthropomorphic cannon, but the actual design resembled something more along the lines of … well … let’s just say Boomer didn’t make it through the entire season before being quietly retired unceremoniously at mid-season.

He was only supposed to be at games where the team was wearing its new third jerseys for that season, and upon his introduction he was described by the Blue Jackets as “a kid-friendly, cushy cannon character with a friendly face and fluffy moustache reminiscent of a Civil War-era general.”

Nope. That is not what he looked like, Columbus.

2. Penguin Pete (Pittsburgh Penguins)

In their early years the Pittsburgh Penguins were never-ending series of bloopers, mishaps and even tragedy. Everything they did had a way of going wrong, including their first experience with a mascot.

During their inaugural season the Penguins introduced Penguin Pete, an actual Humboldt Penguin that was on loan from the Pittsburgh Zoo. He made his initial debut in a February, 1968 game against the Boston Bruins and then made a handful of other appearances that season before dying of pneumonia the following November.

Everything about this experience was baffling.

First, there was the fact that the Penguins had wanted to teach him how to ice skate and had tried to have custom CCM hockey skates made for him.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1968:

This, of course, failed.

Eventually, Pete came down with pneumonia and his saga and become emblematic of the team’s on-ice struggles.

The whole Penguin Pete experience was told in the team’s 50th anniversary documentary a few years ago, right down to the fact he was stuffed and temporarily kept in the team’s offices.

3. Gritty (Philadelphia Flyers) 

It’s a combination of factors. It’s the look. It’s the way it was introduced. Everything about is just absurd, in the most amazing way. Read all about the cuddly fellow here.

4. Harvey the Hound (Calgary Flames)

At the end of the day there is nothing really too outrageous about Harvey, the Calgary Flames’ mascot, other than the fact he’s an animal that wears a funny hat and has on pants (but, for some reason, no shirt). But I’m including him on this list because of an incident that happened in January of 2004 when, in a Battle of Alberta game against the Edmonton Oilers, he took to heckling the Oilers’ bench with the Flames leading 4-0.

That resulted in then-Oilers coach Craig MacTavish ripping Harvey’s tongue out of his mouth and throwing it into the crowd.

A trash-talking mascot that gets a part of his costume ripped off by an NHL coach during a game? Sign me up.

5. NYisles (New York Islanders)

In the pre-Charles Wang Islanders days their lovable(?) mascot was NYIsles, who was simply described as a “seafaring Islander.”

He had a big head and wore a hockey helmet with a goal-light on top of it and was just … kind of funny. Honestly, this is what you think of when you think of 1980s or early 1990s sports mascots.

Here he is in action.

Dishonorable mention: Howler the Yeti (Colorado Avalanche)

Howler the Yeti was the first mascot for the Avalanche following their move to Colorado, and he was a giant Yeti that was … kind of cool looking. He was ultimately retired though after he was involved in a “fracas” in the stands of the McNichols Sports Arena in 1999 that left a Chicago Blackhawks fan injured. Both the fan and Howler were ticketed for disturbing the peace. The Avalanche eventually replaced him with Bernie the St. Bernard.

While I can appreciate a mascot having a bit of an edge, getting into fights with opposing fans is probably not for the best. Absurd, yes. But not good.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.