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Islanders continue to do things their way — sometimes boldly

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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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

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.

Calgary Flames sign deal for new downtown arena

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a deal for a new downtown arena, a 35-year agreement that keeps the NHL club in the city for that time.

The team, the city and the Calgary Stampede rodeo signed an agreement Thursday to replace the 36-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19,000-seat arena is to cost more than $417 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2021, just north of the Saddledome. The arena will be demolished between 2024 and 2025.

The project is part of a downtown revitalization. The building will become the home of the Flames and part of a planned entertainment district bordering the Stampede grounds.

The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, and the city will split the costs. The Stampede is a not-for-profit community group.