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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.

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 season.

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.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Sabres’ Okposo out with fourth concussion in less than three years

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with his fourth concussion in a little more than 2 + years.

The Sabres provided the update in posting their weekly injury report Monday, two days after Okposo was hurt in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It happened with five minutes left in the second period when Okposo took the ice and accidently collided with Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey.

This marks the fourth consecutive season the 31-year-old player has been sidelined by a concussion. The most serious one happened when he missed the final two weeks of 2017-18 and spent nearly a week in a hospital after what he called a routine hit in practice.

Okposo missed three games in March 2018 after a concussion from a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan. And he missed a week last February when punched in the face by New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

Okposo is a 13-year veteran in his fourth season in Buffalo. He has a goal and four assists in 19 games.

The Sabres also announced center Tage Thompson will be out three to five weeks with an upper body injury. He was hurt in a 4-1 loss at Chicago on Sunday and after being called up from the minors to replace Okposo.