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Most interesting Islanders to watch post-Tavares

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In the wake of John Tavares‘ departure, various New York Islanders players are saying all the right things.

“We wish him the best, but things go on and we’ve got to pick ourselves back up,” Brock Nelson said, via NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce.

Nelson added that Tavares leaving means opportunities for others to step up, and for some, this could be a true “sink or swim” moment. Here’s a rundown of some of the most interesting Islanders to watch in 2018-19, the beginning of the post-Tavares era.

No longer attached at that hip

While he spent some time with Jordan Eberle on his wing, there’s no denying that Tavares’ even-strength linemates were almost always Josh Bailey and Anders Lee. The gap between those two and everyone else is pretty resounding, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s listings.

The stakes are very, very different for the two heading into next season, at least from a financial standpoint.

Sure, there’s no denying that Bailey will have pride on the line. The 28-year-old signed a six-year, $30 million extension in February, when the Islanders organization was probably picturing (or at least hoping) that he’d be Tavares’ co-pilot for the remainder of their prime years. It would be awfully frustrating for Bailey, the ninth pick of the 2008 NHL Draft, to see criticisms flare up again after he seemingly got his career on track.

At least he already got paid, though.

Few players head into 2018-19 with as much money on the line as Lee from a sheer performance perspective.

Lee, also 28, will see a bargain $3.75 million cap hit expire, and it’s extremely difficult to forecast what his next contract will look like.

You won’t come across many quieter 40-goal seasons than the one Lee enjoyed in 2017-18, and he’s been remarkably productive since cementing a role with Tavares. His 74 goals during the past two seasons ties him with Auston Matthews for the fifth-highest total during that time, and he also scored 25 goals during his first full season in 2014-15.

The obvious question is: what kind of production can we expect sans Tavares?

Much like other prodigious playmakers such as Joe Thornton, you can often see snipers stagnate without Tavares. Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau, and others have floundered since they left Tavares’ side. Will Lee be the next to do so, and cost himself a ton of cash in the process?

Now, it’s not fair to say that a tough season would outright-condemn Lee as a sniper. For one thing, he probably set the bar too high with 40 goals last campaign, either way. Lee’s shooting percentage was a whopping 19.2, and that was following a 17.8 mark in 2016-17. Maybe there’s superlative shooting talent there, or maybe that’s the simplest sign of Tavares’ influence. Either way, Lee could play quite well next season yet merely suffer from poor shooting luck.

As a fairly big body, Lee’s also a big target for hits, especially when he goes to “the dirty areas” to try to score goals. Injuries could be a concern, too, then.

Either way, it should be especially fascinating to see how Tavares’ main wingers fare without him. For Lee, it could be more terrifying than fascinating.

Barzal’s “the guy,” and more

As the reigning Calder winner following a sensational season, the spotlight was going to shine brighter on Mathew Barzal even if Tavares returned.

Barzal told Newsday’s Andrew Gross that he’s “excited” about the challenge of being the go-to guy with Tavares gone, while Matt Martin added some interesting insight.

“I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy. But he does have a chip on his shoulder,” Martin said shortly after being traded back to the Islanders. “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.”

A bigger role means better opportunities in some cases. Of course, it also means that he’ll be the primary focus of opponents as a mere sophomore in the NHL. That could be a challenge.

Much like Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle will also enter this Tavares-less season with a lot of money on the line, as his $6M cap hit evaporates after 2018-19. With 25 goals last year, Eberle’s hit 20+ goals five seasons in a row, and he was close to doing so even during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when he collected 16 goals in just 48 games.

There’s enough of a track record that someone should be very interested in Eberle even if he struggles in 2018-19, but he could really drive up his value by replicating last season’s chemistry with Tavares and then particularly with Barzal. Then again, considering the circumstances, he might also find himself getting traded again.

Trotz, goalies, style changes?

Considering how the wheels fell off defensively and the hiring of Barry Trotz, it’s likely that the Islanders would play a more clamped-down style in 2018-19 regardless of roster makeup. Still, Tavares leaving should only embolden such plans.

Plenty of brows furrowed as the Islanders doubled down on grit in signing Leo Komarov to a big deal, trading for Martin, and sent people rushing to Google the name Ross Johnston.

[Islanders continue trend of signing depth players long-term]

While optimism is rooted in Trotz’s presence rather than Tavares’ absence, it should be interesting to see how New York’s goaltenders perform.

For one thing, it’s easy to forget that Thomas Greiss once stood as a very promising goalie, peaking in 2015-16 when he generated a sparkling .925 save percentage in 41 games. His 2016-17 campaign was respectable enough with a .913 save percentage, while this past season was a full-fledged disaster.

It’s plausible that Greiss might revitalize his career if 2017-18 didn’t totally shatter his confidence.

Naturally, he’s going to need to prove himself, as the Islanders brought in Robin Lehner on a one-year “prove it” contract. One would expect Lehner to boast an early leg up as the starter (or as the 1a goalie if this ends up being a platoon). There’s also probably a scenario where Greiss is passed by someone else in the Islanders’ system, as his leash could be very short after a lousy season.

If the pairing ends up being Lehner – Greiss, it’s possible that both goalies will enjoy more nurturing situations than they endured last season.

***

No doubt, things could be dour at times for the Islanders next season, as plans clearly seemed geared toward Tavares staying.

On the other hand, there’s money to be earned and reputation’s to uphold, so we’ll see who will flourish or struggle now that Tavares is in Toronto.

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.

Golden Knights chase Gibson, demolish Ducks

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Heading into Wednesday’s 5-0 win for the Golden Knights, you could see Vegas and Anaheim as two teams suffering through very different circumstances.

On one hand, John Gibson was frequently bailing out Anaheim despite the Ducks allowing waves of scoring chances. Conversely, the Golden Knights fired shot after shot, yet found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard far too often to start 2018-19.

Well, the Golden Knights got to Gibson (and Ryan Miller) early and often on Wednesday, and it didn’t really require a barrage of shots … even if the dour Ducks defense sure seemed overwhelmed as ever.

Alex Tuch gave Vegas a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission, but the Golden Knights truly shot as accurately as archers during the second period. They added two more goals to end Gibson’s night early (three goals allowed, nine saves), and it didn’t stop there. As if to cement the notion that this wasn’t all Gibson’s fault, Cody Eakin‘s second goal of the night looked alarmingly easy considering that it came shorthanded:

Sure, there were some odd moments, like Nick Holden receiving unlikely credit for this goal:

Perhaps Vegas receiving the bounces they haven’t enjoyed much this season (but practically bathed in during that magical 2017-18 campaign) amplified the score a bit, yet the Golden Knights seemed like the faster, more dangerous team when the game was actually in reach. They made it look easy at times against a Ducks team that honestly seems pretty hapless against oft-criticized head coach Randy Carlyle.

As you might expect in a lopsided contest, there were some promising overall developments for Vegas, ones that the Golden Knights likely hope to carry over beyond this one-sided affair.

While Gibson’s looked like his best self from last season much of this year (but not tonight), Marc-Andre Fleury has failed to channel his magic from 2017-18 on most evenings this season. He was dynamic when he needed to be against the Ducks, however, stopping all 29 shots for the 51st shutout of his NHL career.

The Golden Knights must be heartened by the work they saw from Max Pacioretty, too. “Patches” came into Wednesday with a paltry two goals and zero assists in 14 games, including a five-game pointless streak, prompting some to compare him unfavorably to Tomas Tatar already. One game isn’t going to keep this from being a tough start. Even so, two assists (on the first two goals of the game, when the match was still in dispute) could really boost the winger’s confidence.

Vegas still has some work to do, and Anaheim remains ahead of the Golden Knights following this result. The Golden Knights can take quite a bit from this win nonetheless, including some comfort in seeing that their efforts can yield results, from goals to victories.

Meanwhile, the Ducks get another reminder that Gibson can’t save their tails every night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Rantanen, Avs beat Bruins in battle of NHL’s best lines

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Bruins featured a heavyweight battle between possibly the two best top lines in the NHL, and those trios delivered.

While David Pastrnak (one goal and one assist) ranked among the B’s who contributed, the Avs really had no answer for Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

All three of those Colorado stars scored at least a goal in the Avs’ 6-3 win, yet Rantanen stood tallest with a goal and two assists. With that three-point performance, Rantanen now holds a pretty comfortable NHL points lead at 29 (MacKinnon, Patrice Bergeron, and Connor McDavid are tied at second with 26).

If you’re outrageous and need another nugget, consider that both of Rantanen’s assists were first ones, so he also racked up primary points on Wednesday.

2. Cody Eakin

The trio of Eakin (two goals), Alex Tuch (one goal, one assist), and Max Pacioretty (two assists) loomed large during Vegas’ dominant 5-0 win, doing their damage when the game was still within reach.

You could make an argument for his linemates – Tuch’s goal was the GWG, for one thing – but Eakin grabbed two goals, including a matter-of-fact backhander during a shorthanded rush.

As much as the Golden Knights must miss Paul Stastny, Eakin has been heating up lately. This impressive performance extends the former Dallas Stars center’s point streak to fie games (four goals, two assists).

3. Corey Crawford

OK, this is a tough one. After all, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shutout (29 saves) features one more save than the one Corey Crawford authored (28 saves). “MAF” made some dazzling saves to maintain that goose egg, too.

It’s nice to spread the wealth to multiple teams in the three stars, and beyond that, the margin of error was different. While Fleury was maintaining a shutout, Crawford couldn’t make a mistake, as the Blackhawks only managed one goal in that 1-0 victory against the Blues. Maybe Chicago would have offered more if forced, although the Blackhawks’ 18 SOG don’t inspire much confidence.

The sheer meaning of Crawford’s shutout pushes it over the top.

Most immediately, it ended Chicago’s eight-game losing streak.

More personally, Crawford managed his first shutout in more than a year, and in doing so powered new head coach Jeremy Colliton to his first win as an NHL head coach.

Was Fleury’s shutout objectively better? Maybe, so consider him 3a to Crawford’s 3b if it’s really important to you.

Injuries

Highlights

Rantanen definitely helped MacKinnon score the game-winner:

Jake DeBrusk deserves three stars consideration thanks to his two goals in a losing effort for Boston:

Little Flower? MAFjr?

Nick Holden also had a two-point night, thanks in part to this odd tally:

Factoids

Blake Wheeler kept his point streak going, even if it was *yawn* just one assist. Slacker.

MAF is moving up the ranks.

Scores

CHI 1 – STL 0
WPG 3 – WSH 1
COL 6 – BOS 3
VGK 5 – ANA 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Which wrestling move did Jets’ Morrissey use on Capitals’ Oshie?

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Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey‘s takedown on T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals inspires some key questions:

  • Should there have been a penalty?
  • Should there be a suspension involved?

Former NHL player Jeff O’Neill believes that Morrissey’s infraction paralleled that of Michael Matheson on Elias Pettersson, which drew a two-game suspension earlier this season.

Let’s look at them side-by-side:

All of those questions pale in comparison to the burning one, though: what kind of professional wrestling move most resembles what Morrissey did to Oshie?

If you’ve spent time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll realize that there’s a remarkable convergence between hockey fans and fans of pro wrestling, whether it be WWE or the days when WWE was the WWF.

Personally, I was taken aback by comparisons to the DDT, which was (of course) made famous by Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I put it closer to “The Rock Bottom,” which was – naturally – administered by The Rock before he starred in every big-budget action film in existence.

There were some lively replies, with people mentioning “The Sidewalk Slam” (that could be the ticket) and a hurricanrana (I strongly disagree). What say you, PHT readers? I think we can all agree that it’s crucial that we get this right.

Oh yeah, and the Jets beat the Capitals 3-1 on Wednesday, while Washington is experiencing some injury worries for Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks blank Blues, end eight-game losing streak

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The St. Louis Blues hit some posts. Vladimir Tarasenko lost a tooth and thwarted an empty-net goal. But, for all their efforts, the Blues couldn’t score against Corey Crawford.

Instead, the Blackhawks won 1-0 on Wednesday, ending an eight-game losing streak (five under Joel Quenneville, three under Jeremy Colliton). This was a significant effort for a few reasons beyond the obvious need to get back in the win column:

  • 33-year-old Colliton gets his first win as an NHL head coach.
  • Crawford stopped all 28 shots for his first shutout since November of 2017.
  • Remember when Brent Seabrook was the butt of a few jokes? Well, he earned some retribution in this one, scoring the game’s only goal, with some help from Jay Bouwmeester, another occasionally hard-luck, expensive defenseman:

It was a low-event game overall, with the Blues generating a significant SOG advantage of 28-19, but they couldn’t solve Crawford. This was a painful evening for Tarasenko and others, sometimes literally:

The Blackhawks improve to 7-8-4 for 18 points in 19 games, remaining second-to-last in the Central Division. St. Louis continues to look up at Chicago and every other team in the Central, as the Blues’ record slips to 6-7-3 (15 points in 16 games).

As the Blackhawks adjust to a new head coach, it’s tough to shake the impression that the Blues might be teetering toward a similar change of direction. Fair or not, letdowns like being shut out by a shaky Chicago defense (albeit with an on-task Crawford) will not help Mike Yeo’s case.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.