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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.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.