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.

Ennis signing a glimpse into Maple Leafs’ free agent future

Getty
2 Comments

When people look back at Kyle Dubas’ time as Toronto Maple Leafs GM, they’re not going to devote a chapter of that book to signing Tyler Ennis to a dirt-cheap contract.

Still, the thing about Dubas is that, in an ideal scenario, he might use his analytics background to make smart moves not just in bombastic ways by signing John Tavares, but also by improving the Maple Leafs at the margins.

There’s no guarantee that Ennis will be an everyday player for the Maple Leafs, as it’s quite plausible that the 28-year-old could be passed up in training camp by Marlies hoping to graduate from winning a Calder Cup in the AHL (and exciting Dubas greatly) to roster sports with the big team.

Yet, by signing Ennis to a $650K clip, the Maple Leafs are opening the door for the diminutive forward to provide really nice value.

Barely landing an NHL contract should provide plenty of motivation for Ennis to give this all he has, and while he’s undoubtedly a small player, he can side into a variety of spots in the lineup and bring skill to the table. While Ennis only scored 22 points in 73 games for Minnesota last season, he only averaged about 12 minutes of ice time.

No doubt, the last three seasons have been brutal, with 2015-16 and 2016-17 ravaged by injuries.

Even so, Ennis is a three-time 20+ goal scorer, generating three 40+ point seasons and scoring at least 30 points on two other occasions. If injuries hit the Maple Leafs this season, it’s conceivable that Ennis could enjoy a reclamation season. If not, he could easily be demoted to the AHL or serve as a healthy scratch. The reward could be solid, while the risk is quite low.

Ennis-type signings are almost certainly going to be a more frequent feature of the Maple Leafs’ future than flashy ones like landing Tavares, too, at least when it comes to adding players from outside the organization.

Dubas pointedly states that the Maple Leafs will be able to retain core players around Tavares, which means striking a deal with William Nylander this summer and eventually coming to agreements with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

“We can, and we will,” Dubas said about signing those players during an interview on the “31 Thoughts” podcast.

Getting Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to sign team-friendly deals would be arguably an even more impressive feat than convincing Tavares to come home to Toronto, and it’s plausible to make it work. As much demand as those three could draw, the Maple Leafs boast a ton of leverage being that all three are/would be RFAs. It also doesn’t hurt that this team is built nicely to compete for quite a few years.

Depth is important in the NHL, though, and the other challenge for Dubas is to find dirt-cheap and/or value players to be the electrons to that high-level nucleus.

Some of that process comes down to cutting the fat. Toronto managed to get rid of an excessive depth contract without retaining salary by trading Matt Martin. It may end up being ideal to move Patrick Marleau in the final year of his contract, and recent events have shown that rebuilding NHL teams will often house cap hits for the cost of futures.

(Considering how Dubas likes to gather a quantity of picks by trading down, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’d have plenty of room to bribe teams while still having selections left over.)

Beyond that, it will be about rummaging through the bargain bin for supporting cast members, and echoing their rivals the Lightning in finding gems in the draft. Barring a skyrocketing salary cap over the next few years, there will be more Ennis-type signings than Tavares blockbusters for Toronto, at least if Dubas truly “can and will” keep the big four forwards in town.

So, the Ennis signing isn’t spectacular in a vacuum, yet if teams win more of these, they’ll win in the long run.

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 keep stockpiling fourth-liners, reacquire Matt Martin from Leafs

Getty
12 Comments

Deep inside the smoldering crater that used to be the New York Islanders organization sits hockey man Lou Lamoriello, no doubt tirelessly working to try and make his new team competitive in the wake of franchise player John Tavares bolting for the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency two days ago.

The plan, such as it is, seems to revolve around acquiring every fourth-line player in existence.

It continued on Tuesday when the Islanders announced that they have acquired Matt Martin from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for goaltender Eamon McAdam.

Martin spent the first seven years of his career with the Islanders where he was a physical presence on their fourth-line before signing a four-year, $10 million contract in free agency with the Maple Leafs. He still has two years remaining on that deal and the Maple Leafs, suddenly rich in offensive talent, were no doubt happy to shed that salary as they will need every available dollar under the cap next season when Auston Matthews and William Nylander will be making piles of cash. That is the benefit for the Maple Leafs. Shedding salary.

As for the Islanders … well … it continues what has no doubt been a bleak offseason for their fanbase.

After losing Tavares to the Maple Leafs, the Islanders have responded by re-acquiring Martin, signing Leo Komarov away from Toronto on a four-year, $12 million contract, signing Tom Kuhnhackl to a one-year deal, and signing Valtteri Filppula to a one-year contract (complete with a no-trade clause, because of course).

If we are looking at things objectively, none of these players are going to move the needle in New York or do anything to improve a roster that just lost its best player and has not made the playoffs in two years. What makes it all even more baffling is the Islanders already have a bunch of players on the roster just like these guys in Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.

Between Martin, Komarov, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck the Islanders are no doubt going to bring a lot of physicality to the rink every night. But when it comes to doing the things that lead to scoring goals, preventing goals and winning hockey games it is tough to see what these moves bring.

Maybe they will reunite the old fourth line of Cizikas, Martin, and Clutterbuck that everyone on the Island loved a couple of years ago. As far as fourth lines go it was okay, but nothing really special. And nobody builds their team from the fourth-line out. Especially when the rest of your bottom six might have the likes of Kuhnhackl, Filppula, and Komarov on it … which is for all intents and purposes another fourth line.

That group of players is going to count close to $16 million against the salary cap this season, and that doesn’t take into account the $5 million that Andrew Ladd — 60 points in 151 games over two years with the Islanders Andrew Ladd — will make.

In a vacuum and on their own any one of these moves is fine, I guess. They are not earth-shattering deals or anything that is going to submarine the franchise. But all of them? Together? In conjunction with losing Tavares?

Man.

Even with a young player as exciting as Mathew Barzal these are still dark times for the Islanders.

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.

Six NHL teams that improved the most this summer (so far)

Getty
29 Comments

The start of the NHL season is still a few months away and there is obviously time for a lot to change between now and then when it comes to roster movement.

Erik Karlsson is still likely to get traded.

Artemi Panarin and Max Pacioretty could get traded.

There are still probably a handful of bargain bin free agents floating around that are capable of making some sort of an impact. There are still ways for the 31 general managers to improve their rosters before the puck drops on the 2018-19 regular season.

So while it is probably still a little early to officially determine the winners and losers of the offseason, we can at least take a look at which teams have done the most to improve themselves so far.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs — Uh, this one is pretty obvious, right? The Maple Leafs, already loaded with young impact talent at forward, added one of the best players in the league in John Tavares on the first day of free agency and that alone makes them better.

The Maple Leafs still have some work to do when it comes to solidifying their blue line, but you can’t fault them for adding Tavares. When you have a chance to add a player of that caliber (and it is rare that you do) you have to take advantage of that. Now they have a 1-2-3 center group of Auston Matthews, Tavares, and Nazem Kadri that is every bit as good as any other center trio in the league.

[Related: John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs]

2. Carolina Hurricanes — A lot here depends on whether or not they trade Jeff Skinner and/or Justin Faulk and what they might end up getting for them in return. Overall, though, this has been a strong offseason for the Hurricanes. Still not sold on their goaltending situation and until that gets fixed that is probably always going to be the thing that holds them back, but can Petr Mrazek really be any worse than Cam Ward was? And, hey, Scott Darling really has nowhere to go but up after a dismal debut with the team. So there is that.

The real encouraging news comes from the fact they were fortunate enough to address probably their second biggest need (after goaltending) when they selected goal-scoring sniper Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick.

Then they went and traded for Dougie Hamilton (full trade here), a borderline elite defenseman, to strengthen their blue line.

Hamilton led all defenseman in goals last season, is a dominant possession player, is still only 25 years old, and is signed for three more seasons at $5.75 million per season, — a steal of a price given his production. Hamilton’s addition perhaps could give them some added flexibility to maybe trade Faulk for help elsewhere, or perhaps even better, simply keep him and continue to build what could be an outstanding defense around those two, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce.

Update: The Hurricanes continued to strengthen their defense on Tuesday by signing Calvin de Haan, formerly of the New York Islanders, to a four-year, $18 million contract in free agency.

3. Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers seem like an intriguing possibility for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, given need, cap space, and perhaps even assets that could be traded. Will it actually happen? Well, probably not, but it sure is fun to think about. As far as actual moves the team has made, bringing back James van Riemsdyk was a strong addition in free agency as it gives the Flyers some much-needed secondary scoring punch.

Once you got below Tavares on the list of available free agents van Riemsdyk was probably the best pure offensive name available on the market and still at an age where a long-term contract (in this case five years) wasn’t a massive gamble.

He has scored at least 27 goals in four of the past five seasons, a stretch where he has been one of the best goal-scorers (both at even-strength and in all situations) in the entire league.

[Related: Five logical landing spots for Erik Karlsson]

4. St. Louis Blues — The immediate reaction to the Blues’ acquisition of Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres seemed to be one of shock because of the number of pieces going the other way. But that is just it. It was a quantity over quality package, and when you break down the assets that the Blues gave up how many of them were actually something that they might truly miss?

Prospect Tage Thompson and the first-round pick are obviously the key pieces. But what else are the Blues going to miss?

Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka turned into contracts that the Blues probably no longer wanted, and a second-round pick (probably one in the second half of that round) is nothing more than a lottery ticket with low odds of turning into anything impactful. At the end of the day the Blues still got what was by far the best player in the trade.

They also added Tyler Bozak and David Perron in free agency, two players that will probably end up outproducing what Berglund and Sobotka provided (or will provde). The Blues were 24th in the NHL in goals this past season and needed to do something to address that. They absolutely did address it.

[Related: Blues acquire Ryan O’Reilly from Sabres]

5. Arizona Coyotes — There is reason for optimism in Arizona. They kept their franchise player in Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a long-term contract, they have some outstanding young talent starting to emerge from their farm system, and after a miserable first half of the 2017-18 season they finished on a very strong note by going 17-10-2 over their final 29 games (that would be a 101-point pace over 82 games). How much that carries over to this upcoming season obviously remains to be seen, but for the second offseason in a row they made some big additions.

They landed a potential impact player in Alex Galchenyuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi, and then dipped into the free agent market by bringing in speedster Michael Grabner. Grabner has his flaws, but his speed can cause havoc during 5-on-5 play and the penalty kill while they have more than enough salary cap space to handle his three-year, $10 million contract. Those additions, combined with what will hopefully be a full year from Antti Raanta and perhaps the development of Dylan Strome could make Arizona a surprise team in the Western Conference. Especially in a Pacific Division that is completely wide open.

6. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings didn’t really do much to make themselves younger or faster, and there are some questions as to how much he has left in the tank given his age and the fact he spent the past five years playing in Russia, but Ilya Kovalchuk gives the Kings the type of offensive weapon they desperately needed this past season. I still don’t love the Kings’ long-term outlook, but Kovalchuk could be a pretty big addition and makes them better in the short-term even if he is not the 40-goal, point-per-game player he was during his prime years in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s NHL 2018 free agency tracker]

More NHL Free agency:
Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights
Kings add Kovalchuk on three-year contract
Penguins make it official with Jack Johnson, bring back Matt Cullen

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.