Getty Images

Islanders continue to do things their way — sometimes boldly

4 Comments

As much as the New York Islanders’ mantra was “We above me,” Lou Lamoriello’s front office continues to send a specific message: “My way or the highway.”

The demotion of Josh Ho-Sang cements such a thought process, but it’s a motto that reverberates through decisions both big and small.

One could understand why the 2018-19 season would leave Lamoriello, head coach Barry Trotz, and other Islanders people — including fans — feeling almost beyond criticism. After all, even the most optimistic onlookers didn’t see 103-point season and sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins coming.

It makes their approach to 2019-20 even more fascinating, which is saying something because it was already interesting to see if Trotz & Co. could work their magic for another year.

In the case of Ho-Sang, it’s a bit confounding to think that he wouldn’t offer more to the Islanders than, say, Tom Kuhnhackl or Ross Johnston. Then again, it’s stunning that the winger-starved Edmonton Oilers didn’t claim Ho-Sang off of waivers, not to mention plenty of other teams who could use a burst of creativity, and maybe underrated all-around play.

The past few days indicate that the Islanders aren’t really outliers when it comes to Ho-Sang, but demoting the 23-year-old in a hockey version of “Groundhog Day” is far from the boldest decision this front office made.

Instead, we’ll all be watching closely to see how the Islanders fare in net.

In 2018-19, Robin Lehner authored one of the NHL’s most stunning turnarounds, going from a Sabres castoff with personal issues to a Vezina Trophy finalist, winning the Masterton Trophy and sharing the William Jennings with Thomas Greiss, a goalie who saw an even more dramatic improvement in stats under Trotz.

You’d think that the Islanders would want to bring back the duo that combined for the best save percentage in the entire NHL, but the Islanders are instead betting big on their view of the league, the goalies involved, and above all else, themselves.

In a process that remains a little bewildering, the Islanders let Lehner walk to the Blackhawks, who signed him to a fairly low-risk deal of one year, $5 million. Instead of seeing if the 28-year-old could come close to replicating last year’s breakthrough, the Islanders are betting that Mitch Korn and Piero Greco can resuscitate Semyon Varlamov in the same way they breathed life into Lehner’s career.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EASTERN CONFERENCE / WESTERN CONFERENCE / STANLEY CUP]

On paper, it’s almost as brave as picking the Islanders to make the playoffs last season.

Varlamov is 31, and not a penny cheaper than the younger Lehner. While both register a $5M cap hit, Varlamov’s runs through 2022-23.

While Varlamov’s enjoyed some nice peaks during his career, things have been dicey recently, for the most part. His .909 save percentage from 2018-19 left a lot to be desired, and while he managed a strong .920 in 2017-18, Varlamov’s .898 save percentage from 2016-17 was especially rotten.

It’s popular to say that “goalies are voodoo,” as the position is mystifyingly difficult to predict. Even by those standards, the Islanders are making an audacious gamble that they’re right, while others are wrong. As much as anything else, the term they handed to Varlamov is what stands out as especially … courageous. Where they took a low-risk flier on Lehner before (and the Blackhawks are doing now), they’re not getting the escape hatch with Varlamov if his 2018-19 season was a sign of bad things to come.

And, again, there’s a theme in play that the Islanders’ experienced front office of Lamoriello and Trotz can get it done, and march to the beat of their old-fashioned drums.

Then again, maybe they’re starting to see things a bit differently?

Back in June, Shayna Goldman detailed NHL front offices (sub required), listing the Islanders as one of the only teams without a dedicated analytics staffer, but a recent update paints an interesting picture.

Lamoriello’s downplayed the benefits of such mindsets before, so this alteration makes for another thing to watch.

Expectations are higher for the Islanders heading into 2019-20, yet many of the same doubts linger, especially after the polarizing decision to replace Lehner with Varlamov. Whether those choices work out, fall apart, or fall somewhere in the middle, it should all be interesting to watch.

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

NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin just needs bounces to reach 700 goals

2 Comments

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Alex Ovechkin‘s been stuck on 698 goals for five games now, with Thursday’s game against the Habs serving as his next crack at 700.

If it’s getting to Ovechkin, then he’s not admitting it. He denied his quest for 700 being a distraction for himself and his Capitals teammates.

“I don’t think somebody thinks about it,” Ovechkin said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “If it happens, it happens. It’s just a matter of time, tomorrow, after tomorrow, whatever. We’re focusing right now to get our game better, to secure a playoff spot, and then we’ll move on.”

Blaming Ovechkin solely for the Capitals’ recent struggles (four losses, all in regulation, over the past five games) is oversimplifying. Consider, for instance, that they just concluded a three-game road trip in Vegas, all against viable opponents.

Even so, when a player is chasing a big milestone, teammates sometimes feel obliged to try to force it. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan cautioned against that, as Gulitti reports.

“From observing, I would say I think everybody wants him to get it and are trying hard for him to get it and I think we would benefit from just let’s play our game and it’s going to happen organically,” MacLellan said. “It’s just going to take care of itself. But you’d have to ask him that specifically if it’s affecting him.”

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET]

Ovechkin shooting, not getting bounces yet to hit 700 goals

The gut reaction would be to say that Ovechkin has been terrible since trying to reach 700.

After all, Ovechkin hasn’t scored a goal. In fact, Ovechkin has been held pointless, suffering through a cumulative -6 rating.

Yet, if you dig a little deeper, Ovechkin’s drought is mainly a reminder that hockey is a game of bounces. Ovechkin’s been almost miraculously immune to sniping slumps during his already-illustrious career, but he does get snakebit from time to time.

The numbers certainly indicate that he’s trying.

Through those five games, Ovechkin fired a whopping 27 SOG. That’s even after starting slow with two SOG against the Flyers on Feb. 8. The NHL also credits him with nine missed shots. Ovechkin isn’t hesitating to shoot, he just needs a few bounces to reach 700 goals.

You wonder if Ovechkin might tweak his pregame superstitions, though.

Could Canadiens (unintentionally) provide the breakthrough?

Reviewing his play at all strengths at Natural Stat Trick, it seems like Ovechkin is honestly playing reasonably well. The results just haven’t been there lately, which happens in the bounce-heavy world of pucks.

The Canadiens could be a worthwhile target for Ovechkin, who fell short against the team he won a Stanley Cup against (and the franchise he scored “the goal” against). Through 49 career regular-season games against Montreal, Ovechkin’s scored an impressive 32 goals and 54 points. That translates to .65 goals per game, even better than Ovechkin’s remarkable overall career average of .61.

With a middle-of-the-pack 3.08 goals allowed per game and a middling 79.1% penalty kill success rate, the Habs could be just what the milestone-loving doctor ordered for Ovechkin.

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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.

Our Line Stars: NHL Trade Deadline special with Bob McKenzie

Leave a comment

Bob McKenzie joins as a special guest to give all the latest as the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaches. Would the Avalanche make a blockbuster trade for Henrik Lundqvist or Carey Price? Are the Bruins willing to pay the price for Chris Kreider? Does the addition of Alec Martinez put Vegas over the hump? Plus, why Chuck Fletcher’s deadline moves in his Minnesota days might mean he’ll be more cautious this year in Philly.

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

PHT Morning Skate: Best fits for top trade targets; Bruins have room to work with

Leave a comment

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Adam Gretz chooses ideal landing spots for top trade deadline targets. Chris Kreider making the Blues even more relentless? Yikes. (YardBarker)

• Gus Katsaros supplements that with an analytics-based look at those who have already been traded, and those who might move. (Rotoworld)

• Speaking of players who were already traded, Tyler Toffoli shares his experience hustling to join the Canucks. Yes, it involved sharing some joking texts with once-again-teammate Tanner Pearson. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking down how Brenden Dillon fits with the Capitals. Interesting point that while Dillon is prone to taking penalties, the Caps’ strong PK might mitigate that drawback. (Japers Rink)

• The Bruins possess healthy cap space, making a trade deadline move relatively simple by contender standards. They’d only need to juggle a bit if they landed a big-budget rental. (NBC Sports Boston)

• I’ve pondered how teams might practice “load management” with players plenty of times before. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a deeper discussion of the practice — or lack thereof — in the NHL. Dom Luszczyszyn discusses how parity makes NHL teams less likely to rest players than their NBA counterparts, but how smart hockey teams should explore similar tactics anyway. (The Athletic, sub required)

[MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

J.T. Miller has delivered at a staggering level for the Canucks on the ice. It turns out he’s elite when it comes to heartwarming gestures, too. (Canucks)

• Cycling back to Miller’s on-ice impact, The Point recently broke down his breakthrough. Sheng Peng discusses how well Miller gels with Canucks star Elias Pettersson. (The Point)

Braden Holtby has looked sharp lately. After struggling through much of this regular season, could Holtby be back on his game? (Nova Caps)

• Kim and Terry Pegula told Sabres GM Jason Botterill that they are not looking to hire a president of hockey operations. Botterill apparently said in the past that he prefers to report directly to ownership. All of that said, it’s not clear if the Pegulas might be looking for a new General Manager. (Buffalo News)

• Things were bad for Milan Lucic, particularly in November. With James Neal red-hot, people were making unkind comparisons. But even more directly, he found himself benched, and pondered retirement because the game just wasn’t fun anymore. Like a frosted tip, it seems like Lucic has his sparkle back at the moment, though. (Sporting News)

• Andrew Berkshire recently broke down the five best defensive pairings in the NHL, including Nashville’s Roman JosiRyan Ellis combo. (Sportsnet)

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: Pastrnak lifts Bruins to OT win; Kreider’s value continues to increase

David Pastrnak #88 of the Boston Bruins scores the game winning goal
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1) David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

Great scoring opportunities often start with a smart play in the defensive zone. Pastrnak poked the puck away from Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse then took off in the other direction. David Krejci made a quick outlook pass to Pastrnak before he converted a breakaway to lead the Bruins to 2-1 overtime victory against the Edmonton Oilers. It was Pastrnak’s 43rd of the season and helped the Czech forward return to the top of the NHL goal-scoring list alongside Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

2) Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

No. 20’s three-point night led the Rangers to a 6-3 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday. Kreider remains the top rental forward available ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline and his value increased with another strong performance. The speedy power forward corralled a pass from Mika Zibanejad and then blew by Blackhawks defenseman Adam Boqvist before netting his 24th of the season. NHL insider Bob McKenzie reported that the Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals have all expressed interest in Kreider. The Massachusetts native has spent his entire NHL career with the Blueshirts, but will likely be sporting a new sweater this time next week.

3) Alex Galchenyuk, Minnesota Wild

The 26-year-old forward made his first goal with the Wild count as he knotted the game late in the third period and then scored the shootout-decider in Minnesota’s 4-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks. Galchenyuk converted a forehand-backhand combination in the skills competition and interim coach Dean Evanson picked up his first win since the organization fired Bruce Boudreau. Galchenyuk was the beneficiary of an odd bounce at 15:15 of the final frame when his wraparound attempt redirected off Canucks defenseman Troy Stetcher.

Highlights of the Night

Vincent Trocheck is ready for baseball season as he batted this puck out of mid-air at 10:50 of the second period.

Patrice Bergeron finished a breakaway with a nifty backhand-forehand deke to open the scoring in Edmonton.

Roope Hintz found Corey Perry at the far post for the easy tap-in power-play goal to give the Stars a first-period lead.

Kevin Fiala wires a wrist shot off the cross bar and in just over a minute into the game.

Stats of the Night

Scores

New York Rangers 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Boston Bruins 2, Edmonton Oilers 1 (OT)

Dallas Stars 3, Arizona Coyotes 2

Florida Panthers 4, Anaheim Ducks 1

Colorado Avalanche 3, New York Islanders 1

Minnesota Wild 4, Vancouver Canucks 3 (SO)


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.