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Three questions facing New York 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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

1. Build more for the future, or for now?

When you lose a player of John Tavares‘ caliber for nothing but cap space and a roster spot, people are going to pencil you in for a drop-off. After all, Mathew Barzal is one of the players the Isles will point to as a reason for optimism, yet the Islanders still missed the playoffs with Barzal and Tavares on their roster.

The smart thing would be to accept the reality of their situation – particularly after a promising draft including nice picks Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson – and maybe roll the dice for one more blue-chip prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft. Right? Maybe?

Well, the Islanders are sending some mixed signals.

Some of it stems from simple human nature. Lou Lamoriello is 75. Barry Trotz just won a Stanley Cup, was already part of a lengthy rebuild with Nashville, is 56 himself, and about to enter his 20th NHL season. These are front office members who probably don’t have the highest level of tolerance for growing pains.

The Islanders roster boasts some unsettling contracts, some of which were added by Lamoriello.

Leo Komarov is 31 and received a highly questionable four-year contract. Andrew Ladd, 32, somehow has five years left on his ugly deal. Cal Clutterbuck is 30, Johnny Boychuk is 34, and even slightly younger guys (Thomas Hickey at 29, Josh Bailey at 28) carry some risks. The Islanders have more than $19M going to six defensemen who were abysmal as a unit last season, and four of those contracts have at least four more years remaining.

Trotz’s schemes could conceivably help the Islanders at least wade into the East playoff bubble, as a better defense can beget better goaltending. Combine that with more magic from Mathew Barzal and a few other key forwards, and maybe you have a respectable season.

Is that really the best way to handle this situation, though? The Islanders may instead be better off selling off some of their riskier contracts, handing opportunities to young players instead of fading veterans, and generally living to fight another day. Being too good to possibly land a Jack Hughes but too bad to make a real dent is a bad place to be, and arguably more of the same for a franchise that just lost John Tavares.

Embracing reality late could save a lot of future anguish, and accelerate an ascent to levels not seen in decades. Ideally.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

2. Who stays, who goes?

The 2018-19 campaign isn’t just a tug-of-war between players trying not to fade into the sunset versus young players hoping to see the dawn of NHL careers.

There are interesting, prime-age guys whose futures aren’t particularly clear with the Islanders, and the uncertainty should be mutual in some cases, as making the wrong calls regarding terms and money could really put the Isles in a bad spot.

It had to feel comforting for Jordan Eberle to silence many of his Edmonton critics by enjoying the bounce-back season many analytics-minded people anticipated. Maybe Eberle feels a drive to stick with this team, particularly if he can maintain a spot alongside Barzal. That said, Eberle is 28 and only made the playoffs during one season, struggling enough that the Oilers overreacted and traded him. Eberle probably doesn’t want to be stuck in another murky rebuild, and he’s never enjoyed the opportunity to choose exactly where he played NHL hockey. From the Islanders perspective, they must decide if a guy who probably won’t be cheap – why would Eberle take more than a small downgrade from his $6M AAV in a new deal? – is worth keeping around. Will Eberle exit his prime by the time the Islanders are in a more legitimate place to contend?

That’s far the only noteworthy contract year for the Islanders to consider. Anders Lee, 28, has been a wonderful producer, yet he has to prove that he can remain a prolific sniper without Tavares. Brock Nelson, 26, received a one-year “prove it” deal, as did 27-year-old goalie Robin Lehner.

The Islanders would be wise to see how things go with most, if not all, of the players mentioned.

For one thing, management can see where this team ranks, and how the pieces fit together under a new regime and without a foundational star (and with a still-new one taking over).

Lamoriello shouldn’t lag too much, though, as many of these players could command some really nice trade assets. While Eberle’s a little pricey cap-hit-wise and might warrant salary retention, Lee is a huge bargain at $3.75M, Nelson’s at least interesting at $4.25M, and a Lehner resurgence could be awfully appealing for a team wanting goaltending security, considering his mere $1.5M cap hit.

The Isles nailed it when they converted picks to Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Noah Dobson. Imagine if they could pull off a few more strong deals if it’s clear that 2018-19 isn’t their year?

3. How will Trotz handle young players?

The good news is that Barry Trotz is no stranger to developing young players. He did it for years with the Predators, helping Nashville show how you can build a team from scratch (at least when the expansion rules made it way tougher to do so).

There are questions about some of Trotz’s preferences. Consider that at least a subset of Capitals fans were frustrated with Trotz’s occasional reluctance to give young players like Andre Burakovsky the green light, and accepting the risks that come with such a commitment. Is it a coincidence that Filip Forsberg was demoted to the AHL late in Trotz’s Nashville days, while it seemed like he flourished overnight once Peter Laviolette took over? Maybe, but there are skeptics out there when it comes to this area of Trotz’s coaching philosophies.

The Islanders already possessed so-so, aging players who could stand in the way of younger players taking crucial next steps. They added more this summer in the form of Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, and Matt Martin.

Will this adversely affect players who need sink or swim opportunities very soon (if not now?), like Josh Ho-Sang? That could be a shame, as a lot of those veterans are unlikely to be a part of the big picture.

Losing Tavares is brutal, no doubt, but it’s up to the Islanders to bounce back in the best way possible, or really let the pain linger.

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.

Ryan Murray’s odd tale continues in Columbus

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Ryan Murray accepted the Columbus Blue Jackets’ qualifying offer today, so he’ll register a $2.825 million cap hit for 2018-19. It says a lot about his middling development that this counts as such a minor transaction, and arguably a poor value.

Murray would have had to be a pretty sensational presence for his on-ice play to be more interesting than his draft-day backstory. There’s still time – albeit not much – for him to change that narrative, but as of today, Murray’s “What if?” scenarios bring more intrigue than his potential to boost the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It’s not just that Murray, 24, was the second pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

Heck, it’s not just that the top of that 2012 NHL Draft was remarkably star-crossed.*

No, the most interesting thing is what could have happened.

To jog your memory, in pursuing the chance to select Murray, then-Islanders GM Garth Snow channeled Mike Ditka mortgaging basically an entire Saints draft year to land Ricky Williams. As Elliotte Friedman noted for a CBC piece that’s especially interesting to read with hindsight, the offer to move up – most likely for Murray – was as such:

Islanders sought: Second pick, which would have been Murray.

Blue Jackets would have received: Fourth pick (Islanders selected Griffin Reinhart), plus picks 34, 65, 103, 125, 155 and 185.

Wild stuff, right? As it turns out, the Islanders ended up selecting two players in 2012 who’ve seen NHL action so far: Reinhart, and Adam Pelech, who they chose in the third round (65th overall).

Of course, the most significant takeaway for the Islanders came from trading Reinhart for the picks that became Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier, which is another post (if not a “30 for 30”) for another day.

The Blue Jackets still ended up enjoying a better draft than the Islanders, nabbing intriguing goalie Joonas Korpisalo (third round, 62nd pick) and solid winger Josh Anderson (fourth round, 95th pick). All things considered, they might have found another gem if they landed that bucket of picks from Snow.

Murray’s also a “What if?” question because his early career was derailed by injuries, and we’ll never know how his development might have turned out if he was healthier.

But, as is, the 24-year-old’s a pretty marginal NHL defenseman. His best years were his rookie campaign (21 points in 66 games in 2013-14) and 2015-16, when he scored a career-high 25 points and logged an average of 22:51 TOI.

During the past two seasons, he’s been just under 18-and-a-half minutes per game, scoring 11 and 12 points. His possession stats were pretty appalling in 2016-17 and quite bad last season.

Murray’s draft pedigree probably makes him lucky to accept Columbus’ qualifying offer of blank, but it’s not all bad. It’s likely that he’ll bring similar value to the Blue Jackets as they may have received from Jack Johnson, judging from metrics such as CJ Turturo’s comparison tool (which uses Corey Sznajder’s painstaking entry/exit data).

Not exactly … inspiring.

That said, it’s not outrageous to imagine Murray being worth another shot. The one-year term limits the risk, and while he’s not likely to drop jaws with his skills, his puck-moving profile at least falls in line with what works best in the modern NHL.

Far from spectacular stuff, but hey, the guy drafted before him will be plying his trade in the KHL next season, so it could be worse.

* – To review:

1. Nail Yakupov has, uh, not been too great.

2. Ryan Murray – turns out he wasn’t worth a whole draft, even a bad one?

3. Alex Galchenyuk – a good player who was seemingly condemned for years by Montreal, and eventually traded.

4. Griffin Reinhart – Eventually a kindred spirit for Murray, in that he’s most interesting for the picks he netted the Islanders (and as one of many cruel punchlines regarding Peter Chiarelli and the Islanders).

Things started getting a lot better from 5 on, as Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Mathew Dumba, and Jacob Trouba are quality NHL defensemen.

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.

Be afraid Edmonton: Oilers willing to move 10th pick for defense

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Hello, Edmonton hockey fans! I have some good news for you, and I have some bad news for you.

The good news is that after a truly disastrous season that turned out to be a bitter disappointment your front office has identified what might be one of its bigger needs and is maybe willing to trade a key asset — in this case the No. 10 overall pick in the draft — for a quality defenseman.

That is, of course, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli on Thursday in his pre-draft meeting with the Edmonton media.

Unfortunately for the Oilers the bad news is also the same as the good news, and that being that the Edmonton Oilers recognize that the defense was a big problem this past season and are willing to trade a key asset in an effort to fix it.

I don’t mean to be too flippant about this — I really don’t — but let’s be honest about something here: we have seen this movie before from the Oilers where they attempt to throw a significant asset in an effort to fix their defense and it almost always blows up catastrophically in their faces.

A brief history…

Nearly three years to the day, the very first trade that Chiarelli made as general manager of the Oilers, was to trade two high draft picks — the No. 16 overall pick and the No. 33 overall pick — to the New York Islanders in exchange for defenseman Griffin Reinhart who was just a couple of years removed from being a top-five pick in the draft.

The result: Reinhart played 29 forgettable games for the Oilers where he recorded one point and was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft this past year.

The Islanders, meanwhile, used the No. 16 overall pick to select Mathew Barzal who this past season had one of the best rookie seasons in recent NHL history and was a near unanimous selection for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year. They then used the No. 33 overall pick to move up five spots in the draft to No. 28 where they selected Anthony Beauvillier. He scored 21 goals in 71 games for the Islanders this season.

One year later the Oilers attempted another bold move when they traded former No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson to, once again, attempt to solidify and improve their defense.

The result: Larsson has been … okay? Passable? Pretty good at times but nothing really overly special? Any of those descriptions might work. Had he been acquired in exchange for a comparable player at forward it might have been an okay deal. Maybe even one that was viewed favorably. But he was not traded for a comparable player. He was traded for Taylor Hall, one of the best left wingers in hockey and a player that went on to almost single handedly carry the New Jersey Devils to the playoffs this season and win the league’s MVP award.

That means in the past three years the Oilers have traded Taylor Hall and two draft picks that turned out to be Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier in an effort to improve their defense (two of those three players won major NHL awards this year!) and today only have Adam Larsson to show for it.

When you look at it in writing it is just stunning.

None of that includes the four-year, $16 million contract (with a no-movement clause and modified no-trade clause) to free agent Kris Russel that is only further complicating a salary cap situation for an already cap-strapped team.

Look, the Oilers have to do something about their defense. And their scoring depth. And pretty much every aspect of the team that isn’t Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom (do not trade him!) or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Maybe that means dealing the 10th overall pick for immediate help.

Maybe this time it works out. Maybe they get a Justin Faulk or a Noan Hanifan out of Carolina. Or maybe they pull off a surprise trade and legitimately improve their blue line.

Maybe they simply do nothing and keep the pick.

But if you’re an Oilers fan you have to look at that possibility and at least cringe a little bit at what might soon be coming after seeing this team — this very front office! — try to make this very same move so many times before and just totally messing it up.

Whatever they end up doing the Oilers have to get it right because they have already squandered three years of McDavid’s career (his three cheapest years in the NHL) and have to now figure out a way to build a competitive team around him before they begin to waste his prime years. As great as he is he can not do it alone and the Oilers can not afford to come out on the losing end of another deal involving another significant asset.

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.

Oilers risk repeating terrible trade history with Lucic

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NHL teams should stick to certain unwritten rules.

Don’t let the Washington Capitals’ power play send a pass to Alex Ovechkin in “his office.” Maybe skip blocking Zdeno Chara‘s slapper in an exhibition game. Avoid smelling Brad Marchand‘s breath. Giving a goalie a “snow shower” is just rude.

At this point, the Edmonton Oilers might just want to institute a “Don’t let Peter Chiarelli make a trade” rule. At least not any tide-turning trades.

There are plenty of rumblings about the Oilers possibly trading Milan Lucic after his first two rough years in Edmonton, with some back-and-forth about whether Lucic requested such a trade or not. Even the biggest Oilers apologist who admit that Lucic’s contract (a signing bonus-heavy deal that includes a $6 million cap hit through 2022-23) is … bad. The problem is that any reasonable hockey person knows that. Even some of the unreasonable ones probably get that message.

With that wide notion noted, it’s unavoidable to point out the elephant in the room: is there any reason to believe that the Oilers would win a trade involving Lucic?

The Ten Percent Rule

There are serious worries that the Oilers aren’t learning lessons from their mistakes, so allow me to suggest an amended rule: Chiarelli should never trade a forward coming off of a season with less than a 10-percent shooting percentage. It would apply a magic wand to some of the franchise’s most jarring (or funny, if you’re not an Oilers fan) mistakes. Consider that:

  • After generating at least a 10.4 shooting percentage for his first four seasons, Taylor Hall dipped below double digits during his last two campaigns in Edmonton. Despite icy puck luck (9.1 percent) in 2015-16, Hall still scored 26 goals and 65 points. Lucic scored six fewer goals in 2015-16 (20 in 81 games) with the Kings despite a 16.1 shooting percentage. As much as the Hall – Adam Larsson trade was about improving Edmonton’s defense, there was also the side argument that the Oilers were opening up money to sign Lucic.

Oops.

  • That Jordan Eberle trade is frequently cited, and rightfully so.

Eberle consistently put up robust shooting percentages with the Oilers … except during his final season, when he scored 20 goals via 208 shots on goal (9.6 percent). The right-handed shooter rebounded to his typical form with the Islanders while Ryan Strome predictably produced middling results for Edmonton.

Part of the argument for trading Eberle was saving on the cap, but Edmonton ended up with a ton of wasted space during the disastrous 2017-18 season, only highlighting a point:

Sometimes it’s not about if you trade a player, but when.

The Oilers could have given Eberle some time to get his game (and shooting percentage) back on track, almost certainly opening the door for a better return than Strome.

Cruelly, Chiarelli could learn something from Garth Snow, the former Islanders GM who swindled him on the Eberle deal (and most dramatically, sending Edmonton Griffin Reinhart for the picks that would become Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier).

One of Snow’s last great moves was sending Travis Hamonic to the Calgary Flames for a set of futures that included Calgary’s 2018 first-round pick.

As you may recall, Hamonic was rumored to want a trade for family/personal reasons dating back to 2015, but he stuck with the Islanders longer than some expected. Snow traded Hamonic when the time was right for the Islanders, and he received a return that looked great then and now resembles a robbery.

Lucic’s stock couldn’t be much lower considering his tough start with Edmonton, particularly scoring a pathetic 10 goals on 147 SOG (6.8 shooting percentage) over a full 2017-18 season. Before that, Lucic consistently shot at a rate that was about as efficient as Eberle’s before he was traded. Lucic scored between 18-24 goals during the four seasons from 2013-14 to 2016-17, never seeing his shooting percentage dip below 12.8 percent for a full campaign.

So, the Oilers could experience the worst of both worlds if they trade Lucic this summer. After buying high after he rode high percentages, they might trade him when his value is at its absolute lowest.

Now, it’s fair to remark that the Oilers should at least poke around to try to get rid of an absolutely horrid contract. They might just find someone to dupe.

(Hey, the Toronto Maple Leafs are probably still snickering about the trade that netted them useful assets for Dion Phaneuf, and they somehow managed to do it without retaining salary.)

Don’t sell low, again

If the only way to move Lucic is to take on a different mistake (see: the exchange of problems that was the trade that got Phaneuf out of Ottawa), then the Oilers owe it to themselves to mitigate the damage. Whether it comes down to pairing him with Connor McDavid, lining him up with Leon Draisaitl, or trying to find advantageous matchups lower in the lineup, Edmonton can pump up Lucic’s value.

The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow provided some interesting insight (sub required) on how the Oilers might be misusing Lucic, for one thing, but Edmonton may just enjoy better results from Lucic getting more bounces in 2018-19.

An NHL GM can make his team marinate in a mistake by “doubling down,” such as exasperating a bad trade with a foolish contract extension. That said, an executive can also blunder by flipping from that stubborn script: you can overreact to a mistake. Such a risk gets scarier if the organization diagnoses the symptoms, but not the cause for disorders of the roster.

When in doubt, the Oilers must ask a painful question: “Do we really expect Chia to get it right this time?”

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.

Highs and lows for Garth Snow as Islanders GM

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When the New York Islanders promoted backup goalie Garth Snow to the position of GM in July 2006, you could almost hear the cackles from around the NHL.

It’s honestly a shame that Twitter only technically existed back then, sort of like how Snow technically wasn’t fired from the Islanders even though he was “relieved of his duties” as Isles GM on Tuesday. In retrospect, the decision to name Snow as Islanders GM wasn’t quite “laugh out loud” material; instead, his tenure stands as a mixed bag.

If you have to give a sweeping review? Yes, you’d probably deem it not good enough. Simply put, NHL teams need to strike quickly when they essentially hit the lottery, as they did by selecting John Tavares first overall in 2009. And, really, the Islanders failed to take advantage of another gift: Tavares’ second contract, which carried a ludicrously low cap hit of $5.5 million from 2012-13 until this past season.

Let’s take a look back at the mixed bag that was Snow’s 12-year(!) tenure as Islanders GM. Keep in mind this isn’t meant to be totally comprehensive, so feel free to comment on other moves and moments.

Steps in the right direction, just not enough

During Snow’s tenure as GM, the Islanders managed to make the playoffs four times (out of 12 attempts, which doesn’t feel redundant since, you know, lockouts).

In 2015-16, the Islanders’ most recent postseason run, they won their first series since shocking the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins (who were repeat champions). As you might expect, Tavares played a key role in eliminating the Florida Panthers during that competitive 2016 series.

At the time, it seemed like the Islanders were finally, truly ascendant. Instead, their progress stalled, as they failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the final two seasons of Snow’s tenure.

The good and bad news is that, relatively speaking, Snow leaves Lou Lamoriello with a relatively clean slate. Yes, there are some regrettable deals (looking at you, Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck), but Cap Friendly estimates the Isles’ cap spending at $46.74 million.

Of course, the ideal scenario is that John Tavares pushes that up closer to $60M. Either way, Lamoriello can put his mark on this team without spending too much time sending people to “Robidas Island.”

Peaks and valleys

The fascinating thing about Snow’s tenure is that you can look at various significant players and often see the good and the bad.

(Let’s go ahead and skate past most of his earlier moves, merely noting that some give him a pass for the notorious Rick DiPietro contract.)

Take Kyle Okposo, the last first-round pick selected before Snow’s watch.

On one hand, hindsight indicates that the Islanders probably made the right choice in letting him leave via free agency. Unfortunately, they essentially chose Andrew Ladd over Okposo, so it was still a situation they’d seek a mulligan for.

Travis Hamonic is another interesting example. He was a solid steal in the draft (53rd overall in 2008), and Snow waited through some drama to trade him when the time was right for the Islanders, landing some serious draft capital from the Calgary Flames. Hamonic struggled for a Calgary team that missed the playoffs, setting the stage for the Islanders to hold picks 11 and 12 for this upcoming draft.

Then again, even a struggling Hamonic might have helped them stop some of the bleeding on defense …

Trading away high picks

From a drafting perspective, Snow showed some ability to find some gems (Anders Lee, sixth round in 2009) and also was able to fix some mistakes by way of clever trades. OK, to be more specific, he bamboozled Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli to help him turn Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Strome into Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anthony Beauvillier. Considering how the Reinhart/Barzal scenario looks, it truly is remarkable that Chiarelli took Snow’s call regarding Eberle.

(Snow also memorably offered the Columbus Blue Jackets a Mike Ditka sending everything for Ricky Williams-type deal to move up in the 2012 NHL Draft, yet was turned down. Now that was quite the “what if?” scenario.)

Granted, things didn’t always work out when Snow was guilty of a misstep.

Michael Dal Colle, the fifth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, has only played four games with the Islanders to this date. Masochists could scroll down that draft to see the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth), Dylan Larkin (15th), and David Pastrnak (25th) selected after him.

Now, sure, just about every NHL GM curses a bad-in-retrospect selection, but some of Snow’s biggest swing-and-misses do sting.

That’s especially true with the high draft pick trade that didn’t work out. While Cal Clutterbuck clutters the Islanders’ cap with a shaky contract, Nino Niederreiter is a key forward for the Minnesota Wild. Niederreiter only played 64 games for the Islanders before being shipped off in that one-sided trade.

That big summer and the breakthrough that never happened

While it didn’t produce the breakthrough many hoped for, October 4, 2014 remains Snow’s biggest and maybe best day as Islanders GM.

During that memorable afternoon, Snow landed Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Leddy deal still looks pretty spiffy today, but either way, it was a prime example of an up-and-coming team leveraging contenders’ cap conundrums to get better. The Islanders simply didn’t improve enough.

One might attribute that inability to go from good to great (and eventually the malaise to slip from good to mediocre?) on Snow’s coaching choices. Snow stuck with Jack Capuano for quite some time, and the decision to promote Doug Weight ended up being a failure.

For all we know, a more experienced or innovative coach might have been able to optimize a group that, while imperfect, certainly boasted some talent. Just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins under Mike Sullivan vs. a similar Penguins team held back by Mike Johnston’s ill-fitting system if you want an example of what a difference that can make.

Snow frequently showed patience, something that paid off for similarly long-tenured Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. Sometimes, too much of a good thing like patience can really be a detriment in sports. It’s fair to wonder if that was the case with Garth Snow.

***

You could kill hours pouring over the highs and lows of Snow’s days. Really, it’s a testament to how tough it can be to run an NHL team, especially one trying to shake a bad reputation like the Islanders fought.

Snow worked past the days of trading for a player’s negotiating rights, only to realize they wouldn’t sign with his team. He recognized under-the-radar talent on the waiver wire and boasted draft-day hits amid the misses.

Still, he was unable to get over the hump for a variety of reasons, including (wait for it) goaltending.

Of all the things that went wrong for the former NHL backup, that might be the factor that stings the most.

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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.