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Sabres among teams focused on trade market over free agency

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Realizing how difficult it is to lure free agents to Buffalo, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has spent the past two-plus years relying on trades to stock his roster with established talent.

It happened two years ago, when he acquired defenseman Marco Scandella from Minnesota. Botterill did it once again last summer, when Buffalo gave up a prospect and three draft picks to land 40-goal-scorer Jeff Skinner from Carolina.

Though not all the trades have panned out, such as dealing playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues a year ago, it’s a process Botterill expects to continue this summer in a bid to transform the Sabres into contenders.

”We felt that we were close on some of the discussions,” Botterill said after signing four minor-leaguers on the first day of NHL free agency Monday.

”But as much as we want players to be part of it, and help us with our immediate needs, there has to be a balance, and there has to be a situation where we’re not making signings that are going to be detrimental to us in the future.”

In other words, the Sabres weren’t in a position to overpay for players in free agency, which is why Botterill is placing his focus on the trade market. With the salary cap set at a lower-than-expected $81.5 million, he anticipates some teams pressed for payroll space to be forced to shed talent through trades.

”In a cap world, there’s only so much you can give to players,” Botterill said.

”I never would’ve guessed that we would’ve picked up a player like Jeff Skinner in the middle of summer last year,” he added. ”But I think it’s important that we have dialogues throughout the league to see whenever that might materialize, whether it’s later on this week, a couple of weeks or the start of September.”

Botterill’s approach has already paid off.

On Friday, Buffalo gave up two draft picks to acquire defenseman Colin Miller from the cap-strapped Vegas Golden Knights. On Monday, the most significant move the Sabres made was landing third-year center Jimmy Vesey from the New York Rangers, who freed up cap space to sign free agent Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract.

It’s Botterill’s belief players will find there is more to the perception that Buffalo is just a Rust Belt city stuck in an eight-year stretch without a playoff appearance once they get an opportunity to get a taste of living and playing in the city. That was the case with Skinner, who often noted how he was impressed by the passionate fans. It didn’t hurt that the Sabres re-signed him to an eight-year, $72-million contract last month.

And it’s something the Sabres hope eventually resonates with Miller, who acknowledged having “mixed emotions” over leaving Vegas for Buffalo.

The situation is similar in places such as Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and even Montreal, where the Canadiens have rebuilt their team mostly through trades and the draft. And when the Canadiens lost out on landing free-agent center Matt Duchene on Monday, they resorted to the rare option of trying to poach Sebastian Aho from Carolina by signing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet.

The move is expected to fail after the Hurricanes on Tuesday announced they intend to match the offer.

Of the past seven offer sheets made since 2007, five have come from Canadian-based teams.

The difficulty some teams have in attracting players is reflected in where the top free agents landed Monday. Panarin headed to the Big Apple, Duchene chose Nashville over Montreal, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky ended up with Florida.

And Canadian-based teams have an even more challenging time attracting talent.

As former Flames president Brian Burke told The Associated Press in April, numerous players – including Canadians – don’t prefer playing north of the border for several reasons. The first is the lack of privacy and amount of pressure placed on them in many Canadian markets. The second is Canada’s taxation rate.

In Buffalo, Botterill also isn’t prepared to make the same mistakes his most recent predecessors did in attempting to make major splashes in free agency.

There are many examples of free-agency busts, and include Matt Moulson playing out the final 2+ years of his five-year, $25 million contract on loan with the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign. Then there was Ville Leino having his six-year, $27 million contract bought out two years after he signed it.

”I think with where we are as a team, we have to be ready on both fronts,” Botterill said of his approach entering free agency this summer. ”We’re certainly going to be at least in discussions with some free agents for sure. … But we have to be ready to see if trade possibilities arise.”

NOTES: The Buffalo signed restricted free agent C.J. Smith to a two-year, $1.4 million contract Tuesday. … In free agency Monday, Buffalo signed G Andrew Hammond, D John Gilmour and F Curtis Lazar to one-year, $700,000 contracts, and Jean-Sebastien Dea to a two-year, $1.4 million contract.

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

Sustainability and Ho-Sang’s development top questions for 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 New York Islanders.

1. Can they do it again?

After losing John Tavares and not really doing anything significant to replace him on the ice expectations were understandably low for the 2018-19 Islanders. They ended up shattering all of them, made the playoffs, advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993, and were one of the biggest surprises in the league.

The question, then, is obvious: Can they do it again and build off of that success?

The most shocking part of the turnaround was that the Islanders went from being the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in just one season. That is where the question of sustainability comes in. While it is easy to point to Barry Trotz and his defensive system as the cause of the turnaround, the reality is the Islanders were blessed with an outstanding goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss that masked a lot of flaws. Can Greiss repeat his performance? Can Semyon Varlamov stay healthy enough and be good enough to match what Lehner did? If the answer to those questions turns out to be no, it could put a pretty significant dent in the Islanders’ ability to prevent goals.

This season will be a big test for just how much Trotz’s system and approach really improved the Islanders because they are bringing back largely the same team, except with a potentially lesser goalie.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure]

2. Who is going to score the goals?

It was a good thing for the Islanders that they were so good defensively last year because their offense was not particularly good. They finished the regular season 22nd in goals scored, 29th in shots on goal per game, and 29th on the power play. Among the 16 playoff teams no team was worse in those same areas.

What did the Islanders do to address that this offseason? Nothing.

They did manage to retain all of their top free agent forwards (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle) but they did not add a significant piece from outside the organization while several teams around them in their own division made significant additions.

There is reason to believe Mathew Barzal can have a bigger season, and that will certainly help. But Valtteri Filppula‘s 17 goals walked out the door in free agency and it seems possible, if not likely, that Casey Cizikas will regress after a completely unexpected 20 goal performance.

3. Will this be Josh Ho-Sang’s year?

One thing that could really help the Islanders’ offense? Josh Ho-Sang putting everything together and becoming a regular in the lineup. Ho-Sang’s young career with the Islanders has been a tumultuous one to this point as he’s never fully gained the trust of any of his coaches (or the organization as a whole) despite having a ton of talent and potential.

His offensive skills have never been in doubt, and he’s actually produced at a pretty solid rate at the NHL level. He has 24 points in 53 career games, a per-game average that comes out to around 37 points over 82 games. It may not seem like an eye-popping number, but keep in mind that only four Islanders recorded more than 37 points last season, and Ho-Sang has produced those numbeers despite getting limited minutes in his brief NHL action.

But his all-around game has never seemed to develop enough for the organization to fully commit to him. He remains unsigned as a restricted free agent and can not be sent to the American Hockey League without passing through waivers, so this is probably a make-or-break year for him with the Islanders.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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 teams under pressure to win this season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary | Three Questions]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.