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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 add Robin Lehner on one-year deal

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The New York Islanders continued to make moves on Tuesday evening and finally addressed one of their most glaring weaknesses from the 2017-18 season — goaltending.

The Islanders announced that they have agreed to terms with veteran goalie Robin Lehner on a one-year contract. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed but it is reportedly worth $1.5 million.

Lehner spent the past three seasons playing for the Buffalo Sabres. He was eligible for restricted free agency this summer but was not tendered a qualifying offer, allowing him to hit the unrestricted market. It was a market that was obviously tough for goalies.

The job ahead of Lehner is not going to be an easy one. The Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams in recent NHL history during the 2017-18 season due to the combination of a porous defense (that really has not been improved at all this offseason) and a goaltending duo of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss that was not able to hold up behind it. As a result the Islanders gave up a league-worst 296 goals, completely wasting what was a top-10 offense.

Lehner is coming off of a really tough year in Buffalo but has at times shown the ability to be a solid starting goalie at the NHL level. If nothing else this is a pretty strong low-risk, potentially high-reward gamble for the Islanders.

Given the rest of the moves the Islanders have made this offseason (losing John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs; acquiring every fourth-line player they can find) this is probably their strongest one of the summer.

Will it be enough to make a difference in the standings given everything else that has happened to the roster this summer? Probably not. But they absolutely needed another goalie and Lehner is a strong gamble.

He joins Thomas Greiss as the other half of the Islanders’ goaltending duo.

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.

Sabres make solid bet on Carter Hutton

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In many cases, a free agent addition goes from sensible to senseless once you learn about the price. The truth might be the opposite with Carter Hutton and the Buffalo Sabres.

When rumors circulated about the Sabres’ interest, it seemed like there’d be some serious risk of Buffalo buying too high. After all, Hutton’s fantastic final season in St. Louis (17-7-3 with a fabulous .931 save percentage) far exceeds his overall work as a respectable NHL backup.

It turns out that the Sabres essentially paid him like one, rather than making a huge gamble that he’d be a franchise No. 1. Hutton’s three-year contract is worth $8.25 million, or $2.75M per season.

That’s not bad at all. If Hutton can be an above-average presence in net for Buffalo, this could end up being a steal.

Credit the Sabres for taking advantage of the situation, with at least one report indicating that Hutton might have left considerable money on the table to get a better opportunity with Buffalo. Take a look at Hutton’s comparables and you’ll see that he’s cheaper than Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Greiss while being only a bit more expensive than Mike Condon and Anton Khudobin.

It’s probable that Hutton’s 2017-18 work will end up being unsustainable, yet he generated a reasonably large body of work for a No. 2. Over 138 games played and 114 starts, Hutton’s career save percentage is .915. There’s quite a bit to like here.

Now, this doesn’t mean there is no risk involved.

For one thing, just about every goalie is tough to predict, so we might as well acknowledge that.

Hutton also hasn’t been a go-to guy. He went undrafted and thus had to battle for starts even at lower levels. There’s a risk that fatigue would get to him if Buffalo uses him as a workhorse.

There’s also the team in front of him. One could reasonably argue that his numbers have been amplified, at least at times, by playing for the Predators and especially the Blues. (Nashville was struggling during a portion of his stay.) Will his stats plummet if Buffalo struggles in its own end, as the Sabres have for a discouragingly long period of time?

The journeyman netminder also isn’t young. Hutton is 32, so if the aging curve hits hard, it could hurt.

So, yeah, there are some potential stumbling blocks.

Still, that price really makes this a deft signing by GM Jason Botterill. This could work out nicely if this ends up being a 1a/1b platoon situation. If Hutton’s closer to his 2017-18 self and ends up being a workhorse, it would be one of the best boons of the day.

You rarely know with goalies, but all things considered, the Sabres handled this situation extremely well.

Next up: will they hit the right buttons with Ryan O'Reilly? Chances are, we’ll need to wait until after midnight for that answer.

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.

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.

Tavares and beyond: Lamoriello has hands full with Islanders

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Let’s be honest. As important a hire as Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations is for the New York Islanders, many of us could barely even utter his name before “John Tavares” returned to the forefront of any Isles thoughts.

That’s just going to be the status quo until we find out if Tavares re-signs with the Islanders or if he ventures elsewhere and breaks thousands of hearts on Long Island.

So, there’s no sense denying the all-world elephant in the room. Lamoriello could do great work for the Islanders if, say, he decided to be full-on GM, but a Tavares departure would still make this front office move a footnote. On the other hand, things would be downright intriguing in Brooklyn if Tavares returns (whether it has anything to do with Lou or not).

As much as we’d like to accurately forecast the Tavares sweepstakes, the truth is that few truly know what will happen. Hey, it’s possible that Tavares himself might still be mulling over his decision.

With or without their best star in ages, the Islanders have a lot of work to do. In a way, it seems like Lamoriello is being asked to do a repair job much like he did with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were able to get rid of pesky contracts and add some key components under his watch.

Get the notion

During today’s press conference, Lamoriello was his usual guarded self, not revealing much about the futures of GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight.

The thing is, Lamoriello could make plenty of inferences, even from the outside.

Really, you could argue that everything starts and stops with Snow. He’s been given rare leeway for a GM considering his 12-year reign, especially considering that the Isles have only won a single playoff series with Tavares and since their glory days. (We’ll get to the messy salary structure soon.)

Snow selected Doug Weight to go from interim and then full-on head coach, and while the interim run almost included a playoff berth, the past 2017-18 season was a disaster. Sure, shabby goaltending didn’t help, but how much of that falls on Weight’s shoulders? This Andre Burakovsky quote should shake any manager to the core:

Lamoriello’s not shy about taking over the GM seat, so you wonder if Snow’s days are melting away. He cannot wait too long to make a decision about Weight, as this is the time of year when you enjoy a greater number of opportunities to find coaching replacements. What’s Dave Tippett doing these days?

(Waits for Jacques Lemaire jokes[?].)

Oh yeah, and Lamoriello also must prepare for the 2018 NHL Draft. That could be awfully interesting since the Islanders boast picks 11 and 12, with the latter choice stemming from the Travis Hamonic trade. This figures to be a whirlwind couple of months for Lamoriello and the Islanders organization.

Cleaning up

If you’re convinced the Islanders will retain Tavares and thus feel little sympathy for this team, just take a look at their salary structure at Cap Friendly. Yikes.

During his time in Toronto, Lamoriello helped the Maple Leafs jettison bad contracts from the Phil Kessel days, whether that came via LTIR loophole maneuvering (just ask Joffrey Lupul, though he’ll eventually delete his response) or savvy trades. It says a lot about Lamoriello’s skills that the Maple Leafs didn’t need to retain salary in getting rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s ghastly contract in 2016, yet the Senators were forced to eat $1.75 million of his cap hit in February.

It’s strange to see a 75-year-old executive serving as a rebuilder/repairer of franchises, particularly after he guided the New Jersey Devils for a generation, but the Isles could benefit from his “cleaning” services. There are some odious contracts, so we’ll see if Lamoriello can conjure some magic to move beyond mistakes like the deals handed to Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck.

(It turns out Lamoriello cleans up more than a team’s facial hair choices. Cue Monty Burns and Don Mattingly.)

Other calls

One rare good thing about the Islanders’ salary structure is a gimme: Mathew Barzal‘s on his rookie deal through 2019-20, so Lamoriello doesn’t even need to worry about extension negotiations during this summer. Worst-case scenario, they’ll still have at least one spellbinding star at center.

Re-signing Tavares stands as priorities one through 91, but there are other choices to make.

Brock Nelson stands out as the most prominent forward alongside noteworthy defensemen (including Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, and Ryan Pulock) who are slated for RFA or UFA statuses. There are some key players approaching contract years in 2018-19, with Jordan Eberle and underrated (and underpaid) scorer Anders Lee headlining the list. Lamoriello must mull over which players to keep, for how long, and for how much.

If Tavares’ situation is the elephant in the room, then goaltending is the massive hole in the wall.

It’s tough to imagine any team taking on Thomas Greiss ($3.33M cap hit through 2019-20) after he submarined his team’s chances a lot like Scott Darling did in Carolina, so Lamoriello’s tasked with finding ways to reduce the damage. He at least has options; the Isles might get more out of Greiss by improving the system around him (replace Weight, or hope Weight improves?) or possibly looking to a different goalie coach. Perhaps Lou would even opt for a sports psychologist?

Either way, Lamoriello must also target another goalie, whether that guy is deemed a true backup, the new starter, or a platoon partner for Greiss.

(Again, a dream scenario would be to somehow move Greiss and get better in net without losing too many other assets, yet that might require Lamoriello to actually become a wizard. Or maybe he’d just need to get Peter Chiarelli on the phone?)

***

That’s quite a brain-full, right?

The scary part is that this is a simplified version of the choices that await. Lamoriello will need to ponder the franchise’s past failures. Did poor pro scouting inspire questionable additions such as Ladd, at least at his price point? Is this team doing enough to develop its draft picks?

Lou Lamoriello faces a ton of questions, with many of them standing as challenges even for a decorated, experienced executive. In some cases, he’ll need to make some key calls soon, and it should be fascinating to learn what the future holds for the Isles.

Of course, the biggest call actually falls to John Tavares, maybe more than all of the other ones combined.

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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.