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Islanders open training camp looking to disprove doubters

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. (AP) — The New York Islanders know they are being overlooked after finishing 17 points out of a playoff spot last season and losing captain John Tavares to free agency during the summer.

That’s ok with them.

They still have plenty of scoring options, led by Anders Lee and reigning rookie of the year Mathew Barzal, and added a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz and three-time champion executive Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations.

”I think we stand in a good position to surprise a lot of people,” Lee said Thursday at the team’s annual media day. ”A lot’s been said that’s fueled us. I think the biggest fueling factor is we’ve gone home early last two years and we’ve got a lot of work to do to get back to where we want to be.”

Lee had the franchise’s first 40-goal in 11 seasons, and Barzal led the team with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists) as the Islanders finished eighth in the league in scoring with 261 goals. However, a porous defense that saw the team give up a league-worst 293 goals helped New York miss the playoffs for the second straight year and eighth in the last 11.

And with Tavares gone home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, experts aren’t giving the Islanders much of a chance to contend this season. The players, however, aren’t willing to write off the year before it even begins.

”Obviously we’re being ranked as an underdog team but we’re going to use that as motivation,” forward Jordan Eberle said. ”You look at a lot of teams that have done that in the past … if you don’t have a lot of pressure you can do a lot of good things.”

The struggles of the last couple of years cost general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight their jobs, replaced by Lamoriello – who has also taken over GM duties – and Trotz.

”They seem great, come from winning pedigrees and command a lot of respect for good reason,” forward Josh Bailey said.

The 75-year-old Lamoriello led the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup championships during his 18 years as general manager before spending the last three seasons as GM of the Maple Leafs. Trotz led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup title in June before leaving in a contract dispute.

”Look at his resume, he’s been successful everywhere he’s gone,” Lee said about Trotz. ”He’s bringing a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge that he’s going to be able to work with us and really get us to where we want to be.”

The new coach’s message is simple: focus on details and strive for improvement each day,

”We got to be hard to play against, we got to have structure, we got to have a work ethic,” Trotz said. ”And the mindset that you’re going to compete for that inch that you need, or the two inches, whatever it is, just get better every day, find a way to get better.”

With no notable additions on defense, the improvement on that side of the puck will have to come from Trotz’s system.

”It’s not as much about Xs and Os as much as it is about attitude and accountability,” he said.

Some other things to know as the Islanders head into their first practice of training camp on Friday:

NO CAPTAIN?: With Tavares gone, there is an opening for the captain’s role. Trotz, however, said he doesn’t know the players well enough yet to name one, and he may not assign anyone that mantle.

That approach is fine by the players.

”We got a lot of leaders in our room,” veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. ”As long as we win, that’s what the goal is. Everybody can be a leader at some point. … Everybody speaks up in the dressing room when the time comes.”

FOURTH LINE REUNION?: Matt Martin is back after spending two seasons in Toronto, raising speculation the Islanders could restore him to the fourth line with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas that was successful in the years before his departure.

”We got to prove that we’re still the same players and be the same line we were a few years ago,” Martin said. ”Nothing is going to be handed to us. … We got to go out there and earn it, prove it. At the end of the day we all want to win games, so whatever lines are to win games, be competitive and get in the playoffs and hopefully have a cup run.”

GOALIES: Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner go into the season as the primary goalie tandem. Greiss dealt with an injury down the stretch last year and finished 13-8-2 with one shutout and a 3.82 goals-against average.

The 26-year-old Lehner was signed as a free agent after spending the previous three seasons in Buffalo. He is coming off a year in which he went 14-26-9 with three shutouts and a 3.01 GAA for the last-place Sabres.

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

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

Three questions facing New York Islanders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

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

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

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

Well, the Islanders are sending some mixed signals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Who stays, who goes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. How will Trotz handle young players?

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHT Morning Skate: Is Auston Matthews really that good?; Could the NHL ever expand to 40 teams?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Is Auston Matthews really that good? Why, yes. Auston Matthews really is that good. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• The Edmonton Journal reacts to ESPN naming the Oilers tops in terms of their locked-in fountain of youth. (Edmonton Journal)

• The NHL has sued a beer cup make over the shape of one of its steins. (New York Daily News)

• Washington Capitals fans (and sadists in Las Vegas) and re-live Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup on DVD at the end of the month. (NHL.com)

• A look at six teams that are hard to predict for this coming season. (Sportsnet)

• Warroad in Minnesota is set to make history with the Stanley Cup’s first visit. (Grand Forks Herald)

• Chris Chelios, a legend in Chicago, is returning to the Blackhawks organization as an ambassador. (NHL.com)

• Could the NHL Ever Expand to a 40-Team League? (Vice)

• Here’s take on 10 teams that are trending in the right direction. (The Hockey Writers)

• And no list of teams going in the right direction would be complete without a list of the ones heading the opposite way. (The Hockey Writers)

• Despite some big changes in their front office, are the Minnesota Wild still in the same place? (Featurd)

• The city of Seattle could use more ice rinks. The NHL’s arrival should help with that. (The Seattle Times)

• Many people are worried about the New York Islanders after the departure of John Tavares. Johnny Boychuk and Josh Bailey aren’t among them. (Sportsnet)

• Lias Andersson should not be rushed to the NHL. (Blue Line Station)

• We featured Dustin Byfuglien in this space last week. Now, here are the top hits from Milan Lucic from this past season:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Islanders, Brock Nelson avoid arbitration with one-year deal

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One more potential arbitration case has been avoided.

The New York Islanders announced on Monday evening that they have agreed to terms with restricted free agent forward Brock Nelson on a one-year deal, avoiding what would have been an August 3 hearing.

Financial terms of the deal were not released by the team, but according to The Athletic’s Arthur Staple it will pay Nelson $4.25 million.

It sets the stage for what could be a big year for Nelson as he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, meaning the Islanders will have to deal with him, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee as potential UFA’s before next July 1. That trio represents three of their top-six goal-scorers from this past season while a fourth, John Tavares, left in free agency this summer to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nelson, originally selected by the Islanders in the first round (No. 30 overall) of the 2010 draft has spent his entire career with the organization and, if nothing else, has been remarkably consistent in his production. To this point in his career he has been a lock to play in at least 80 games and score 20 goals with around 40 points every season. With Tavares now gone and Mathew Barzal likely to take his place on the top-line, this should be an opportunity for Nelson to see an increased role in the Islanders’ lineup.

His career to this point has followed a similar trajectory, at least in terms of production and development, to Josh Bailey, where Bailey spent the first few years of his career as a 15-goal, 35-point winger before getting an increased role in his mid-20s and seeing his offensive production increase. He was able to turn that into a six-year, $30 million contract. With a one-year “prove it” deal and what will almost surely be more ice time Nelson will have an opportunity to put together a season that will allow him to cash in with a long-term deal.

Either with the Islanders or somebody else.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What’s the right contract for Tom Wilson, Capitals?

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What kind of price to put on grit, agitation, intimidation?

In the NHL, it’s something of a Rorschach Test for GMs. It’s easier to gauge the value of elite players and middle-of-the-pack guys when scoring is their calling card, but when it comes to “intangibles,” prices can vary.

Even with that in mind, Tom Wilson stands as a tricky test case.

You can tie yourself in knots examining the agitating winger, especially if you’re a Washington Capitals fan nervously hoping that the RFA signs a deal soon. Relief won’t come from the latest update, either; the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Wilson’s agent Mark Guy said that the two sides aren’t “done or close.”

Khurshudyan provides some interesting ranges for a possible contract: Guy told her that a new deal could be “north of four years,” while Washington also indicated a preference for a long-term agreement. The salary cap could fall somewhere in the $3.5-$4.5 million range, according to Khurshudyan.

With Wilson (probably wisely) opting against salary arbitration, it’s a lot tougher to guess when something will formulate.

But, hey, that gives hockey people plenty of time to bicker about his value. Back when Wilson was suspended during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert summarized the debate regarding the 24-year-old’s value.

” … He is more accurately described a middle-six forward who has been thrust into a bigger role because Barry Trotz is trying to spread the offense across the first two lines more evenly. A lot is made of the fact that Wilson finished with 32 points at 5-on-5 this season, because that was fourth on the Capitals behind only Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Nick Backstrom. But look at the guys who had that many 5-on-5 points this year: Alex DeBrincat, Dustin Brown, Gabe Landeskog, Gus Nyquist, Josh Bailey, Kevin Fiala, and Vince Trocheck. These are guys for whom a pretty reasonable evaluation is “They’re mostly pretty good,” but not much more than that, and with the exception of Landeskog and Brown, none of them played with guys who, like Ovechkin, were legit MVP candidates.

The remarkable thing about Wilson is that various debates can swing both ways.

From an “intangibles” perspective, you could argue that he can be something of a poor man’s Todd Bertuzzi, “opening up space” for forwards such as Alex Ovechkin, and maybe get opponents off their game with a violent hit or a fight. Conversely, someone could argue that his tendency to take penalties could put his team in a bad position, or perhaps that players looking to deliver crushing checks may find themselves out of position.

The pure numbers get more complicated as you burrow deeper.

On one hand, his career-high came this season, with a modest 14 goals and 35 points. While he rode shotgun with Ovechkin for significant chunks of time, he also didn’t get a lot of reps on the Capitals’ deadly power play.

Wilson’s possession stats were pretty good for a player of his style … yet again, that sometimes came with high-end players, and he also enjoyed some cushy offensive zone starts in some cases, too.

Still, a guy who can score a bit, hit a lot, and kill a ton of penalties brings quite a bit of value. As a former first-rounder (16th overall in 2012), few would doubt that the Caps hold Wilson in high regard.

The Capitals also boast a pretty robust $8.26M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, so even though they’ve been prudent when it comes to bringing back members of their championship squad, they’d struggle to say that they can’t afford to pay Wilson at full value.

*Phew*

Is your head spinning yet? That would be understandable, and maybe that explains why contract negotiations seem stilted. What kind of deal would make sense for Wilson?

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.