Getty Images

Most interesting Islanders to watch post-Tavares

2 Comments

In the wake of John Tavares‘ departure, various New York Islanders players are saying all the right things.

“We wish him the best, but things go on and we’ve got to pick ourselves back up,” Brock Nelson said, via NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce.

Nelson added that Tavares leaving means opportunities for others to step up, and for some, this could be a true “sink or swim” moment. Here’s a rundown of some of the most interesting Islanders to watch in 2018-19, the beginning of the post-Tavares era.

No longer attached at that hip

While he spent some time with Jordan Eberle on his wing, there’s no denying that Tavares’ even-strength linemates were almost always Josh Bailey and Anders Lee. The gap between those two and everyone else is pretty resounding, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s listings.

The stakes are very, very different for the two heading into next season, at least from a financial standpoint.

Sure, there’s no denying that Bailey will have pride on the line. The 28-year-old signed a six-year, $30 million extension in February, when the Islanders organization was probably picturing (or at least hoping) that he’d be Tavares’ co-pilot for the remainder of their prime years. It would be awfully frustrating for Bailey, the ninth pick of the 2008 NHL Draft, to see criticisms flare up again after he seemingly got his career on track.

At least he already got paid, though.

Few players head into 2018-19 with as much money on the line as Lee from a sheer performance perspective.

Lee, also 28, will see a bargain $3.75 million cap hit expire, and it’s extremely difficult to forecast what his next contract will look like.

You won’t come across many quieter 40-goal seasons than the one Lee enjoyed in 2017-18, and he’s been remarkably productive since cementing a role with Tavares. His 74 goals during the past two seasons ties him with Auston Matthews for the fifth-highest total during that time, and he also scored 25 goals during his first full season in 2014-15.

The obvious question is: what kind of production can we expect sans Tavares?

Much like other prodigious playmakers such as Joe Thornton, you can often see snipers stagnate without Tavares. Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau, and others have floundered since they left Tavares’ side. Will Lee be the next to do so, and cost himself a ton of cash in the process?

Now, it’s not fair to say that a tough season would outright-condemn Lee as a sniper. For one thing, he probably set the bar too high with 40 goals last campaign, either way. Lee’s shooting percentage was a whopping 19.2, and that was following a 17.8 mark in 2016-17. Maybe there’s superlative shooting talent there, or maybe that’s the simplest sign of Tavares’ influence. Either way, Lee could play quite well next season yet merely suffer from poor shooting luck.

As a fairly big body, Lee’s also a big target for hits, especially when he goes to “the dirty areas” to try to score goals. Injuries could be a concern, too, then.

Either way, it should be especially fascinating to see how Tavares’ main wingers fare without him. For Lee, it could be more terrifying than fascinating.

Barzal’s “the guy,” and more

As the reigning Calder winner following a sensational season, the spotlight was going to shine brighter on Mathew Barzal even if Tavares returned.

Barzal told Newsday’s Andrew Gross that he’s “excited” about the challenge of being the go-to guy with Tavares gone, while Matt Martin added some interesting insight.

“I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy. But he does have a chip on his shoulder,” Martin said shortly after being traded back to the Islanders. “I think he believes he can be one of the best players in the league. And you’re going to have to have a bigger role to do something like that.”

A bigger role means better opportunities in some cases. Of course, it also means that he’ll be the primary focus of opponents as a mere sophomore in the NHL. That could be a challenge.

Much like Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle will also enter this Tavares-less season with a lot of money on the line, as his $6M cap hit evaporates after 2018-19. With 25 goals last year, Eberle’s hit 20+ goals five seasons in a row, and he was close to doing so even during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when he collected 16 goals in just 48 games.

There’s enough of a track record that someone should be very interested in Eberle even if he struggles in 2018-19, but he could really drive up his value by replicating last season’s chemistry with Tavares and then particularly with Barzal. Then again, considering the circumstances, he might also find himself getting traded again.

Trotz, goalies, style changes?

Considering how the wheels fell off defensively and the hiring of Barry Trotz, it’s likely that the Islanders would play a more clamped-down style in 2018-19 regardless of roster makeup. Still, Tavares leaving should only embolden such plans.

Plenty of brows furrowed as the Islanders doubled down on grit in signing Leo Komarov to a big deal, trading for Martin, and sent people rushing to Google the name Ross Johnston.

[Islanders continue trend of signing depth players long-term]

While optimism is rooted in Trotz’s presence rather than Tavares’ absence, it should be interesting to see how New York’s goaltenders perform.

For one thing, it’s easy to forget that Thomas Greiss once stood as a very promising goalie, peaking in 2015-16 when he generated a sparkling .925 save percentage in 41 games. His 2016-17 campaign was respectable enough with a .913 save percentage, while this past season was a full-fledged disaster.

It’s plausible that Greiss might revitalize his career if 2017-18 didn’t totally shatter his confidence.

Naturally, he’s going to need to prove himself, as the Islanders brought in Robin Lehner on a one-year “prove it” contract. One would expect Lehner to boast an early leg up as the starter (or as the 1a goalie if this ends up being a platoon). There’s also probably a scenario where Greiss is passed by someone else in the Islanders’ system, as his leash could be very short after a lousy season.

If the pairing ends up being Lehner – Greiss, it’s possible that both goalies will enjoy more nurturing situations than they endured last season.

***

No doubt, things could be dour at times for the Islanders next season, as plans clearly seemed geared toward Tavares staying.

On the other hand, there’s money to be earned and reputation’s to uphold, so we’ll see who will flourish or struggle now that Tavares is in Toronto.

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.

Islanders sign another depth player long-term, and it makes no sense

Getty
36 Comments

You have to at least say this for the New York Islanders offseason: It has not been quiet, and it has definitely been interesting.

They continued making moves on Monday when they first announced a one-year contract for free agent center Jan Kovar after a successful career in the KHL. Kovar was an intriguing player that a lot of teams had interest in given his production in Russia, and he should get an opportunity to play a decent role in New York following the departure of John Tavares in free agency.

Is it a guarantee to work out? Not at all. But it is not a bad gamble for the Islanders to take on a one-year deal.

The move on Monday that raised some eyebrows was the announcement of a four-year — four years! — contract for restricted free agent Ross Johnston.

According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the contract will pay him $1 million per season.

He has played in 25 NHL games (24 of them coming this past season) and has scored three goals and six total points. He has spent the past three years mostly playing for the Islanders’ American Hockey League team Bridgeport where he has totaled 14 goals and 30 total points in 139 games. He has also accumulated 327 penalty minutes in those games and is a regular when it comes to dropping the gloves.

So the question that needs to be asked here is this: Why the need for a four-year contract — a contract that at Johnston’s age will buy out two years of unrestricted free agency — for a player with that resume?

Also worth asking: Why do the Islanders keep giving long-term contracts to depth players like Ross Johnston?

With Johnston re-signed, and combined with the free agent addition of Leo Komarov, the Islanders now have 10 players signed for at least the next three seasons (some of them for longer).

That list includes…

That is an interesting list to make long-term commitments to.

It does not even include Matt Martin, re-acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs a week ago, who is signed for the next two seasons.

[Related: Islanders keep stockpiling fourth-liners, reacquire Matt Martin from Leafs]

Bailey is coming off a huge season and even if he does not duplicate it will at least be counted no to be a top-line forward. No problem there.

Ladd’s first two years in New York have been rough but he, too, was at least signed with the intention to be a top-six winger, while Leddy and Boychuk (who is already 34) were signed to be top-four defensemen. Boychuck and Ladd may not have worked out as planned long-term, and they may not have been great risks given the ages at the time of their signings, but they were at least hoping for top-of-the-lineup players. To be fair, Boychuck did give them a couple of years of that sort of play.

The rest of that group, though, is mostly depth players. Players the Islanders have acquired or signed with the intention of being bottom-six or bottom-pairing players. Just about all of them cost between $1.5 and $3.5 million against the salary cap, meaning they are not just significant investments due to their term, but also financially.

This is a bizarre strategy in the sense that almost no other team in the NHL has constructed their roster in this manner. This is not a statement of opinion, either. This is a statement of fact.

Look at it from a numbers perspective.

During the 2017-18 NHL season there were 154 forwards that played in at least 20 games and averaged under 0.30 points per game. Only four of those players logged more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game, and none of them played more than 16 minutes per game. They are all, for all intents and purposes, bottom-six forwards.

Your third and fourth lines have value. A lot of it. The NHL today is about being able to balance four lines that can score, contribute, and impact the game in all situations. As a group, they are important. They are not, however, players that tend to get significant long-term contracts from teams, or players that carry a ton of value individually. Their value is in the sum of their parts. Recent Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago have built their bottom lines with some combination of young players on entry-level contracts, or veterans signed to short-term deals. The latter group of players are usually the first ones to be let go when salary cap space gets tight at the top of the roster. The former group usually plays its way into a bigger role with the team.

Out of that group of 154 forwards mentioned above, only 10 of them are currently signed for at least the next three seasons.

That list, in order of how long their current contracts run: Antoine Roussel, Leo Komarov, Cal Clutterbuck, Jay Beagle, Ross Johnston, Ryan Callahan, Casey Cizikas, Marcus Foligno, Zack Smith, Carter Rowney, Brandon Dubinsky.

Four of those players (Komarov, Clutterbuck, Cizikas, Johnston) are under contract with the New York Islanders.

Two other players on that list (Roussel and Beagle) were signed this offseason by the Vancouver Canucks. Harsh as it may sound, if you are building your team in the same image as the Jim Benning Canucks … that is probably bad.

There are a handful of players on that list that are at the end of longer term contracts. Martin Hanzal, for example, has two years remaining on a three-year contract that he signed with Dallas. Matt Martin has two years remaining on a four-year contract he signed with Toronto (and as noted above, he, too, now plays for the New York Islanders).

This, again, is only looking at forwards and does not even take into account the five-year contract they gave a defenseman like Scott Mayfield.

And it’s not like this is just one general manager doing all of this.

Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Mayfield were all signed on Garth Snow’s watch.

Komarov, Martin, and Johnston were all signed/acquired this offseason following the hiring of Lou Lamoriello.

This is very obviously an organizational approach.

What makes this potentially damaging to the Islanders is they are not really saving any salary cap space or putting the team in a better situation by doing this. Objectively speaking, players like Cizikas, Clutterbuck, Martin, Komarov, and Johnston are not adding much — if any — offense to this team this year or in the future. Out of that group Komarov is the only player that for his career averages more than 0.30 points per game — he is at 0.37. In a league and era where four lines that can score is a necessity, they have five roster spots and nearly $14 million in salary cap space going to plays that are not providing any meaningful offense (and again, that does not include the salaries going to Ladd, Boychuk, etc.) for this season and beyond.

They could almost certainly get the same level of production — if not more — for less against the salary cap by just rotating in different free agents on short-term deals and entry-level players every season. Even if you generously say that each of those players is *only* overpaid by $500,000 or $1 million per season and on their own they are just little mistakes, but as I pointed out following the addition of Martin those little mistakes add up to a few million dollars when you combine them all together.

When you are a team that just lost your franchise player in free agency, has two of your best remaining players (Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle) up for unrestricted free agency after this season, and will have to sign your new cornerstone player (Mat Barzal) to a new contract in two years when his entry-level deal is finished, that can add up to a big problem.

Related

–John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs
–What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out

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.

What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out?

Getty
10 Comments

New York Islanders fans and observers are still absorbing the stunning truth: John Tavares is gone. He’s now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

(Let that sink in for a moment if needed. It’s OK.)

As The Athletic’s Arthur Staple noted in confirming Tavares’ departure (sub required), there will be a lot of finger pointing involved after the face of the franchise left. Fueled by hindsight, critics will batter the Islanders for getting nothing – aside from cap space – for Tavares. Not trading Tavares while missing the playoffs in 2017-18 stings on a deep level.

Tavares, for his part, said goodbye to Islanders fans in a message that was too large for one tweet. He called this “the toughest decision of my life.” Islanders fans are, uh, not quite ready to forgive him just yet.

So, for the Islanders, what’s next? You know, beyond putting up sad GIFs, taking a long walk, and flat-out weeping? Here’s an early look at the good and bad while we process the ugly.

What’s left after a strong-yet-futile final push

How close did the Islanders come to getting Tavares back? Ultimately, we may never know.

The Islanders take on a very different look after this final surge. It’s a veteran front office in charge, considering the age of GM Lou Lamoriello (75) and head coach Barry Trotz (55).

(Admittedly, Trotz is younger than I initially thought. Apologies, Barry.)

You wonder if those two will really have the patience for much more than a soft rebuild, but that’s the interesting consideration.

Rebuild or reload?

On one hand, there are commitments that were made with a Tavares-fueled future in mind. After bringing back Thomas Hickey, the Isles are committed to five defensemen for at least three seasons, with four of them locked down for four or more. The Josh Bailey extension seemingly stemmed from imagining him tethered to Tavares for the foreseeable future; will the winger be worth $5M per season through 2023-24 without him?

Making a “rebuild or reload?” call soon is imperative to avoid losing more valuable assets to unrestricted free agency. Jordan Eberle‘s $6M cap hit will expire after 2018-19, as will Anders Lee‘s cheap $3.75M clip. The Islanders would be wise to figure out a) if they want to keep one or both of those forwards and b) if Eberle and/or Lee want to sign extensions.

If the answer is “No” from either perspective, the Islanders could recoup some nice assets for those scorers, especially if there’s a rebuild in mind.

Lee, in particular, could fetch quite a bounty. The big winger carries that cheap cap hit, and his 74 goals during the past two seasons ties him for Auston Matthews for fifth-best in the NHL. (And he’s not that far behind first-place guy Alex Ovechkin, who scored 82 goals during that span.)

The thing is, the Islanders could attempt to compete in 2018-19.

One interesting consideration would be going after Ryan O'Reilly. Of course, ROR isn’t Tavares, but he’s a talented two-way center who could take on tough assignments while Mathew Barzal leveraged golden offensive opportunities.

You could do worse than to ice that sort of one-two punch at center while hoping that Trotz’s system plugs the many leaks the Isles suffered with Doug Weight behind the bench. Incumbent goalie Thomas Greiss really doesn’t have anywhere to go but up, after all.

No doubt, if the Islanders want to strain to contend/compete next season, they’ll need to ask tough questions about Greiss’ viability in net.

Realistically, a rebuild (“soft” or full-on) would probably be the Islanders’ best course of action. Considering the depth of quality teams in the Metro, it may boil down to being their only true choice.

At least that Tavares-free scenario is more promising today than it was before June 22.

Some bright spots

It’s probably tough for Islanders fans to contemplate following Tavares’ departure and Garth Snow being ousted not long after that grim billboard campaign, but there have been some positives to consider.

For one thing, Barzal won the 2018 Calder Trophy thanks to one of the most dazzling rookie seasons in recent memory. This clip might soothe some of those hard feelings for Islanders fans.

[PHT Q&A with Barzal.]

While the heat’s going to turn up on Barzal to be “the guy” for the Islanders, the good news is that help should be coming. Eventually.

Things could have gone either way for the Islanders during the 2018 NHL Draft, as you never know what kind of talent will be around at picks 11 and 12. As it turns out, the Islanders landed two very promising prospects in defenseman Noah Dobson and potentially prolific winger Oliver Wahlstrom. Their overall haul earned rave reviews, as they also grabbed interesting talents such as Bode Wilde.

It will take time to find out if the steak matches the sizzle, and a strong-on-paper draft wasn’t enough to retain Tavares, but a slam-dunk first draft for Lou sure beats landing “Gotti”-level reviews.

If management goes to a more overtly rebuild-friendly route, maybe a strong 2019 top pick could also ease the pain?

***

Yes, it’s true that there’s only so much you can do to rationalize this loss. It must feel like a cannon ball to the stomach right now.

The Islanders don’t have any choice but to regain their wits and figure out what’s next.

All things considered, it could be worse, even if it probably doesn’t feel that way for their star-crossed fans.

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.

Islanders hire Barry Trotz as head coach

Getty
33 Comments

Barry Trotz was not out of work for long.

Less than a week after resigning from the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, the New York Islanders officially announced on Thursday afternoon that Trotz has been hired as their next head coach.

“Barry brings to the New York Islanders franchise a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience, and success,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a team statement.

“He is and has been one of the top coaches in the National Hockey League. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with him.”

Trotz left the Capitals organization after an incredibly successful four-year run because he and the team could not come to financial terms on a contract.

[Related: Contract request led to breakup between Trotz, Capitals]

Previously thought to be without a contract after this past season, it was revealed after the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win that his deal included a clause that automatically kicked in a two-year contract extension if the team won the Cup. That extension reportedly brought his contract value to $1.8 million per season which would have been well below market value for a coach with Trotz’s resume. With the two sides unable to come to terms on a more lucrative deal, Trotz resigned and the Capitals gave him the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere.

At the moment Trotz’s options were extremely limited as the Islanders were the only other team in league without a head coach. It seemed like a given that the Islanders would have interest as they attempt to overhaul their organization after missing the playoffs for the second year in a row and third time in five years.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Trotz’s deal with the Islanders could pay him around $4 million per year over five years.

This is latest move in what has already been a franchise-altering summer for the Islanders.

Along with the hiring of Trotz, the Islanders also replaced general manager Garth Snow after years of perpetual mediocrity by bringing in Lamoriello after he left the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

Now the Islanders have to try and figure out a way to make their biggest move of the offseason and re-sign franchise player John Tavares before he hits the open market as a free agent on July 1.

If they can make that happen there is a lot to like about this job if you are Trotz. There is a lot of talent to work up with up front with (potentially) Tavares, NHL rookie of the year Mat Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle, while they also have a ton of early draft capital to potentially make a deal this weekend and add to that.

One addition you have to assume would be a goaltender where obvious candidate could be current Washington Capitals backup Philipp Grubauer.

No matter what they do this offseason regarding the roster, the additions of Lamoriello and Trotz certainly change the look of the organization.

During Trotz’s four-year run with the Capitals the team won more regular season games than any team in the NHL, won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, and then finally won the Stanley Cup in 2017-18.

The Islanders home opener for this upcoming season will take place on Oct. 6 against the Nashville Predators … the very first team that Trotz coached in the NHL.

Related: Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach

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.

Where does NHL’s coaching carousel stop after Trotz resignation?

Getty
9 Comments

The NHL’s coaching carousel is officially in motion after the stunning news from Monday that Barry Trotz is stepping down as head coach of the Washington Capitals less than two weeks after lifting the Stanley Cup.

It leaves a lot of questions to be answered in the coming days and weeks. Let’s get into some of them!

Is the Capitals’ job Todd Reirden’s to lose?

At the start of the playoffs the possibility of Trotz not returning to Washington seemed to be very real, especially given his contract situation.

If the Capitals fell short of winning the Stanley Cup yet again it seemed inevitable that a coaching change was going to be coming.

Then the Capitals went and actually won the Stanley Cup and at that point it seemed inevitable that Trotz was absolutely going to return, especially when general manager Brian MacLellan said right after the Game 5 victory that if Trotz wanted to return, he would. The whole contract extension issue kept getting pushed back, and then Monday’s news broke that winning the Stanley Cup actually kicked in an automatic two-year extension for Trotz — an extension that would have been below market value for a Cup-winning coach.

With the two sides unable to work out a suitable extension, Trotz stepped down creating the new opening.

The obvious answer here is a promotion from within, and they seem to have a replacement already waiting in current assistant coach Todd Reirden.

[Related: Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach]

Reirden has been with the Capitals as an assistant since the 2014-15 season and has been mentioned as a candidate for several head coaching vacancies in recent years, but the Capitals — obviously valuing him as a coach — did not allow him to interview for head coaching vacancies a year ago. In 2016, he was promoted to associate coach.

One thing is for sure, no matter who takes that job would be facing an enormous amount of pressure. You are not only replacing a coach that just finally helped end the organization’s Stanley Cup drought, but the coach that is without question the most successful coach in the history of the franchise. Expectations are going to be through the roof.

What are Trotz’s options?

Now that Trotz is a free agent his situation becomes especially intriguing because as the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach he can pretty much call his shot.

At the moment his options are extremely limited as the New York Islanders are the only team without a head coach. That could be a pretty intriguing job, especially if the Islanders are able to get superstar center John Tavares re-signed before he hits the open market. That is a dynamic offensive team that could have a superstar in Tavares (assuming he re-signs), an emerging star in Mathew Barzal, another 40-goal scorer in Anders Lee, and two other really strong top-six forwards in Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. They need to solidify the back end and the disastrous goaltending situation (think about the possibility of a Trotz and Philip Grubauer reunion in Brooklyn!) but there is a lot to work with there.

The Islanders had a bad year, but it is not a situation that is going to require an extensive, lengthy rebuild. With a few tweaks here and there this could be a playoff team this season.

But if that doesn’t appeal to Trotz (or if the Islanders can’t make an agreement work) he is going to have to play the waiting game.

There is always the possibility that another team could see Trotz become available and decide to make a coaching change given the opportunity to add someone of that caliber.

Other than that it might be a waiting game until someone decides to pink slip their coach during the 2018-19 season. There were no coaching changes during the 2017-18 season (almost unheard of in the NHL) but given the availibility of Trotz it is not a stretch to think that a team like St. Louis, Minnesota, or Anaheim could make a change early in the season if things are not going well out of the gate.

The other option: Trotz takes the entire year off and starts fresh in 2019. He would still have the drawing card of being a Stanley Cup winning coach, still be a big name, and still be at the top of almost every “want list” for a team with a vacancy.

Either way, Trotz’s decision on Monday unexpectedly threw the NHL’s coaching carousel into overdrive and it is going to be fascinating to see where it stops.

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.