Getty

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

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.

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.

Highs and lows for Garth Snow as Islanders GM

Getty
7 Comments

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.

MORE

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.

Tavares and beyond: Lamoriello has hands full with Islanders

Getty
5 Comments

Let’s be honest. As important a hire as Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations is for the New York Islanders, many of us could barely even utter his name before “John Tavares” returned to the forefront of any Isles thoughts.

That’s just going to be the status quo until we find out if Tavares re-signs with the Islanders or if he ventures elsewhere and breaks thousands of hearts on Long Island.

So, there’s no sense denying the all-world elephant in the room. Lamoriello could do great work for the Islanders if, say, he decided to be full-on GM, but a Tavares departure would still make this front office move a footnote. On the other hand, things would be downright intriguing in Brooklyn if Tavares returns (whether it has anything to do with Lou or not).

As much as we’d like to accurately forecast the Tavares sweepstakes, the truth is that few truly know what will happen. Hey, it’s possible that Tavares himself might still be mulling over his decision.

With or without their best star in ages, the Islanders have a lot of work to do. In a way, it seems like Lamoriello is being asked to do a repair job much like he did with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were able to get rid of pesky contracts and add some key components under his watch.

Get the notion

During today’s press conference, Lamoriello was his usual guarded self, not revealing much about the futures of GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight.

The thing is, Lamoriello could make plenty of inferences, even from the outside.

Really, you could argue that everything starts and stops with Snow. He’s been given rare leeway for a GM considering his 12-year reign, especially considering that the Isles have only won a single playoff series with Tavares and since their glory days. (We’ll get to the messy salary structure soon.)

Snow selected Doug Weight to go from interim and then full-on head coach, and while the interim run almost included a playoff berth, the past 2017-18 season was a disaster. Sure, shabby goaltending didn’t help, but how much of that falls on Weight’s shoulders? This Andre Burakovsky quote should shake any manager to the core:

Lamoriello’s not shy about taking over the GM seat, so you wonder if Snow’s days are melting away. He cannot wait too long to make a decision about Weight, as this is the time of year when you enjoy a greater number of opportunities to find coaching replacements. What’s Dave Tippett doing these days?

(Waits for Jacques Lemaire jokes[?].)

Oh yeah, and Lamoriello also must prepare for the 2018 NHL Draft. That could be awfully interesting since the Islanders boast picks 11 and 12, with the latter choice stemming from the Travis Hamonic trade. This figures to be a whirlwind couple of months for Lamoriello and the Islanders organization.

Cleaning up

If you’re convinced the Islanders will retain Tavares and thus feel little sympathy for this team, just take a look at their salary structure at Cap Friendly. Yikes.

During his time in Toronto, Lamoriello helped the Maple Leafs jettison bad contracts from the Phil Kessel days, whether that came via LTIR loophole maneuvering (just ask Joffrey Lupul, though he’ll eventually delete his response) or savvy trades. It says a lot about Lamoriello’s skills that the Maple Leafs didn’t need to retain salary in getting rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s ghastly contract in 2016, yet the Senators were forced to eat $1.75 million of his cap hit in February.

It’s strange to see a 75-year-old executive serving as a rebuilder/repairer of franchises, particularly after he guided the New Jersey Devils for a generation, but the Isles could benefit from his “cleaning” services. There are some odious contracts, so we’ll see if Lamoriello can conjure some magic to move beyond mistakes like the deals handed to Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck.

(It turns out Lamoriello cleans up more than a team’s facial hair choices. Cue Monty Burns and Don Mattingly.)

Other calls

One rare good thing about the Islanders’ salary structure is a gimme: Mathew Barzal‘s on his rookie deal through 2019-20, so Lamoriello doesn’t even need to worry about extension negotiations during this summer. Worst-case scenario, they’ll still have at least one spellbinding star at center.

Re-signing Tavares stands as priorities one through 91, but there are other choices to make.

Brock Nelson stands out as the most prominent forward alongside noteworthy defensemen (including Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, and Ryan Pulock) who are slated for RFA or UFA statuses. There are some key players approaching contract years in 2018-19, with Jordan Eberle and underrated (and underpaid) scorer Anders Lee headlining the list. Lamoriello must mull over which players to keep, for how long, and for how much.

If Tavares’ situation is the elephant in the room, then goaltending is the massive hole in the wall.

It’s tough to imagine any team taking on Thomas Greiss ($3.33M cap hit through 2019-20) after he submarined his team’s chances a lot like Scott Darling did in Carolina, so Lamoriello’s tasked with finding ways to reduce the damage. He at least has options; the Isles might get more out of Greiss by improving the system around him (replace Weight, or hope Weight improves?) or possibly looking to a different goalie coach. Perhaps Lou would even opt for a sports psychologist?

Either way, Lamoriello must also target another goalie, whether that guy is deemed a true backup, the new starter, or a platoon partner for Greiss.

(Again, a dream scenario would be to somehow move Greiss and get better in net without losing too many other assets, yet that might require Lamoriello to actually become a wizard. Or maybe he’d just need to get Peter Chiarelli on the phone?)

***

That’s quite a brain-full, right?

The scary part is that this is a simplified version of the choices that await. Lamoriello will need to ponder the franchise’s past failures. Did poor pro scouting inspire questionable additions such as Ladd, at least at his price point? Is this team doing enough to develop its draft picks?

Lou Lamoriello faces a ton of questions, with many of them standing as challenges even for a decorated, experienced executive. In some cases, he’ll need to make some key calls soon, and it should be fascinating to learn what the future holds for the Isles.

Of course, the biggest call actually falls to John Tavares, maybe more than all of the other ones combined.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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 Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations (Update)

Getty Images
16 Comments

It’s expected this week that the New York Islanders will officially announce the hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operation department, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic.

It’s unclear at the moment what specific role the 75-year-old Lamoriello will have within the organization. It’s possible he takes over the role of president of hockey operations or general manager, or potentially both. His son, Chris, is the Islanders’ assistant GM.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Lamoriello would not return as their GM after three seasons at the helm.

Staple also confirmed a Hockey30 report that Lamoriello met with Islanders captain John Tavares last week ahead of this move. Tavares is set to become an unrestricted free agent only July 1.

There are many questions to be answered as we wait for the Islanders to announce this move. First, what does this mean for the beards of Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, as well as the mustache of Cal Clutterbuck?

Next, where does current GM Garth Snow stand? He’s been running the show since 2006 and has a contract for at least four more seasons. The team has made the playoffs only four times during his tenure and advanced out of the first round once. The fan base demanded change once this season went off the rails, with billboards purchased in Brooklyn calling for Snow’s firing. During an end-of-season press conference in April, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said Snow and head coach Doug Weight would be staying for now, but that he would be “evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations.”

The next question is the biggest and that has to do with Tavares. He’s said time and time again that he wants to re-sign, but hasn’t inked an extension and hasn’t given any indication what factors would sway him one way or the other. A new arena on Long Island is coming. But is this change in management and whatever Lamoriello told him in their chat enough to convince him to not explore free agency and commit to staying with the franchise? Only time will tell. But this change could be a good first step forward for the franchise.

UPDATE: The Islanders made the news official on Tuesday morning, with Lamoriello getting the title of president of hockey operations. “He will have full authority over all hockey matters with the organization” was also noted in the press release. Farewell, Garth?

————

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.