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Islanders look to keep improving in second year under Trotz

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — The New York Islanders know about the moves other teams in the Metropolitan Division made in the offseason. It just doesn’t matter to them.

After finishing second in the division and reaching the second round of the playoffs, the Islanders return mostly the same roster and are confident they can be successful again in the second year under team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz.

”You look at our division, and you talk about teams definitely got better,” forward Jordan Eberle said Thursday at media day. ”The additions they made, sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. The nice thing with our group, we know what to expect. It’s just a matter of putting in the work, playing the right way.”

Thanks to a defensive-minded system in Trotz’s first year with the team, the Islanders finished second in the Metropolitan at 48-27-7. They followed that with a four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs when everything seemingly went their way. After a 10-day layoff to start the next round, nothing went New York’s way as the Islanders couldn’t rediscover their scoring touch and were swept by Carolina.

”I don’t think you ever really get over it,” captain Anders Lee said of the series loss. ”You learn from it and you take away from it what you can, but it’s always going to be there.”

The Islanders pursued forward Artemi Panarin in free agency to bolster the offense, but he decided to sign with the crosstown-rival Rangers. Still, the Islanders retained most of their own free agents, including Eberle, Lee and Brock Nelson

”I am not a believer in change for the sake of change,” Lamoriello said. ”We looked at our team and we felt the players that we wanted to bring back we were able to do that. … We’re happy with the people we have right now.”

After a different head coach in each of the previous three training camps, the Islanders have some continuity this year. They know what to expect with Trotz and look to replicate what they did well last season.

More things to know as the Islanders head into their first on-ice sessions on Friday:

GOALIES: One big change was made in goal, with the addition of veteran Semyon Varlamov to replace Vezina Trophy finalist and fan-favorite Robin Lehner. That gives Thomas Greiss his third goalie partner in three seasons. Greiss and Lehner were solid all season, sharing the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league.

Greiss enters the final year of his contract with Ilya Sorokin’s move from the KHL a possibility next season. Greiss was 23-14-2 with five shutouts, a .927 save-percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in 43 games last season. In four seasons with the Islanders, he is 85-51-13 with 10 shutouts, a .916 save-percentage and 2.69 GAA over 162 games.

Varlamov, who has started all but 17 of 448 games he’s appeared in over his 11-year career with Washington and Colorado, is coming off a 20-19-9 season with two shutouts, a .909 save-percentage and 2.87 GAA in 49 games for the Avalanche.

EYES ON DOBSON: A strong team defense was the Islanders’ blueprint last season, and they return seven defenseman in Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Devon Toews. Noah Dobson will get a long look in camp, but is a long shot to make the roster – barring a major injury or trade involving one of the entrenched top-seven in the unit.

”There’s a lot of good defensemen,” Boychuk said. ”So it’s just the competition, pushing each other to be the best we can.”

Toews had a strong camp a year ago, but began the season with Bridgeport of the AHL before being called up in December. If the 19-year-old Dobson, selected 12th overall in the 2018 NHL draft, doesn’t make the opening-day roster, he must be sent back to juniors.

WAITING FOR BELMONT: The Islanders will be entering the second season of an expected three-year arrangement to split home games between the Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center while a new arena is built at Belmont Park. The target start is the 2021-22 season.

Construction at the new site hasn’t begun, and the town of Floral Park filed a lawsuit this week to stop the project. However, Lamoriello was confident the arena will be built on time.

”My understanding is … everything is on schedule,” Lamoriello said. ”I have total confidence it will be there when they say it will be.”

Signing depth players long-term is usually losing move for NHL teams

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The Nashville Predators’ decision to sign Colton Sissons to a seven-year contract earlier this week certainly raised a lot of eyebrows around the NHL.

As PHT’s James O’Brien argued immediately after the signing, the salary cap hit is pretty reasonable and it might even be a decent value right now.

But it’s the salary cap that puts every contract in the league under a microscope. Teams only have so much money to spend, and every dollar they spend on one player is a dollar they do not have to spend on another player. Every dollar counts, especially if you a contending team that is probably going to be spending close to the cap. Mistakes and misevaluations matter, and if you get caught with too many of them at once it can have a negative impact. Because of that, teams need to make sure they are using their limited amount of money in the most efficient way possible, properly prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t, and the players that are worth committing to.

Traditionally, teams have mostly avoided long-term commitments to players that are not top-line players. This is especially true among teams that win and go deep in the playoffs. I say “mostly avoided” because there have been several instances outside of Nashville where teams have given lengthy term to depth players. The New York Islanders signed forwards Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck to five-year deals, and third-pairing defender Scott Mayfield to a seven-year deal. The Detroit Red Wings have Justin Adbelkader and Darren Helm on five-plus year contracts. The Kings gave Kyle Clifford a five-year deal several years back. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Brandon Tanev a six-year contract this summer to play in their bottom-six after giving Jack Johnson a five-year contract one year ago.

Those are just a few examples of players that are currently under contract.

The question, though, is why teams would ever want to do this.

The answer is simple: By giving the player more term and more individual long-term security, it brings the salary cap hit down a little and helps the team in the short-term. But is that extra savings worth the long-term commitment to a player that may not retain their value over the duration of the contract?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

One thing that has stood out about recent Stanley Cup winners and contenders is that pretty much none of them have had long-term commitments (five years or more) to players that played regularly outside of their top-six forwards or top-four defenders. It is practically unheard of. Identifying consistent lines and who is a “depth” player is a mostly inexact science. Coaches change line combinations constantly over the course of a season and a player’s role within a team can be a very fluid situation. For this, I simply tried to use even-strength usage as a way to identify a player’s spot in the lineup.

The table below shows the past six Stanley Cup winners and the players they had signed to contracts of five years or more in the years they won the Stanley Cup. Players highlighted in yellow were signed for six years (or more) at the time of the championship. Take a look at the names and see if you can identify a trend … they are almost all top-line players.

The only players on that table that were not either a starting goalie, a top-six forward, or a top-four defender are Olli Maatta with Pittsburgh in 2016-17 (he was top-four in 2015-16) and Mike Richards with Los Angeles in 2013-14 (he signed that contract in Philadelphia when he was a first-line center, and was a second-line center upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 2011-12).

I also looked at every team that made at least the Conference Finals in those seasons and found only five instances where a depth player was signed for more than five years. And even they have some asterisks next to them because they were at least signed with the intention of being more significant parts of their team.

  • Alex Killorn, signed for seven years, was outside of Tampa Bay’s top-six during their 2017-18 Eastern Conference Final run, but was in its top-six during its runs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. When he was signed, the Lightning probably figured he was going to be more of a top-line player. He has since been surpassed by a wave of talent that came after him.
  • Ryan Callahan also played third/fourth-line minutes for the Lightning during the 2017-18 playoffs but, like Killorn, played bigger roles in 2014-15 and 2016-17.
  • The Sharks had defensemen Brenden Dillon signed for five years to play third-pairing minutes 2018-19 and 2015-16 during their postseason runs
  • John Moore and David Backes (both signed for five years) were depth players on the 2018-19 Bruins.

Pretty much all of the Conference Finalists, and especially the Stanley Cup Finalists, over the past six full seasons had long-term investments in their stars and filled out their depth with younger, entry-level players and short-term veterans.

They were not giving out term to non-core players.

The problem with giving out term to depth players is that they can tend to be replaceable talents that may not maintain their current value throughout the duration of that term. You run the risk of that player regressing and not having the roster flexibility to bring in a cheaper and/or better player. If a star player ages and declines, they are still probably going to be giving you a solid return on that investment. The depth player may not, if they are even able to justify a roster spot.

Let’s take Sissons as an example. Right now he is a fine NHL player. Solid defensively, can chip in some offense, and plays a tough and often times thankless role within the Predators lineup. At around $3 million per year he is a fine investment … for now. Between the 2000-01 and 2012-13 seasons there were 14 players that were at a similar point in their development: Players that had played at least 140 games during the ages 24 and 25 seasons and averaged between 0.30 and 0.40 points per game, exactly where Sissons is right now.

Only five of those 14 players played an additional seven seasons in the NHL.

In professional sports dollars, an extra million or two over a couple of years is nothing more than a drop in the bucket to teams. But when the teams are limited by their leagues in what they can spend on players, little mistakes can quickly add up to big mistakes. The Penguins, for example, are now on the hook for $7 million over the next four years for the Johnson-Tanev duo, which is an egregious use of salary space for a contender pressed against the cap that is trying to get another Stanley Cup out of its Hall of Fame core over the next few years.

It is not just good teams, either. The Vancouver Canucks have spent the past two offseasons throwing big-money at the bottom of their roster and will enter this season with $12 million in salary cap space going to Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Myers for multiple years. The result of that is a bad team that only has $5 million in salary cap space and still needs to sign restricted free agent Brock Boeser. They are now in a position where they have to play hardball with their second-best player to get him signed, or have to make a desperation trade to clear salary cap space. It’s a headache that would have been easily avoidable had they not overspent on the bottom of their lineup.

As much as teams want cost certainty with their players and trying to secure their long-term salary cap outlook, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to commit so many years to a player that isn’t going to be an impact player or a part of your core. The value probably will not remain, and it is going to limit what you are able to do in the future. There is not a third-or fourth-line player in the league right now that is so good at what they do that it is worth committing to it for five, six, or seven years. Age will eventually catch up to those players, and when they decline it is going to hit them even harder than the decline of a star.

Commit to your stars long-term because they can not easily be replaced.

The players around them usually can be.

More NHL Free Agency:
Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year contract
Predators being bold with term, but is it smart?
NHL Free Agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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.

Rested Islanders ready to go against Hurricanes in second round

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Islanders are rested and ready to go. The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t had a chance to relax after outlasting the defending champions in a marathon seven-game series.

More than a week after finishing off a sweep in the first round, Mathew Barzal and the defense-first Islanders get set to open the Eastern Conference semifinals at home against the upstart Hurricanes.

”It was a long wait,” Barzal said. ”We’ve been practicing hard, practicing some scrimmage stuff. … We’re just anxious to get it going again.”

New York has not played since dispatching Pittsburgh on April 16, while the Hurricanes took Washington to the limit with the deciding game lasting into a second overtime Wednesday night. Now, less than 48 hours later, the teams will meet in the postseason for the first time.

Islanders coach Barry Trotz didn’t mind the layoff because it allowed some banged-up players like Cal Clutterbuck and Scott Mayfield a chance to heal. Defenseman Johnny Boychuk, however, remains sidelined for several weeks.

”We just want to play,” Trotz said. ”There might be some rust and you can’t duplicate some stuff (in practice), but I know we’re toeing to get stronger and stronger and stronger.”

The Islanders will be back at Barclays Center in Game 1 for the first time in more than two months. They split regular-season games between the Brooklyn arena, where they have played since 2015, and the Nassau Coliseum, their home the previous 43 years. The Islanders last played at Barclays on Feb. 16. Their home games in the first round were in Uniondale, but any subsequent games they host this postseason will be in Brooklyn.

Both teans are here after surprising seasons and stunning victories in the opening round. In the first year under Trotz, the Islanders used a strong defensive system, timely scoring and some stellar goaltending to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence and following the departure of former captain John Tavares in free agency last summer. New York held off Pittsburgh down the stretch to finish second in the Metropolitan Division and then quickly disposed of the Penguins.

Carolina, which missed the playoffs for nine straight years, was 15-17-5 on Dec. 30 and one point out of last place in the East before going 31-12-2 the rest of the way. The Hurricanes then won a grueling series against the Capitals, marking the first time in NHL history all four division winners were eliminated in the first round.

”The biggest challenge is going to be switching gears,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. ”We’ve been going real hard here for a couple weeks. Obviously all that emotion. To throw that away and focus on a whole new opponent, different style, that’ll be the biggest challenge.”

The teams both use a tenacious defense to try and smother opponents’ chances and generate scoring opportunities for themselves. The Islanders allowed a league-low 2.33 goals per game during the season, while the Hurricanes were tied for seventh at 2.70.

Jordan Eberle led the Islanders in the first round with four goals and two assists, giving him nine goals and three assists in his last 11 games dating back to the regular season. Brock Nelson, who had 25 goals and 28 assists during the season, scored three against the Penguins. Anders Lee (28 goals, 23 assists), Josh Bailey (16 goals, 40 assists) and Barzal (18 goals, 44 assists) also had 50-point seasons.

”They’re patient,” Brind’Amour said. ”(They) play that defensive game and when you crack is when they go.”

Warren Foegele had a team-high four goals in the first round and was tied with Dougie Hamilton and Jordan Staal – who each had three goals and three assists. Teuvo Terraivanen also scored three goals, and Jaccob Flavin had nine assists to lead the team in points.

Some things to know as the teams open the conference semifinals Friday night:

HELLO, AGAIN: Carolina’s Justin Williams and Calvin de Haan will be seeing some familiar faces in this series. The 37-year-old Williams spent two seasons under Trotz with the Capitals before returning for a second stint with Carolina in 2017. Williams had an assist on Brock McGinn‘s series-winning goal against Washington, giving him an NHL-record 15 points in Game 7s of the playoffs.

”A great leader,” Trotz said. ”And he doesn’t get small in the big moments.”

De Haan was selected by the Islanders in the first round of the 2009 draft – the same year Tavares was taken No. 1 overall – and spent the previous five-plus seasons with New York before he signed with the Hurricanes last summer.

GOALIES: Robin Lehner has taken the reins as the lead goalie for the Islanders after splitting time with Thomas Greiss during the season when the duo paired to win the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner – a finalist for the Vezina Trophy after going 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average and six shutouts – played every minute of New York’s sweep of Pittsburgh in the first round. He limited the Penguins to just six goals on 156 shots.

Carolina’s Petr Mrazek had an uneven first round, He struggled on the road, giving up 13 goals on 78 shots in Hurricanes losses in Games 1, 2 and 5, but was stellar at home while limiting the Capitals to only three goals on 74 shots in wins in Games 3, 4 and 6. In Game 7 back in Washington, he gave up three goals on 18 shots before stopping the last 19 to allow the Hurricanes to rally from two goals down.

SECOND-ROUND STRANGERS: After missing the playoffs in eight of the last 11 years, the Islanders are coming off their second postseason series win since 1993. This is Carolina’s second time in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. The Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference finals in their last time in the postseason three years later.

SEASON SERIES: The Islanders won three of four meetings, including both visits to Carolina in October. New York also won 4-1 at Barclays Center on Nov. 24, before Carolina took the last meeting 4-3 at the Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 8.

Freelance writer Denis P. Gorman contributed to this report.

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

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

Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

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The New York Islanders are still shocking the hockey world.

But at this point maybe it shouldn’t be a shock anymore.

After an incredible regular season that saw them overcome the loss of their former franchise player in free agency, go from worst to first in goals against, and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16, they are now moving on to Round 2 where they await the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes-Washington Capitals series.

And they did it emphatically.

They completed a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win that pretty much followed the script of the first three games of the series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That script: A suffocating defensive effort, some sensational goaltending from Robin Lehner, and a knack for not only being able to pounce on and convert on every Penguins mistake, but to also be able to almost immediately respond to any counterpunch the Penguins could throw.

For the third game in a row the Penguins scored first, and for the third game in a row were unable to hold the lead for more than a couple of minutes.

Shortly after Jake Guentzel scored his first goal of the series 35 seconds into the game, Jordan Eberle scored for the fourth consecutive to tie the game. Later in the period, Brock Nelson scored his third goal of the series to give the Islanders a lead they would never relinquish.

On the rare occasion where the Penguins did create a chance or put themselves in a position to potentially tie the game, they could get nothing to go their way. Late in the second period, Sidney Crosby rang a shot off the post when Lehner was out of position and looking in the other direction. On a power play attempt in the third period, Phil Kessel appeared to have an open net to shoot at only to have his shot hit the leg of Islanders defender Scott Mayfield and stay out. During their last-ditch empty-net effort, their zone time came to an end when Erik Gudbranson‘s stick broke on a one-time attempt.

That was the kind of series it turned out to be from the Pittsburgh side. They not only played poorly, but they couldn’t even get a break.

The Islanders, meanwhile, looked flawless at times in their execution in shutting down the Penguins hired powered offense and taking advantage of every opportunity.

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’ Boychuk vows retribution on Flyers’ Voracek after hit

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Johnny Boychuk made a vow to Jakub Voracek as he was skating off the ice following a devastating interference hit from the latter on Saturday night in Long Island.

“I will get you,” he appeared to mouth at Voracek, who was already in the penalty box for his early third-period transgression.

Moments earlier, Boychuk was pinching in from the point to try and win a loose puck heading in Voracek’s direction. Boychuk never made it to the puck thanks to Voracek, who saw Boychuk coming and laid some nasty interference on him.

The hit itself appeared high and Boychuk’s left shoulder appeared to bounce off the ice, causing him to lay there for quite some time as held it, grimacing in pain.

You can see the hit here and Boychuk’s reaction once he was back up on his feet being helped off the ice.

Voracek was assessed a five-minute major for interference while Boychuk never returned to the game.

Scott Mayfield went after Voracek once his time in the sin bin was up, but it instant melee that ensued mean there was no retribution. Mayfield was handed 10-minute misconduct, rendering his night over with less than 10 minutes left in the game.

The hit was unnecessary at best, with the Flyers up 5-1 in a game they’d end up winning 5-2. Of course, the counterpoint to this is Boychuk was flying in Voracek’s direction and Voracek was just bracing for impact. Either way, there’s a good chance the league takes a look at this one, given the scenario and the injury, right?

Boychuk, providing he’s healthy, will have his chance to seek vegeance as these two teams play each other on March 23 in their final meeting of the season.

UPDATE:


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