Jordan Eberle

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Sustainability, Ho-Sang’s development are top questions for 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 New York Islanders.

1. Can they do it again?

After losing John Tavares and not really doing anything significant to replace him on the ice expectations were understandably low for the 2018-19 Islanders. They ended up shattering all of them, made the playoffs, advanced to the second round for the second time since 1993, and were one of the biggest surprises in the league.

The question, then, is obvious: Can they do it again and build off of that success?

The most shocking part of the turnaround was that the Islanders went from being the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in just one season. That is where the question of sustainability comes in. While it is easy to point to Barry Trotz and his defensive system as the cause of the turnaround, the reality is the Islanders were blessed with an outstanding goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss that masked a lot of flaws. Can Greiss repeat his performance? Can Semyon Varlamov stay healthy enough and be good enough to match what Lehner did? If the answer to those questions turns out to be no, it could put a pretty significant dent in the Islanders’ ability to prevent goals.

This season will be a big test for just how much Trotz’s system and approach really improved the Islanders because they are bringing back largely the same team, except with a potentially lesser goalie.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure]

2. Who is going to score the goals?

It was a good thing for the Islanders that they were so good defensively last year because their offense was not particularly good. They finished the regular season 22nd in goals scored, 29th in shots on goal per game, and 29th on the power play. Among the 16 playoff teams no team was worse in those same areas.

What did the Islanders do to address that this offseason? Nothing.

They did manage to retain all of their top free agent forwards (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle) but they did not add a significant piece from outside the organization while several teams around them in their own division made significant additions.

There is reason to believe Mathew Barzal can have a bigger season, and that will certainly help. But Valtteri Filppula‘s 17 goals walked out the door in free agency and it seems possible, if not likely, that Casey Cizikas will regress after a completely unexpected 20 goal performance.

3. Will this be Josh Ho-Sang’s year?

One thing that could really help the Islanders’ offense? Josh Ho-Sang putting everything together and becoming a regular in the lineup. Ho-Sang’s young career with the Islanders has been a tumultuous one to this point as he’s never fully gained the trust of any of his coaches (or the organization as a whole) despite having a ton of talent and potential.

His offensive skills have never been in doubt, and he’s actually produced at a pretty solid rate at the NHL level. He has 24 points in 53 career games, a per-game average that comes out to around 37 points over 82 games. It may not seem like an eye-popping number, but keep in mind that only four Islanders recorded more than 37 points last season, and Ho-Sang has produced those numbeers despite getting limited minutes in his brief NHL action.

But his all-around game has never seemed to develop enough for the organization to fully commit to him. He just re-signed on a one-year contract on Monday and can not be sent to the American Hockey League without passing through waivers, so this is probably a make-or-break year for him with the Islanders.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Same old questions remain for Oilers

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers.

1. Who will help Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

Our Joey Alfieri already touched on this when he looked at the Oilers’ depth scorers being under pressure to produce more, but this really is the single biggest question facing the Oilers this season. Just as it was last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

Unless James Neal finds a time machine and goes back to his age 26 or 27 seasons, or the team figures out a way to salvage the development of Jesse Puljujarvi before it sends him away for some magic beans it’s hard to see where this improvement comes from.

How top-heavy has the Oilers’ lineup been over the past two years? Some numbers for you.

  • With McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have outscored teams by an 88-67 (plus-21) margin and controlled more than 52 percent of the shot attemepts.
  • With only ONE of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 136-115 (minus-21) and controlled only 49 percent of the shot attempts.
  • With NEITHER of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 151-106 (minus-45) and controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts.

When their top two players are not on the ice the Oilers are playing at the level of an early 1990s expansion team.

It is appalling to have what might be the best offensive duo in the league and still be so far away from the playoffs.

Does acquiring James Neal in a swap of bad salaries (in what should be an upgrade) and signing some cheap, reclamation project free agents do enough to help move the needle closer to the playoffs?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. How will they stop teams?

Here is a set of numbers for you to ponder: 25, 25, 8, 28, 30, 30, 19, 23, 28, 30, 22, 26, 16

What are those numbers representing? They are where the Oilers have ranked in goals against (starting with this past season on the left and moving backwards) dating back to the start of the 2006-07 season. Average finish: 24th. The one outlier (the eighth place year) was when Cam Talbot pretty much stood on his head in net and was eventually run into the ground due to a ridiculous workload.

The Oilers are bringing back mostly the same cast of characters on defense that haven’t been good enough, and barring an unexpected miracle they don’t really have a goalie that should be a serious threat to steal games. Mikko Koskinen‘s contract looks to be a mess, while Mike Smith is coming off the worst season of his career and is entering his age 37 season.

This all seems like a tough recipe to make work.

Dave Tippett has a reputation for being a defensive coach (a reputation he doesn’t really seem to like) and is very respected around the league, but how much of an impact can a coach make with a thin defense and two massive question marks in goal? Even if McDavid and Draisaitl repeat their magic and they find some respectable second-line scoring can they actually stop enough teams for any of it to matter?

3. What changes will Ken Holland make?

Holland has two cornerstone players that are already among the best in the league and haven’t even hit their peak years in the NHL yet. It is a great starting point. That is the good news. The bad news is that even though he has McDavid and Draisaitl to start building around he still has what might be the most daunting rebuilding job of any general manager in the NHL. Not only because he has a ton of holes to plug, but because he has to deal with the pressure that is not wasting anymore of McDavid’s best years in the league.

In the past, the Oilers have tried to shake things up by dealing players that were once considered part of the core (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz). They not only failed to capitalize on those trades, but they have quickly run out of such players to deal.

Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins be next? Oscar Klefbom? It seems to only be a matter of time until Puljujarvi gets moved.

No matter who it is, he is going to have to make significant changes to get this team out of its current situation.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

How long interview period changed course of NHL free agency

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Artemi Panarin did not have to imagine what he might look like in a New York Rangers uniform.

His likeness in Rangers blue adorned the giant video screens at Madison Square Garden with the message ”Welcome Artemi” a full four days before he signed with the team.

”There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” Panarin said, ”and my heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

Free agency in the NHL this season had surprises, as it always does, and there was a major factor that went somewhat under the radar: The post-draft ”interview window” for teams to talk with free agent targets was the longest in its short history. It opened June 23 and went right up until the signing period opened July 1, giving it the biggest impact since the window was added to the league calendar in 2014.

Some executives hated it, but the extended chance to wine and dine played a big role in a number of deals – from the Dallas Stars landing veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to the New York Islanders moving on from standout goalie Robin Lehner.

”It was a long week,” Perry said. ”There was a lot of phone calls and just feeling out teams and seeing where they are, seeing what they might have as a plan of attack for next season. I got to ask questions, they told me what they think. It was an eye-opener, not ever going through it, but it was a fun process.”

Florida general manager Dale Tallon said it was not much fun to go from the draft right into a week of free agent conversations – ”I hate this week, to tell you the truth,” he said – but it didn’t turn out so bad: The Panthers signed top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, winger Brett Connolly and defenseman Anton Stralman .

Free agency for years was a land rush at noon July 1 and perhaps the frenzied pace of negotiations contributed to some ill-fated contracts and bad fits. With more time, many contracts were agreed to before free agency began, similar to how things work in the NFL and NBA. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said each year the league sends a memo to its clubs reminding them that deals cannot be signed until July 1 but he was not concerned about how the process went this time.

”I think it’s more an evolution of how clubs, agents and players have handled (the interview period) than anything else,” Daly said.

New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, assistant Tom Fitzgerald and coach John Hynes held a 90-minute conference call with winger Wayne Simmonds and agent Eustace King before signing Simmonds for $5 million. And Pavelski got to tour Dallas with Stars captain Jamie Benn and team executive Tom Holy, a familiar face from San Jose.

”To go spend a little time just kind of casually, you know how things kind of come up organically, it was just nice to kind of hang out and spend a little bit of time,” Pavelski said. ”As a player, teammates definitely come into a big part of recruiting, I think. But it’s one of those things does the fit, do you feel comfortable around different personalities.”

Panarin knew all about Rangers President John Davidson from their time together in Columbus. But the former head of the Blue Jackets’ hockey operations department believes he only had to remind the Russian winger during his visit about all the things that drew him back to New York.

”He’s made it very vocal that he’s always wanted to be in a big city, and there’s no bigger city than New York,” Davidson said. ”In talking to us, (he) talked about how he wants to win. He actually talked about Mark Messier and what Mark Messier did with the Rangers to get into the winning part of the business.”

Seeing Messier’s No. 11 and the 1994 Stanley Cup champions banner at Madison Square Garden didn’t hurt. But it was away from the rink that Panarin’s connection to the Rangers became abundantly clear and led to him taking less money than the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Panthers offered .

”You could sense his enthusiasm for the Rangers, for the big city, for the big stage,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”His knowledge of the game, his knowledge of our team, it all shined right through. Right away for everybody in the room it was pretty exciting to hear some of the things he had to say.”

The interview period is a two-way street, and the Washington Capitals signed winger Richard Panik in large part because they reached out to him first. Panik waited for other teams to come close to the $11 million, four-year offer as the clock ticked.

”For me, it was really stressful,” Panik said. ”It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning. They offered me four years. Nobody else did. That was the main reason. That’s why I chose (Washington). I wanted a longer deal, and they were willing to do it right away.”

Plenty of teams had interest in Perry, who signed an incentives-heavy one-year deal with Dallas to prove himself after being bought out by the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars showing him their map to Cup contention and bringing in Pavelski sealed the deal.

”They have everything that I want in a hockey team,” Perry said. ”They’re on the verge of putting something really great together. I want to be a part of that.”

Lehner was part of a surprisingly great season with the Islanders, who re-signed forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to bring back almost the same team.

Had it not been for the extra time, Lehner might have reached a deal to stay. Instead, the Islanders moved on to Semyon Varlamov, Lehner learned about the potential downside of the interview period and Chicago benefited from it by signing him to a $5 million, one-year contract.

”It was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me and I took a couple days to think about it,” Lehner said. ”When I came back and wanted to make something work, they already went for another goalie. That is the truth.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Five playoff teams that could miss postseason in 2020

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It happens every year. Teams that make the playoffs one season, don’t make it the following season. Five teams that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs failed to qualify for the postseason in 2019. So, who might those five teams be in 2020?

The five teams that made the playoffs in 2018 that didn’t make them in 2019 are the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

Of course, the offseason still isn’t over so any of the teams on this list could make a significant trade or signing to change their course this season, but we’ll make an opinion based on the information we have right now.

Clearly, we’re expecting there to be way more turnover in the Eastern Conference than in the Western Conference. After all, non-playoff teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Panthers, Devils and Sabres have all improved their roster. The Canadiens only missed the playoffs by two points, and GM Marc Bergevin won’t be shy about making a splash before the start of training camp. In the West, things seem to be a little more set.

[Five non-playoff teams that could make it in 2020]

So let’s take a look at who those teams might be in 2020.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets finished in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference in 2018-19, but they’ve lost star forward Artemi Panarin, trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene and franchise netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. Yes, the Jackets have a lot of young talent still on the roster, but too many teams around them got better in the East. Even though they added Gustav Nyquist in free agency, they probably don’t have enough up front to sneak in. Getting this group back into the playoffs would be an unbelievable accomplishment for head coach John Tortorella.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes have been able to keep their group together for the most part. They lost Curtis McElhinney in free agency and they traded Calvin de Haan to the Chicago Blackhawks. Free agent Micheal Ferland hasn’t signed with anybody yet, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be returning to Carolina. The ‘Canes were one of the big surprises in the NHL last season. We just need to find out if they can do it again. Will a duo of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer be able to carry them back to the playoffs, let alone an Eastern Conference Final?

New York Islanders: Like Carolina, the Islanders have to show that their group is capable of repeating everything they were able to accomplish last season. Barry Trotz was able to get the most out of this group but there’s no denying they caught the league by surprise a little bit last year. Now that teams will have an offseason to adjust, can Trotz get them to buy in to his defense-first system, again? The good news is that they were able to bring back Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle. Now, Semyon Varlamov has to do what Robin Lehner did last year.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Pittsburgh Penguins: There’s some question marks surrounding the Penguins heading into the season. Last season, they managed to collect 100 points but they were swept by the Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs. They’ve made some changes to their roster by trading away Olli Maatta and Phil Kessel. Yes, they’ve added Dominik Kahun and Alex Galchenyuk, but the defense isn’t getting any younger.

St. Louis Blues: I don’t want to sleep on the Stanley Cup Champions, but the reality is that they were in last place in early January, got hot, and won the cup. They can’t be dismissed, but Stanley Cup hangovers are a real thing. Also, can Jordan Binnington pick up where he left off in the Stanley Cup Final? They haven’t lost any big pieces but they haven’t added much either.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Rangers, Islanders, Devils all creating buzz in offseason

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The New York Rangers’ rebuild got a big boost with the additions of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. The New Jersey Devils drafted Jack Hughes with the No. 1 pick and traded for P.K. Subban to improve their defense.

The Islanders are coming off a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and a run to the second round of the playoffs for the second time since 1993. Now, they return the core of their lineup for the second year under Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and president/general manager Lou Lamoriello.

With the opening of training camps a little more than two months away, the three New York-area teams – which haven’t made the playoffs in the same year since 2007 – are buzzing with excitement.

”It’s awesome just in this area, even south Jersey with the Flyers, but Islanders, Devils, Rangers have real strong teams,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said. ”It’s an exciting time for all the teams in this area.”

New Jersey had the top pick for the second time in three years. In 2017, the Devils took Nico Hischier at No. 1 and got off to a strong start before earning a wild card. They took a step back last year and missed the playoffs, and then won the draft lottery.

Hughes and Kakko were the consensus top two picks, with the Rangers certain to take whichever player New Jersey passed on.

”They’re both really good players and it’s hard to pick one over the other,” Shero said, ”because Kakko is a great kid, a hell of a player, it’s good for the rivalry.”

The Rangers and Islanders both tried to sign Panarin, the top player available when free agency opened on Monday. The 27-year-old Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5-million deal, reportedly spurning more money from the Islanders to join a Rangers team that has missed the playoffs two straight years after a seven-year run that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

”The rivalry will never change, which is great for the area, great for hockey,” Lamoriello said. ”As far as the ingredients to each team, all I worry about is the New York Islanders and competing against ourselves to be the best we can. I’m not losing any sleep over what anyone else is doing.”

After losing out on Panarin, the Islanders calmed their anxious fan base by re-signing captain Anders Lee and adding goalie Semyon Varlamov to replace Robin Lehner – a favorite in his one season in New York.

Last month, the Islanders inked center Brock Nelson and forward Jordan Eberle to new deals, keeping two players that were instrumental in their run to the postseason.

”We feel very good about our team,” Lamoriello said. ”We feel very good about our core players, having them all back for the most part is very important.”

Getting Panarin was a big move for the Rangers after they went into rebuilding mode at the trade deadline in 2018, dealing veterans for young players and draft picks. They continued that strategy at the trade deadline this year.

However, the Rangers have been busy improving their defense since the end of the season. They signed Adam Fox, acquired the rights to restricted free agent Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg and also signed forward Vitali Kravtsov and goalie Igor Shesterkin – two Russians they drafted in previous years.

”This by no means alters our plan,” Rangers coach David Quinn said of the contract for Panarin. ”He’s part of the rebuild and part of the process that’s been going on over the last year and a half.”

Shero liked the competitive vibe that was injected into the rivalry with the top two picks of the draft, much the way it happened in 2017 with the Flyers, who took Nolan Patrick at No. 2. He believes the division matchups make it more exciting, with the young players going to teams that play each other more often than in the case of other recent top picks that ended up in different conferences.

”It’s great for the area,” Shero said. ”It’s great for the rivalry and whether you play four or five times, we hope to play more against teams like the Islanders and Flyers and Rangers because that means we’re in the playoffs.

”You see all three teams here … it makes for a real good rivalry and a great division.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports