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Deep playoff push could mean big money for these Islanders

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Greed can sometimes be a good motivator in sports. So, for all we know, the lure of new contracts might just drive the New York Islanders during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Players in contract years made a significant impact in the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Robin Lehner carried over momentum from his outstanding regular season, making 41 saves. Jordan Eberle shook off bad memories of a rough postseason past with the Oilers to generate a goal and an assist. Brock Nelson had a goal, too.

As Game 2 nears on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Livestream), consider these players with extra motivation … including some who can’t even sign extensions yet.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

UFAs with much to gain or lose

Lehner, 27, expiring $1.5M cap hit: You won’t see a better example of a player taking full advantage of a “prove it” contract, and Lehner may only add to his earning power if he can nullify the Penguins’ firepower during Round 1.

Eberle, 28, expiring $6M cap hit: After scoring 25 goals and 59 points during his first Islanders season in 2017-18, Eberle’s numbers dropped quite a bit to 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Those are acceptable, but not impressive stats, maybe slightly influenced by playing in a very defensive-minded system. Few players can gain or lose as much money as Eberle might during this postseason, as a hot 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs might make a suitor (or the Islanders) forget about a so-so regular season.

Anders Lee, 28, expiring $3.75M cap hit: When Lee was a surprising name on top snipers lists, many attributed his success to merely playing with John Tavares. That criticism lost steam in 2018-19, as Lee scored 28 goals and 51 points. He’ll get a raise starting next season, it’s just a matter of by how much.

Brock Nelson, 27, expiring $4.25M cap hit: Nelson has generated 20+ goals in four of his last five seasons, and generated 19 during the one he fell short (in 2017-18). His 25 goals this past season fell just short of tying a career-high, while Nelson did indeed set a new career-best mark with 53 points, ranking third on team scoring. Both Nelson and Lee are big forwards who can score, so they can drum up some serious interest if the Islanders balk at their asking prices.

Valtteri Filppula, 35, expiring $2.75M cap hit: Filppula’s been a picky shooter for a long time, yet even by his standards, 2018-19 season was a one where he made his shots count. His 17 goals came with a 21.8 shooting percentage, so that puck luck and his age make Filppula a buyer beware. Another great value signing for the Isles this season, though.

Technically not as pressing, yet …

Mathew Barzal, 21, rookie contract ends after 2019-20: For obvious core players of Barzal’s ilk, you really have two contract years, as the Islanders could theoretically sign Barzal to an extension as early as July — if he wants to. Barzal probably would at least like to wait a while and see how much money RFA forwards such as Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Brayden Point rake in, so he may be more prone to let it ride.

Still, with the heartbreak the Islanders went through with John Tavares, maybe they’d push a little more for an early extension? It would be a big PR win, and there’s always the chance that Barzal would value the peace of mind of getting that out of the way.

A strong postseason would give him yet another strong talking point to ask for big dollars, whenever the two sides really hammer out a deal. Barzal’s off to a strong start, after all.

[Barzal already showed the poise of a veteran in Game 1]

Thomas Greiss, 33, $3.33M cap hit through 2019-20: No offense to Greiss, but the Islanders would prefer not to see him in net anytime soon.

Yet an offensive explosion from the Penguins, or an injury to Lehner could very well force Greiss into action. While he has term next season, Greiss has to be thinking about his future, at least to some extent.

After all, his chances of getting another contract changed dramatically over the last year. In 2017-18, Greiss suffered alongside Jaroslav Halak on an Islanders team that allowed the most goals in the NHL. One year later, Greiss posted nearly identical numbers to Lehner as the two combined to allow the fewest goals in the NHL.

A prolonged Islanders run could plausibly require contributions from both of their goalies after outstanding regular seasons, and that could also drive up Greiss’ earning power. It’s tough to imagine Greiss getting an extension being that he’s already 33, but who knows?

***

Naturally, hockey players are motivated during any postseason, not just when they’re in contract years. Even so, it’s probably human nature to get that little extra push when your future is uncertain, and that thought could make the above Islanders even more exciting to watch than they already would be.

Islanders-Penguins Game 2 from Nassau Coliseum will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Livestream)

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.

Jeff Skinner won’t rush decision on re-signing with Sabres

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — As much as he enjoyed his season with the Sabres, forward Jeff Skinner isn’t going to rush into deciding whether to re-sign with Buffalo or pursue free agency following a career-best 40-goal year.

”No, I haven’t made any decisions. It’s a big decision, and it deserves a lot of thought, a lot of reflection on both parts, I think,” Skinner said Monday, when Sabres players cleaned out their lockers two days after closing the season by missing the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year.

”It’s going to take some time and it’s not going to happen in the first couple of days,” he added. ”But yeah, to answer your question, I like it here, I love it here. I like the guys. I like the city and I had a great time.”

The question, as it was when Buffalo acquired Skinner in a trade with Carolina in August, is whether the two sides can reach an agreement on a new deal before the ninth-year player is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in July.

They have been in talks since January, with both sides saying negotiations are still ongoing.

Aside from searching for a new coach after Phil Housley was fired on Sunday, re-signing Skinner is considered the Sabres’ top offseason priority in the team’s rebuilding plans and bid to appease a frustrated fan base. Buffalo finished 27th in the overall standings and closed the season winning just 16 of its final 57 games.

General manager Jason Botterill on Sunday said there remains what he called ”a 100% chance” of Buffalo re-signing Skinner.

”I can understand where fans are coming from. He’s a fun player. He’s an entertaining player,” Botterill said. ”I think the relationship for both sides, for the player and the team, has been a positive one. That’s why we’re trying to find a resolution.”

Skinner became Buffalo’s first player to score 40 goals since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09, and he finished third on the team with a career-high-matching 63 points in 82 games.

He was particularly productive when playing on Buffalo’s top line centered by Jack Eichel. The two combined for 68 of the Sabres’ 226 goals this season.

Eichel would love to have his linemate back, while acknowledging the decision is up to Skinner.

”The nature of the business is Jeff Skinner has to, at this time, worry about Jeff Skinner,” Eichel said.

”Obviously, we love Skins. I love Skins,” he added. ”I mean, we want him in this room just as much as you guys do. He’s really close with the guys. He adds a great dynamic to our team.”

Skinner enjoyed playing in Buffalo in part because it’s closer to his hometown of Toronto. That allowed family and friends to watch him play more frequently by making the two-hour drive to Buffalo as opposed to flying to Raleigh, North Carolina.

On the downside, Skinner has yet to make the playoffs in nine seasons, since being drafted in the first round by Carolina in 2010.

”It’s tough to really put a firm percentage on it. I think for me, I want to win,” Skinner said when asked how much making the playoffs factors into his decision.

And yet, Skinner went on to mention how much he believes the Sabres are headed in the right direction and spoke of how much he wants to help the team next year.

Skinner played down how often he has included himself when referring to the Sabres beyond this season.

”I’m a Sabre. I feel any interview I go through during the season, I think it’s a ‘we.’ That’s just the way it is,” he told The Associated Press.

”I mean, I don’t think it changes,” Skinner said, referring to his pending decision. ”It needs to be given the thought it deserves, the reflection it deserves. And that’s what we’ll do going forward.”

NOTE: Two people with direct knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that former Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan is a candidate to replace Housley. The people, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the Sabres are not releasing details of their search, said there is no timetable on how long it will take for Buffalo to complete the process.

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

Is there easy fix for Panthers’ continued woes?

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The Florida Panthers should be a lot better than this.

After a nearly miraculous second half surge to close out the 2017-18 NHL season that brought them to within a single point of a playoff spot, the Panthers went out over the summer and added another top-line scorer in Mike Hoffman to a team that already had a pretty good, and extremely affordable, core of high-end forwards in place.

Those forwards are good. Really good.

Aleksander Barkov, still only 23 years old, is one of the game’s best all-around players, and even though his peers around the league view him as underrated, he should be considered a star in the eyes of everyone.

It is not just him that excels at the top of the lineup.

Between Barkov, Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov, the Panthers currently have four of the NHL’s top-45 point producers, including two of the top-20 (Barkov and Huberdeau), with all of them signed to contracts that can definitely be described as “team friendly.”

All of them are signed through at least the end of next season, with none of them counting more than $5.9 million against the salary cap. Those are well below market contracts for what they produce.

That quartet also does not include Vincent Trocheck, a bonafide 25-30 goal, 60-point winger when healthy, and Frank Vatrano, who is already scored 23 goals this season. Add those two in and there is what should be the makings of a contending core in place that has also give the organization (and will continue to give them) plenty of salary cap flexibility to build around them.

Despite all of that, the result this season has been a significant step backwards as they play out the string in what will be yet another lost, forgotten season for a franchise that has known nothing but lost, forgotten seasons for almost its entire existence. The 2018-19 season, when it mercifully wraps up in south Florida, will be the 20th time in their 25 year history that the Panthers have missed the playoffs, and the 16th time over the past 18.

In a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs every year, that is a stunningly depressing run of futility that is made even more frustrating in the short-term because of how much high-end talent there actually is on the roster.

Things have seemingly hit rock bottom over the past week — and emphatically so — with a trio of ugly losses that has seen the team give up seven, seven, and six goals. It is a stretch of games that finally resulted in Trocheck reaching his breaking point on Tuesday night following the latest drubbing, this one at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

“Structurally we can’t give up — I feel like five of their six goals were let them have as much room or as much time as they wanted. Three of their goals were right down the slot or in front of our net,” fumed Trocheck. “It’s just laziness. Not doing your job. It’s just unacceptable to leave our goalies out to dry the last three games, to let up that many goals in three games is an absolute embarrassment.”

When asked what exactly was going wrong with the defensive breakdowns over these past few games, he continued.

“It’s just not paying attention to our system,” he said. “We’re getting away from our system. Somebody is trying to do somebody else’s job, you’re duplicating on guys, and whenever you duplicate obviously someone is going to be open and in the NHL they are going to find that open guy. They did, especially in the first, and that is what leads to goals against. Then it seems like we get down two goals like we did the past couple of games and we let off the gas and we just kinda quit. It’s embarrassing. It’s extremely embarrassing. Every single guy in here should be embarrassed the past three games.”

Harsh words, but not entirely wrong words, either. The defensive structure and commitment to it has been bad, and when you add in sub-par goaltending on top of it you are going to have the type of problems the Panthers currently have.

So how do they fix it?

First, it is never a good sign for a coach when you’re on your way to a second straight non-playoff season behind the bench and one of your top players is talking about how the team “kinda quit” and that they can’t stick to the system. Especially when there is a three-time Stanley Cup winning, high-profile coach just sitting out there without a job right now that also happens to have a history of working with the team’s current general manager and having success.

Second, as laughable as it might be to say about a franchise with the recent track record the Panthers have, there is something to be said for patience when it comes to some of the players on the roster. Specifically the players at the top of the roster.

For years the Winnipeg Jets continued to commit to the same core of players that produced the same mediocre results in the standings year after year. It would almost be a constant running joke every season about how inactive the Jets were from a roster standpoint and never did anything to change things. But they knew the players at the top (player like Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele, etc.) were not the problem. They were good, and they stuck with them and waited for the right complementary pieces from within (and a franchise player at the top of the draft in Patrik Laine) to come along and make it so they were no longer being wasted.

Could they have accelerated the timeframe to becoming a contender by maybe being more aggressive in some areas (like finding a new goalie)? Absolutely they could have. But the point is they didn’t sacrifice the players that weren’t a problem in the name of “changing culture” or “changing the mood in the room” or whatever it is bad teams do when they trade their few good players for pennies on the dollar.

They stuck with them, eventually added the right pieces around them, and are now being rewarded with a Stanley Cup contender that is led by those same core players.

In other words, unless somebody absolutely blows their doors off with a trade offer there is literally zero reason to even consider moving the likes of Barkov, Huberdeau, or Trocheck.

Instead, the focus needs to continue to be adding around them because this should still be a core they can win with.

Given how cheaply some of them are signed, combined with the fact they shed some big money in future years by trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two expiring contracts, the Panthers have put themselves in a position to be major players in free agency and ownership seems to have a willingness to spend to the cap this summer. As it stands right now, the Panthers are projected to have around $17 million in salary cap space to play with which could make them the favorites to land pretty much any free agent they wanted.

Speculation for months has centered around the Columbus duo of forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Panarin obviously does nothing to fix the team’s defensive shortcomings, but it also wouldn’t hurt to add another top scorer to the lineup. Bobrovsky is an even trickier situation because even though they need an upgrade in net, they already have two big-money goalies on the roster and for as good as he has been throughout his career you can not ignore the fact signing any soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to the type of contract he would demand on the open market is going to carry some significant risk.

One thing is for certain, though, and that is things have to be shored up defensively.

Maybe that starts behind the bench.

Maybe it has to be a focus on defenders in free agency.

Maybe it is a goalie, whether it is Bobrovsky or somebody else, because for as good as Roberto Luongo has been throughout his career he is starting to finally lose the battle with father time.

Maybe it has to be a combination of all three.

With Barkov, Huberdeau, and a healthy Trocheck the Panthers have some of the most important — and hardest to acquire — pieces in place when it comes to building a contender. With them in place it should not take a full-scale rebuild or total teardown to get to where they want to be.

It is possible to get there quickly if the right pieces are added around them.

A perpetually mediocre team like the Jets was finally able to do it around their core of players.

With money to spend and salary cap space at their disposal this summer, we are about to find out if this current Panthers’ front office is able to do it as well.

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.

Success of Senators’ rebuild depends entirely on Eugene Melnyk

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The Ottawa Senators’ teardown is all but complete. Now the building back up has to begin.

On Monday, general manager Pierre Dorion traded the last meaningful remnant of a roster that was one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final not even two full years ago when he sent Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights. It was a huge trade that could significantly alter the Western Conference both, now and in the future with Stone agreeing to new terms on a contract in Vegas, and gave the Senators what should be one of the biggest pieces of their rebuild in stud defense prospect Erik Brannstrom.

That trade followed the other pre-deadline deals that saw them send Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a collection of draft picks and prospects that will be used for this massive overhaul of the organization. Together, all means that in under two years the Senators have now parted ways with Duchene, Dzingel, Stone, Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, and Mike Hoffman. That Turris-Duchene trade also included what will be this year’s first-round pick … which will almost certainly have the highest odds of being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

It has to be a brutal time for Senators fans because not only was that the foundation of a team that was on the threshold of a championship (literally one goal away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final!), but because there is no real hope for short-term success. We saw that play out on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. when what is left of the Senators’ roster was just completely and totally steamrolled by the defending champions.

[Related: Golden Knights win Stone sweepstakes, agree to extension]

There is going to be a lot more of that the rest of this season, and probably even into next season.

What is even more troubling is long-term outlook could be potentially bleak as well because no one really knows how this rebuild is going to go.

The Senators have tried to be transparent with their plans (sometimes uncomfortably so) and they do have some intriguing pieces to build around.

Keeping their 2018 first-round pick (fourth overall) over the 2019 selection as part of the Duchene trade could prove to be disastrous if it ends up being the No. 1 overall pick, but they did get a really good player in Brady Tkachuk out of it. He has flashed top-line potential this season and looks like a keeper.

Thomas Chabot has also been a positive development this season and stepped in admirably to, as best he can, replace what the team lost in Karlsson on the blue line. He has been one of the league’s most productive defenders this season and after all of the trades is the leading scorer — by a wide margin — of the remaining players on the Senators’ roster. He figures to be the centerpiece of the rebuild along with the recently acquired Brannstrom.

Dorion could not say enough positive things about his newest top prospect, referring to him as a “star” and also saying it “was a long day, but we did something good for the Ottawa Senators today.”

If Brannstrom develops as the Senators hope he can, they should have the makings of a dominant defense pairing with him and Chabot.

Even though they lost the chance to potentially land Jack Hughes this season, they still managed to get back a first-round pick (and maybe a second next year) as part of the Duchene trade and now have 27 draft picks over the next three years, including five in the first two round of the 2020 draft. From a pure hockey standpoint they have at least tried to put a foundation in place to potentially build something. They still have to make the picks, and they still have to develop them into NHL players, and they still have to hope players like Tkachuk, Chabot, and Brannstrom become the star-level players they are anticipating they will become.

But what is truly going to make-or-break this rebuild is one man, and one man only — owner Eugene Melnyk.

He recently outlined an aggressive spending plan that, in his words, will lead to an unparalleled run of success that will feature the Senators spending to the league’s salary cap every year from 2021-2025. That would line up with what would be the peak years for players like Chabot, White, Tkachuk, and Brannstrom and leave the door open for the team to be aggressive in free agency or in trades.

On paper, it all sounds like a great plan. But it has to actually happen in the real world for any of it to matter.

Here is why it is hard for me — and why it should be hard for Senators fans — to just blindly accept that it is going to happen.

First, the Senators under Melnyk haven’t shown anything close to a willingness to do that in recent years, even when the team was good. They have consistently been well below the league’s salary cap for the past decade, even when the team was good and a playoff team.

Second, we just watched them send out two homegrown All-Stars in Karlsson and Stone, one of which is probably the greatest player the team has ever had and one of the best players ever at his position, because they could not convince them — or were unwilling to match their salary demands — to re-sign.

If you, as an organization, are not willing or able to pay up to keep players like them, then why should we be confident the team will be willing to keep a player like Chabot, or Brannstrom, or Tkachuk in the future if they become the players the Senators hope they will become?

The answer is you shouldn’t, because actions speak louder than words, and all of the recent actions of this organization suggest this is just going to be a never-ending cycle where the Senators look more like a farm team for the rest of the NHL than any sort of legitimate championship contender.

MORE: Senators’ owner outlines aggressive spending plan

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.

Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

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By John Wawrow (AP Sports Writer)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Skinner knows how much the Sabres and their playoff-starved fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” the forward memorably said with a laugh in December. ”I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

And yet, two months later, Skinner is nowhere closer to providing anything resembling a definitive answer regarding where he’ll be playing once his contract expires after this season.

”The present is still where we are, and that sort of thing will play itself out,” he said Thursday. ”I think there’s no point in really talking about it now because there’s nothing really to talk about from me on my end.”

Skinner, however, can’t hide his emotions when asked how much he enjoys Buffalo.

His eyes brighten and he breaks into wide, toothy smile in saying: ”I like it here. Yeah, I like it.”

Cast off by Carolina as part of the Hurricanes’ latest rebuilding plan, the three-time 30-goal-scorer and 2011 NHL rookie of the year is approaching career-best numbers since being traded to the Sabres in August.

He has a team-leading 34 goals – three short of matching a career high – and is second in the NHL behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (38). His seven game-winning goals are second in the NHL and most in Buffalo since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. Skinner has been so consistent, his longest goals drought was four games to start the season.

And he and captain Jack Eichel have been inseparable on a top line that’s played a significant role in keeping Buffalo in playoff contention in a bid to end a seven-year postseason drought, and on a team that finished last in the overall standings in three of the previous five years.

Despite going 11-15-5 since a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres (28-21-7) already have 63 points – one more than they had last season – and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

The topic of Skinner’s future is once again rising to the forefront with the NHL’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 25, and after Skinner was spotted having a lengthy conversation with his agent, Don Meehan, following a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

”To me it was just checking in,” Skinner said, referring to the meeting. ”No details to discuss. Nothing really to report.”

As for the approaching trade deadline, Skinner shrugged and said: ”I don’t think about it at all.”

It remains unlikely the Sabres will consider trading Skinner by Feb. 25.

General manger Jason Botterill told The Associated Press in December he didn’t consider that date as being a deadline for contract talks. And there has been no indication – publicly or privately – that Botterill’s stance has changed since.

Botterill has maintained regular contact with Meehan, and has said he wants Skinner to focus on playing and familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. What bolsters Botterill’s hopes is noting how Skinner chose to play in Buffalo by waiving his no-trade clause in a deal the Hurricanes acquired prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks.

Eichel laughed when asked if he’s aware of Sabres fans campaigning for Skinner to stay.

”He has how many goals, 34?” Eichel said. ”I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, would they want him to leave?”

Eichel’s certainly on board, too.

”I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM, but he’s been a big part of our team this year,” he said. ”You could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

It will ultimately be up to Skinner to decide.

One positive is how much the Toronto-born player has enjoyed playing closer to home, and having his family attend games in Buffalo (essentially a two-hour drive) as opposed to Raleigh, North Carolina (roughly a two-hour flight).

Coach Phil Housley noted Skinner’s proximity to home and family has provided incentive. And it helps playing alongside Eichel.

”Jeff finds that open area, he’s a positional player, and Jack seems to find him in those areas,” Housley said. ”They just seem to have a great chemistry together.”

Skinner must also weigh what offers he might command in free agency at a time more teams are spending less in free agency and committing more salary cap-space to re-signing their own players.

All that can wait.

”As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things,” Skinner said. ”For us right now, that’s moving on to tomorrow’s game and getting ready for that.”

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