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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.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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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.

2017-18:

35-37-10, 80 pts. (7th Metropolitan Division; 11th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

 IN:

Robin Lehner
Leo Komarov
Matt Martin
Valtteri Filppula
Tom Kuhnhackl

 OUT:

John Tavares
Calvin de Haan
Jaroslav Halak
Shane Prince
Nikolai Kulemin
Alan Quine
Chris Wagner

 RE-SIGNED:

Thomas Hickey
Ryan Pulock
Brock Nelson
Ross Johnston
Christopher Gibson
Devon Toews

This off-season could very well stand as the most pivotal in the history of the New York Islanders, a team that’s been in the NHL since 1972.

(Deep breath) naturally, the move that towers above them all is a franchise-altering relocation, as John Tavares opted to sign with the Maple Leafs rather than sticking with the Isles.

Such a rattling decision would already make this summer one of big changes for the Islanders, yet while that was the main course, there were plenty of other crucial changes.

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

After a brutal 2017-18 season from a defensive standpoint, the Islanders seemed to be the only franchise to offer reigning Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz a deal within range of his market value. It would be tough to believe that Trotz won’t be able to provide the structure that the Islanders sorely lacked under Doug Weight, who was relieved of his duties.

Former Devils and Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello ended up making the decision to replace Weight, and also stripped such powers away from Garth Snow, who certainly received plenty of opportunities to put his stamp on the Islanders during 12 years as GM.

The Islanders struggled mightily in their own end, and were often porous in net, with the greatest measure of blame being a chicken-or-the-egg argument. How bad were their goalies, versus how vulnerable were they made by a Swiss cheese defense?

Either way, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss struggled mightily in 2017-18, putting up the sort of save percentage stats that only would have been endearing during the Islanders’ dynasty era, when sub-90-percent was generally the standard. (Today it’s … uh, not.)

While Greiss stands as one of the NHL’s immovable goalie contracts, Halak is now out in favor of former Sabres starter Robin Lehner. It’s a one-year deal for Lehner, so he ranks as one of the leading wildcards for the Islanders.

As grim as it might feel to look at many facets of the Islanders’ season and summer, there are some good sides.

Most obviously, it sure seems like the Islanders unearthed another star center, one they’ll hopefully surround with better talent than Tavares enjoyed. Mathew Barzal took the NHL by storm last season, generating 85 points on his way to winning the Calder Trophy, the most generated by a rookie of the year winner in more than a decade.

Barzal supplemented all that substance with oodles of style.

For all of Snow’s struggles as GM, Barzal ranked as just one of the examples of his shrewd moves.

The trade that landed the Barzal pick looked like another punchline for the Islanders over Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, something that was accentuated by the Isles winning the Jordan EberleRyan Strome deal. Chia wasn’t the only person who maybe shouldn’t have taken Snow’s calls, as the Travis Hamonic trade looks like another victory for the Islanders, as it helped them land successive promising-looking picks during the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft (more on them in a moment).

The mixture of good and bad is dizzying, although it may also be crucial to soothe some of the agony that comes from losing a foundational talent like Tavares.

Can Trotz and Lamoriello lead this franchise out of some dark days? We’ll begin to find out in 2018-19.

Prospect Pool:

  • Oliver Wahlstrom, W, 18, US NTDP – 2018 first-round pick
  • Noah Dobson, D, 18, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Islanders selected Wahlstrom at 11th overall and nabbed Dobson one pick later at 12, impressing critics with each pick, as you could argue that both could have gone earlier. It’s likely a matter of debate regarding which player should have been selected first, not to mention if Dobson or Wahlstrom actually ranks as the top Isles prospect.

The similarities end there, aside from both being 18.

Wahlstrom is touted as a potential 30-goal scorer in the NHL. He’ll get a year of seasoning with Boston College in 2018-19, but whenever he makes the jump, Wahlstrom is expected to be a lethal sniper who can bring some other nice scoring skills to the table.

Oh yeah, he also generated quite a sensation at age 9.

Dobson, meanwhile, ranks as one of the most promising defensive prospects once you get beyond Rasmus Dahlin and Quinn Hughes. Dobson scored 17 goals and 69 points during a smashing 67-game season in the QMJHL, so the production was certainly there for the intriguing blueliner.

At least two outlets have compared Dobson to Blues star Alex Pietrangelo.

  • Ilya Sorokin, G, 23, CSKA Moscow (KHL) – 2014 third-rounder

It remains to be seen when the Islanders could even coax Sorokin to the NHL, as he’s under contract in the KHL for quite some time. Regardless, he ranks as one of the team’s most important prospects, as the Islanders clearly need an answer in net.

Sorokin’s shown promise overseas, generating no lower than a .929 save percentage in KHL competition since 2014-15.

Consider Josh Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows as the lead Islanders prospects who should be considered “honorable mentions,” at least if you still label Ho-Sang as a prospect (as he’s enjoyed quite a few – though not quite enough – NHL reps).

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 kill buzz of winning streak by demoting Ho-Sang

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Look, Josh Ho-Sang isn’t a perfect player, but he makes the NHL more fun. And, if deployed properly, probably makes the New York Islanders a more dangerous team.

Apparently generating four points (all assists) in six regular-season games didn’t make up for Ho-Sang’s flaws, at least in the eyes of Islanders management, as they sent the gifted, outspoken forward to the AHL today.

For someone without a real horse in the Islanders’ race – i.e. someone who enjoys the sport as a whole – this is a real bummer, especially with the Isles otherwise trending up with three straight wins and victories in four of five contests.

It’s not as clear-cut when you consider things from the Islanders’ perspective, though (even if, personally, Ho-Sang seems like he’s worth the trouble that comes with some risky plays).

To some, this is another step in the maturation process, and the Isles’ winning ways – sometimes with the forward in street clothes – makes this a reasonable opportunity.

There are others in the middle: understanding the Islanders’ perspective, but frustrated that the franchise won’t try to tweak things to make the most of an interesting talent.

You can find the silver lining of situations like these, yet in some ways, such viewpoints feel like they lose sight of blurrier bigger pictures. It’s a lot like trying to rationalize Dylan Strome being demoted; yes, there are some reasons things might work out, but there are also some worrisome elements regarding how the Islanders view Ho-Sang and develop prospects, in general.

While Ho-Sang isn’t perfect, it could end up being quite frustrating for Islanders fans to watch more marginal players do very little for their team (but maybe slip under the radar compared to Ho-Sang).

Selfishly, it’s most clearly a loss from an entertainment standpoint, so here’s hoping we see Ho-Sang again soon.

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.

Ho-Sang/reason returns to Islanders’ lineup

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One can quibble about a flaw or two in a young player’s game, and NHL coaches certainly seem to focus on those errors, sometimes arguably while giving low-ceiling grinders a pass.*

Such decisions go from “frustrating the nerds” to irritating a wider range of a fan base after losses. Fair or not, that’s the nature of the beast.

So you can bet that there were some New York Islanders fans’ who went from irritated when Josh Ho-Sang was a healthy scratch for their season-opener to irate when the Columbus Blue Jackets dominated the Isles 5-0.

Ho-Sang might not have the same ceiling, but seeing Artemi Panarin dazzle with his creativity likely twisted the knife deeper.

Well, whether an injury to Cal Clutterbuck is the catalyst or not, Ho-Sang is back in the Islanders’ lineup as they take on the Buffalo Sabres tonight.

This is a delight not just for Islanders fanatics, but hockey enthusiasts at large, as Ho-Sang is one of those players who brings a little art to this fast, violent game.

Now, as much as Islanders fans are frustrated with Ho-Sang’s scratch, they can at least find company in such misery.

Really, the Vancouver Canucks scratching Brock Boeser is even more head-scratching than number 66 sitting for the Islanders, as Boeser stands as one of the few players some Vancouver fans look forward to seeing.

There also might be some sadness for Edmonton Oilers fans who wanted another glimpse of Kailer Yamamoto, although Oilers fans don’t have much to complain about these days.

Just looking at the New Jersey Devils running rampant with rookies, you wonder if some NHL teams are giving up precious points by being too afraid to hand the keys over to their more talented (and yes, maybe riskier) players.

The Islanders would be wise to keep Ho-Sang in their mix going forward.

* – As a reminder, Dan Girardi, for all the hustle-love he gets, made this blunder last night.

Joshua Ho-Sang a healthy scratch for Islanders opener

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Interesting lineup decision for New York Islanders coach Dough Weight when his team opens the 2017-18 season on Friday night.

Forward Josh Ho-Sang, one of the team’s best young players, will be a healthy scratch when the team hosts the Buffalo Sabres.

Veteran forward Jason Chimera will be in the lineup in his place.

Weight has said this preseason he is not afraid to give ice-time to the team’s younger players, and to an extent that seems to be true as Matthew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier will both be in the lineup on Friday.

The fact that Ho-Sang is the odd-man out, though, is a little surprising given how strong of a preseason he had and how promising he looked last season in his limited look with the big club, recording 10 points and a 52 percent Corsi rating in 21 games while also playing an extremely exciting brand of hockey.

The 38-year-old Chimera played in all 82 games for the Islanders a season ago scoring 20 goals.

Defenseman Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are also healthy scratches for the Islanders on Friday.