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.
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.
You can make a case for a ton of New York Islanders for the latest installment of “under pressure.”
Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts with a lot of money to gain or lose depending upon how they play, with no guarantee that they’ll be with the Islanders after this season (or even following the trade deadline).
Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz both have secured impressive, lengthy resumes of work in the NHL, yet their work with the Islanders will make an impact on their legacies regardless.
Robin Lehner probably has the most to win or lose overall, and could face a serious degree of difficulty, especially if Trotz can’t fix what was very much a broken Islanders defensive system from last season.
There are a number of factors that make this both a lot of pressure and a high-degree-of-difficulty challenge.
Lehner received just a one-year, $1.5 million contract to prove himself. The Islanders didn’t make much of a commitment here, so it’s up to Lehner to show that they should bring him back.
On a similar note, the Islanders don’t have a ton of incentive to keep throwing Lehner out there if he flames out, or merely struggles early on.
As much as Lehner stumbled during his final season with the Sabres, Thomas Greiss was even worse in 2017-18. That said, goalies are a difficult lot to forecast, so you never know if Greiss might put it together and land the top job.
(Consider how the Jets invested in Steve Mason last summer, only to see Connor Hellebuyck pass him totally by. It’s unlikely that Winnipeg expected Hellebuyck to be a Vezina finalist and expensive signing, yet that’s how the situation played out.)
Clock ticking, at least as a No. 1.
Lehner, 27, is running out of time and excuses. The edgy Swedish goalie has already played in 219 regular-season games (generating a solid-but-not-world-beating .915 career save percentage), and the Islanders rank as his third team. He hasn’t converted opportunities to the types of transcendent moments you want to see from a No. 1 goalie, as he’s appeared in just 49 minutes of playoff hockey during his career.
None of this is to say that Lehner is a failure, or cannot be a starting netminder.
After all, he was fighting off Craig Anderson in Ottawa before joining a Sabres team that has been abysmal for quite some time. Blaming Lehner totally is pretty silly with all of that in mind.
On the other hand, there are only 31 starting goalie jobs in the NHL. If Lehner flounders in 2018-19, he might not get a chance to land the top job at this level again, at least not for a while.
Getting adjusted to a new city, team, arena, and fan base is a lot for any player. It must be especially tough for a goalie, particularly since the Islanders could really struggle next season. Lehner may be asked to save the day on a regular basis, which isn’t the most reasonable request even for established starters.
If Lehner shines, he could easily sign a robust contract. When a team believes it’s identified an answer in net, they almost always lock that guy up for multiple years and big dollars.
Falling short could suspend Lehner in limbo. He’ll enter his second consecutive contract year, depriving Lehner of the security pro athletes almost always crave.
Overall, this is a make-or-break year for Lehner, with a ton on the line.
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.
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.
Burakovsky: "The Islanders just gave us a lot of room to skate on from the beginning. I mean, my first three shifts, I was skating around and around and around with the puck and making plays. We didn’t really expect that out of them."
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 Eberle – Ryan 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.
Oliver Wahlstrom, W, 18, US NTDP – 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.
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).
Summer summary: If your main complaint about the Hurricanes was about the franchise getting too stagnant – considering that they’ve missed the playoffs since being swept from the 2009 Eastern Conference Final – then the team has you covered. Ron Francis is out as GM, making way for Don Waddell. Rod Brind’Amour replaced Bill Peters as head coach. And the team will look different on the ice, too.
Cam Ward‘s finally gone, with Petr Mrazek coming in with the hopes of supporting Scott Darling after a disastrous first season as Carolina’s would-be No. 1 goalie. To avoid introducing too much change, Carolina maintained its status as analytics darlings by adding solid defenseman Calvin de Haan to an increasingly impressive group.
More to do?: The Hurricanes come into 2018-19 with a ton of cap space and an anxiousness to break the playoff drought, so you wonder if they might want to jump in, say, the Max Pacioretty sweepstakes.
That said, perhaps Jeff Skinner gets traded? The talented skater is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes might not want to cough up a new contract, so we’ll wait and see there.
Where they stand: In a familiar place, seemingly on the precipice of a breakthrough, yet also with serious questions about goaltending.
(The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?)
The Hurricanes boast quite a bit of talent, but also a lot to prove, especially with a new coach and Hamilton stepping in as a prominent new defenseman. Will they fall short of the hype once again?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Summer summary: Generally speaking, the most prominent talk about changes in Columbus revolve around next summer.
Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are entering contract years, and Panarin in particular seems to be a tough nut to crack. The Blue Jackets might feel the need to trade Panarin rather than seeing him walk for nothing (except cap space) in free agency. It’s a disquieting situation, as Panarin showed signs of being the difference-maker the Blue Jackets have lacked ever since they climbed into relevance.
Columbus did make some nice low-risk, medium-reward plays, though. Anthony Duclair is an interesting addition considering his bargain rate, and Riley Nash could be a savvy pickup, too.
More to do?: Again, sorting situations out with Panarin and “Bob” should keep the Blue Jackets very busy.
Not much has been made of this, but Cap Friendly pegs their space at about $5.63 million, and that’s with an overstuffed roster. If the Blue Jackets decide to just roll the dice in 2018-19 and then let the pieces fall how they may when it comes to Panarin, maybe they’d be wise to try to land an expiring contract? Skinner, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Karlsson all could conceivably push this team over the top.
The Blue Jackets could justify a vacation before things pick up, generally, as most of their concerns are more forward-thinking.
Where they stand: No doubt, it must be beyond frustrating for Columbus to see the Stanley Cup winner come out of their division for three seasons in a row, yet they still haven’t won a single playoff series as a franchise. Such frustrations clearly boiled over when Torts beefed about Jack Johnson‘s perceived slights while joining the hated Penguins.
New Jersey Devils
Summer summary: If you count Taylor Hall winning the 2018 Hart Trophy, this was a solid-enough summer for the Devils.
New Jersey deserves credit for restraint, more than anything else, this off-season. Sure, it would be great to continue adding key pieces, as they’ve done for multiple summers now. Still, plenty of franchises overreact to an unexpected postseason surge by making reckless, shortsighted investments.
Instead, the Devils allowed Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, and John Moore walk rather than possibly giving them problem contracts. GM Ray Shero clearly prefers maintaining flexibility for the moments when he might be able to land another asset in a winning trade. Can you blame him?
More to do?: Unless the Devils are lurking on another big deal, it’s mostly smaller stuff, like signing RFAs Miles Wood and Steve Santini. It might not hurt to start battering around potential extension offers with Will Butcher, though, as he’s on a deal that expires after 2018-19.
Where they stand: Hall provided a Herculean effort to get the Devils into a surprise spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To make a repeat appearance, he’d almost certainly need to be as good or better this season.
New Jersey heads into this campaign as an underdog once again, yet there’s quite a bit to like about what the Devils are cooking. They still need some help behind Hall to really scare other teams, though.
New York Islanders
Summer summary: *Cough* oh dear, this is awkward.
So, the Islanders began the summer on a relatively strong note. They enjoyed one of the best weekends at the 2018 NHL Draft and brought in Lou Lamoriello as GM, who then hired a reigning Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz. Pretty, pretty good.
All of that crumbled, of course, when John Tavares decided to leave the Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lamoriello responded to that rebuke by clogging up an already expensive bottom-of-the-order with a blah contract for Leo Komarov, a mediocre signing in Valtteri Filppula, and trading for Matt Martin. Yikes.
At least their moves in net might help stem the tide in that regard. Jaroslav Halak‘s turbulent era is over, as volatile (but occasionally brilliant) goalie Robin Lehner comes in to compete with Thomas Greiss and others.
More to do?: The Islanders need to think long and hard about trading some valuable players entering contract years rather than risking losing them altogether, or signing them to deals that could end up being a waste of money. (Sometimes it’s better just to commit to a rebuild instead of taking half-measures.)
Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all see their current deals expire after 2018-19. Trading one or more of those useful forwards could give the Islanders’ rebuild another big boost.
Where they stand: Look, the dark times have outweighed the peaks for Islanders fans for decades now. Asking for patience won’t be the easiest sell.
That said, with a budding star in Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have a chance to – in a way – get the Tavares situation right this time. They merely need to look around their division to see teams that landed premium prospects in multiple drafts, made some smart moves on the periphery, and yes, enjoyed some good fortune to turn things around.
Finishing at or near the playoff bubble year after year did them very little good.
New York Rangers
Summer summary: Around trade deadline time, the Rangers embraced a rebuild much like the Islanders arguably should. They took another step in that direction by replacing polarizing head coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn. The Rangers’ logic all seemed sound here.
Still, as an “it” destination for free agents, there might have been a temptation to, say, throw a bunch of money at Ilya Kovalchuk as the latest quick-fix.
(After all, the Rangers have been seduced by headline-grabbing moves essentially since Glen Sather started chewing cigars at MSG.)
Instead, they stood pat, and time will tell if they made the most of three first-rounders and six picks within the first three rounds.
More interesting questions loom around some other players. Would the Rangers consider shopping beloved winger Mats Zuccarello, who’s entering a contract year and might not want to stick around for a rebuild considering he’s already 30? Also, if Artemi Panarin favors a market like New York, would the Rangers be able to move closer to competing close to 2019-20? Management needs to answer questions like these.
Where they stand: This team seems fairly transparent about pivoting for at least one season. Credit management for seeing the writing on the wall, though 2018-19 could be painful to watch as a result.
It’s fascinating to wonder how Henrik Lundqvist truly feels about all of this, and how many times he’ll snare victory from the jaws of defeat (maybe to the Rangers’ short-term detriment).
Summer summary: Spending $35M over five years is a bit pricey to be called a “mulligan,” but either way, the Flyers brought back James van Riemsdyk after getting hosed in the Luke Schenn trade. GM Ron Hextall’s M.O. mostly revolves around being patient and either trading away lousy deals or letting them evaporate with time, so it should be fascinating to see how an old-fashioned, big-money Flyers signing works out in a more … stable era.
More to do?: Somewhat like Columbus, the Flyers’ biggest concerns rest on what to do after 2018-19.
Wayne Simmonds is due a big raise, and it’s plausible that JVR is penciled in to be his replacement. Both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are entering contract years, so the Flyers’ perpetual goalie questions seem likely to continue. Ivan Provorov’s about to enter the final year of his rookie deal, too.
Clearing up those situations – eventually – will play a big role in Philly’s future.
Where they stand: The Flyers are already translating promise to tangible results. Hyped players like Provorov are producing as advertised.
So it seems like the Flyers have “good” more or less locked down. The next step ranks as one of the toughest mountains to climb in sports: going from good to great. There’s a solid chance that the Flyers can make that leap, but it won’t necessarily be easy.
Summer summary: After falling short of a three-peat, the Penguins made some interesting choices.
The key subtraction was Conor Sheary while it seemed like the team’s machinations went into landing Jack Johnson. By just about any metric (beyond “third pick of the 2005 NHL Draft” and “Sidney Crosby‘s friend”), Johnson isn’t particularly effective. The Penguins’ front office obviously believes otherwise, and their off-season basically comes down to exchanging Sheary, Matt Hunwick, and others for Johnson.
More to do?: Pittsburgh doesn’t have any free agents left to deal with, but there are some pressing issues after this coming season. The biggest wild card is that Jake Guentzel is scheduled to become an RFA after his rookie deal expires. What to pay a player with solid stats in the regular season, but most noticeably, generating an excellent 42 points in 37 playoff games?
There are other smaller questions. There were also strange rumors about Phil Kessel being shopped (hot take: they probably shouldn’t do that). But, generally speaking, the big picture for Pittsburgh is the status quo.
Where they stand: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice in a row, then finished last season in the second round. Despite such an impressive run, Pittsburgh seems poised to contend once again, as they still have Crosby, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray.
There’s always concern about hitting a wall, though, particularly since the Penguins’ core players have so much mileage on them between deep postseason runs, international play, and in many cases a decade-plus of intense NHL play.
Crosby and Kessel are 30; Malkin and Letang are both 31. The Penguins’ window should still be open, probably for a while. Even so, fates can turn on a dime in sports. There’s always the chance that this talented group slips.
Summer summary: The summer … you mean, one long hangover for the Capitals? After years of frustration, Alex Ovechkin & Co. won it all after it seemed like the best opportunities went out the window. Repeating won’t be easy, but it’s probably the No. 1 problem the Caps always wanted to have.
The Capitals saw some losses, though smaller than you might expect from a team that just won the Stanley Cup. Jay Beagle was well-liked, but ranks as an expendable “energy guy,” while Brooks Orpik left and then returned. The toughest loss is Philipp Grubauer, an excellent backup receiving his chance to transition into a top guy with Colorado. If Braden Holtby stumbles in the regular season again, the Capitals’ grip on the Metro crown may finally loosen.
Overall, Washington did a nice job keeping players at a reasonable clip, including somewhat unexpectedly managing to retain John Carlson‘s services. Rather than falling into the trap of giving playoff heroes way too much money, the Caps generally leveraged the “we just won” factor to sign Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly to perfectly reasonable contracts.
Of course, the biggest change of all ranks as quite unusual. You don’t see coaches leave teams they won Stanley Cups with very often (Mike Keenan comes to mind; Jimmy Johnson in the NFL), yet that is exactly what happened with Barry Trotz. Todd Reirden faces the tough task of attempting to repeat as a rookie head coach.
Interestingly, Washington might actually be in a halfway-decent spot to try to land a premium rental. While Wilson will eat up a significant chunk of the available space, Cap Friendly puts Washington’s room at about $6.27M right now.
Where they stand: They’re the defending champions and they didn’t lose a major piece of their roster. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Capitals won: they have two fantastic centers, the world’s most lethal sniper, a reliably excellent goalie, and some other very nice supporting cast members to buoy their chances.
Like their BFFs in Pittsburgh, there’s concern about the aging curve, though both teams are more likely to worry about tougher days on the horizon rather than next season.
Still, it’s worth noting that Ovechkin is 32, Nicklas Backstrom is 30, and T.J. Oshie is somehow 31. They aren’t ancient by any stretch, but some players hit the wall sooner – and harder – than others.
Considering the victory parade that may stretch (unofficially) through the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Capitals see a slight dip through the dog days of 2018-19. It’s most likely that they’ll place themselves in a strong position to defend their title once the games start to matter quite a bit more.
Three weeks after the New York Islanders added Lane Lambert to the coaching staff, another familiar face will be back working with Barry Trotz.
Mitch Korn, the goatending coach who’s worked with Trotz in both of his previous NHL stops in Nashville and Washington, has been hired as Director of Goaltending to improve an area that’s hindered the Islanders over the last few seasons.
After joining the Washington Capitals in 2014, Korn moved into the same role before last season, citing the need to cut back his work schedule.
“My job is to take what you do best, and have you continue to do it best. And what you may not do well, I’ll help you either fix it or hide it,” he told Yahoo Sports in 2014.
Korn and new goalie coach Piero Greco will have some work to do with Thomas Greiss, Robin Lehner and Christopher Gibson as the options in net for now. The Islanders allowed the second-most goals (190) at even strength in 2017-18 and had a team even-strength save percentage of .917, per Natural Stat Trick.
Over the years Korn has worked with a number of goaltenders who have received Vezina Trophy praise, including Braden Holtby, Pekka Rinne and Dominik Hasek. While the Islanders’ current crop of ‘tenders may not be in Vegas next June awaiting to hear their name for the Vezina Trophy, there’s a safe bet to be had that there will be at least some improvement in that department with the new faces in charge.
Greco’s hiring meant that former goalie coach Fred Brathwaite has moved on. With Luke Richardson joining Claude Julien’s staff in Montreal, Kelly Buchberger taking over head coaching duties with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans and the dismissals of assistants Greg Cronin and Matt Bertani, that leaves leaves assistant Scott Gomez as the only holdover on staff from last season.