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Most interesting Islanders to watch post-Tavares

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

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

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

No longer attached at that hip

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

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

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

At least he already got paid, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barzal’s “the guy,” and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trotz, goalies, style changes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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

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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.

Oilers continue rare boring summer with Strome signing

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The name Ryan Strome must elicit some awkward feelings for Edmonton Oilers fans. After all, you’d need to risk an upper-body injury trying to deny that the Oilers lost in the Strome – Jordan Eberle trade.

Losing that trade prompts faint praise, then, for the Oilers’ current off-season plan of … “Don’t mess anything else up.”

That’s not what they’ve really said publicly, but so far, that’s how they’re operating. While it’s fun – especially from a writing/lampooning perspective – to rubberneck at bad moves and dysfunction (let us again thank Marc Bergevin and the Senators), recent history states that Edmonton’s better off boring.

And that’s exactly what re-signing Strome is. It’s boring, and it’s probably the right move, and you’re probably yawning with me on this one.

The team announced that it’s a two-year deal, with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reporting that the cap hit will come in at $3.1 million per season. That’s not a great value, but it’s not going to break the Oilers, either. Leave that to trading the pick that became Mathew Barzal for a marginal defenseman, moving Taylor Hall one-for-one for Adam Larsson, and the Milan Lucic albatross contract, instead.

Cap Friendly puts Edmonton’s cap space at just less than $5M, with RFA Darnell Nurse likely to command most of that remaining cash.

The Oilers mainly stayed out of the fray this summer, merely handing speedy winger Tobias Rieder a reasonable one-year, $2M deal. Unless they can bribe a rebuilding team to house bad contracts like Lucic’s $6M per season through 2022-23, GM Peter Chiarelli is most likely going to be limited to trying to target savvy bargains in free agency. Considering how things have gone for him in recent trades, such limitations could very well be a blessing in disguise.

A boring blessing, but a blessing.

During the last three seasons, Strome’s developed into a fairly steady 30-ish point producer, showing some versatility and adequate possession skills. The Oilers could do better and worse with $3.1M per season.

Again, a shoulder shrug seems more palatable than Edmonton’s painful tradition of face-palms.

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis summed things up well regarding Strome back in April: Edmonton management is better off seeing the good side of Strome, rather than placing too much focus on how he’s not Jordan Eberle.

If you can convince yourself to not attach him to Eberle, it becomes a lot easier to accept Strome for what he is. He’s a solid, two-way player who can play in a variety of situations. He can centre your third line and be responsible, he can produce some offence in a top-six role, he can play both centre and wing, and he can be useful on the power play and penalty kill. He isn’t spectacular, but he’s a versatile depth player with upside, and there’s certainly value to that.

For all the frustrations in Edmonton, the Oilers still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They might stumble upon solutions merely if they stop messing things up.

Strome isn’t great, and you can quibble about him being good versus mediocre. It’s a small victory, but not exasperating the mistake with more mistakes is better than the alternative.

More exciting calls to come

Here’s a take for you: the Oilers put themselves in that bind during the 2017 summer by not trying harder to extend Draisaitl before his breakout 2016-17 season. Maybe a lack of contract year motivation would have meant a slightly less dominant Draisaitl that year, but smart teams lock up core players earlier rather than later.

It’s a consideration that could be particularly important for the Oilers when it comes to Jesse Puljujarvi.

After this past season, the Columbus Blue Jackets look shrewd (rather than bold) for taking Pierre-Luc Dubois as the third pick of the 2016 NHL Draft over Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi’s been moving in and out of the NHL early in his career, generating 12 goals and 20 points in 65 games with the Oilers in 2017-18.

That’s a letdown, yet it may also be an opportunity for the Oilers to save money, for once.

If Edmonton expects Puljujarvi to make huge strides going forward, they’d be better off trying to sign him to a team-friendly contract this summer, rather than waiting to see what happens. Ideally, Edmonton would either save money with a “bridge” contract or keep his cap hit at a reasonable clip by handing out the sort of term that looks brilliant in retrospect.

Determining that the Finn can take big steps forward instead of floundering like, say, Nail Yakupov, comes down to the judgment of Edmonton’s staff. That’s the scary part, but they either need to start getting these things right or step aside for someone who can.

***

Theoretically, more decisions could be coming for the Oilers.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins never seems far from trade rumors, though it’s a relief for Edmonton anytime they abstain at this point. With Cam Talbot‘s contract expiring after 2018-19, the Oilers must eventually figure out if his past season was an aberration or if they eventually need to find a new goalie.

So, yes, there are some deeper questions on the horizon for Edmonton, which opens the door for them to sink or swim.

History teaches us that they might be better off treading water, so it’s probably for the best that they’re just floating along this summer.

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.

Yakupov takes disappointing career to KHL

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When the Edmonton Oilers made Nail Yakupov the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, they expected him to become an impact forward almost right away. Not only did that not happen, but he was barely able to last six seasons in the NHL.

On Tuesday morning, it was announced that Yakupov had signed a one-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.

The 24-year-old’s NHL career got off to a promising start, as he was able to put up a respectable 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13. Only Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle had more points for the Oilers that season. But things went downhill after that.

In his sophomore year, he had 11 goals, 24 points and a minus-33 rating in 63 games. Throughout that season, there was plenty of chatter about Yakupov already not being in Edmonton’s plans anymore. He was made a healthy scratch early in the year and things just fell apart after that.

He returned to the Oilers the following year, but he accumulated just 14 goals and 33 points in 81 games. Clearly, that’s not enough for a player who was selected first just two years before that.

In 2015-16, his final year with Edmonton, Yakupov had eight goals and 23 points in 60 contests.

In October of 2017, the Oilers were able to get prospect Zach Pochiro, who’s spent most of his pro career in the ECHL, and a conditional third-rounder from St. Louis in exchange from the Russian winger.

It didn’t take the Blues long to figure out that this gamble wasn’t going to work out. During his only year in St. Louis, Yakupov netted three goals and nine points in 40 games. Again, effort appeared to be an issue at times.

Finally, last season, he ended up signing with the Colorado Avalanche after the Blues decided not to tend him a qualifying offer. Yakupov was regularly scratched toward the end of the season. He ended up with nine goals and seven assists in 58 games. Those numbers aren’t pretty.

All in all, he heads to the KHL with 62 goals and 74 assists in 350 career NHL games.

If he can put together a solid campaign in the KHL, there might be some interest in North America because he’s still relatively young. An NHL return doesn’t seem realistic right now, but stranger things have happened.

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.

What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out?

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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.