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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.
Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 New York Islanders.
1. Can they do it again?
After losing John Tavares and not really doing anything significant to replace him on the ice expectations were understandably low for the 2018-19 Islanders. They ended up shattering all of them, made the playoffs, advanced to the second round for the second time since 1993, and were one of the biggest surprises in the league.
The question, then, is obvious: Can they do it again and build off of that success?
The most shocking part of the turnaround was that the Islanders went from being the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in just one season. That is where the question of sustainability comes in. While it is easy to point to Barry Trotz and his defensive system as the cause of the turnaround, the reality is the Islanders were blessed with an outstanding goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss that masked a lot of flaws. Can Greiss repeat his performance? Can Semyon Varlamov stay healthy enough and be good enough to match what Lehner did? If the answer to those questions turns out to be no, it could put a pretty significant dent in the Islanders’ ability to prevent goals.
This season will be a big test for just how much Trotz’s system and approach really improved the Islanders because they are bringing back largely the same team, except with a potentially lesser goalie.
It was a good thing for the Islanders that they were so good defensively last year because their offense was not particularly good. They finished the regular season 22nd in goals scored, 29th in shots on goal per game, and 29th on the power play. Among the 16 playoff teams no team was worse in those same areas.
What did the Islanders do to address that this offseason? Nothing.
They did manage to retain all of their top free agent forwards (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle) but they did not add a significant piece from outside the organization while several teams around them in their own division made significant additions.
There is reason to believe Mathew Barzal can have a bigger season, and that will certainly help. But Valtteri Filppula‘s 17 goals walked out the door in free agency and it seems possible, if not likely, that Casey Cizikas will regress after a completely unexpected 20 goal performance.
3. Will this be Josh Ho-Sang’s year?
One thing that could really help the Islanders’ offense? Josh Ho-Sang putting everything together and becoming a regular in the lineup. Ho-Sang’s young career with the Islanders has been a tumultuous one to this point as he’s never fully gained the trust of any of his coaches (or the organization as a whole) despite having a ton of talent and potential.
His offensive skills have never been in doubt, and he’s actually produced at a pretty solid rate at the NHL level. He has 24 points in 53 career games, a per-game average that comes out to around 37 points over 82 games. It may not seem like an eye-popping number, but keep in mind that only four Islanders recorded more than 37 points last season, and Ho-Sang has produced those numbeers despite getting limited minutes in his brief NHL action.
But his all-around game has never seemed to develop enough for the organization to fully commit to him. He just re-signed on a one-year contract on Monday and can not be sent to the American Hockey League without passing through waivers, so this is probably a make-or-break year for him with the Islanders.
The Toronto Maple Leafs entered this offseason with possibly the toughest to-do list of any NHL team, and while the biggest challenge still awaits in signing RFA star Mitch Marner, GM Kyle Dubas deserves at least a B+ for his efforts.
You can bump Dubas & Co. up to an A depending upon taste, and certainly if you’re grading on a curve in considering that every other NHL team was well aware of Toronto’s predicament. Some teams managed to exploit those issues for their own gains, while some still managed to sucker themselves. Either way, mostly strong work so far.
Thursday presented the latest round of moves surrounding that pivotal Marner push, as the Maple Leafs signed Alex Kerfoot to a sensible extension and … meh, at least only signed Cody Ceci for one year? (Not trying, at least outwardly, to merely flip Ceci again and seek a cheaper alternative puzzles me, but maybe Toronto has internal data that argues that Ceci is better than people realize?)
While Nazem Kadri was a better luxury, getting Kerfoot at just $3.5M per year, with some term, is pretty nifty by my eyes. Maybe those eyes have been re-adjusted by the Montreal Canadiens giving marginal defenseman Ben Chiarot that same $3.5M AAV, but I’d wager that Kerfoot will at least be as valuable as his cap hit, if not deliver as a nice bargain.
Leafs sign Alex Kerfoot to 4-year deal. Playing mainly with Tyson Jost & Colin Wilson last season, Kerfoot did well in the circle & was an active puck retriever in the defensive zone. He averaged over half a point / game but likely won't start nearly as often in the OZ with TOR. pic.twitter.com/bgEUFfMqQn
It fits in wonderfully well with two very reasonable re-signings from earlier this summer, as the Maple Leafs took Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson off the docket, getting cost certainty and also avoiding the threat of other teams trying to poach them. For all the talk of Marner possibly signing an offer sheet, the bigger worry might be that an opposing team would instead make it uncomfortable for Toronto to keep mid-level, useful young players. Instead, Dubas got them re-signed, and likely at below market value, even if you take RFA statuses into account.
SIGNING Leafs: Kasperi Kapanen, $3.2M x 3 years ; Andreas Johnsson, $3.4M x 4 years
That’s a fairly hefty price for Toronto to pay, especially since contending teams could conceivably take care of some of the strain of top-heavy contracts by getting quality (or just stopgap) production from players on entry-level contracts.
Luckily for Dubas, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to burn another first-rounder to get rid of Zaitsev’s lengthy, challenging contract. Instead, he was able to package Zaitsev in a deal for Ceci, who will cost the same $4.5M AAV in 2019-20, with the difference being that Ceci’s deal lasts for one year, while Zaitsev’s albatross hangs around through2023-24. It’s true that the Maple Leafs also had to part with Connor Brown in that trade, but, overall, that’s a comically Maple Leafs-friendly deal, considering how toxic Zaitsev’s contract is.
(The Senators not getting a higher-level return for taking on Zaitsev is, well, a nice reminder that, as much as that team’s plight stems from owner Eugene Melnyk, Pierre Dorion’s also made some rough judgment calls in recent years.)
Speaking of shrewd, I quite enjoy some of the low-risk, medium-reward moves by Toronto. Jason Spezza‘s $7.5M cap hit made things downright awkward at times in Dallas last season, but at $750K, Spezza could be a sneaky-steal. Nick Shore’s an under-the-radar analytics darling, too, to the point that I was surprised that he had to sign in the KHL last season. (Too under the radar, I guess.)
It’s a little tricky to estimate precisely how much cap space the Maple Leafs have left for Marner, as you can see from this Cap Friendly tweet.
With @DarrenDreger reporting that both Kerfoot (4x$3.5M) & Ceci (1x$4.5M) signed, we now show the #Leafs with $3,765,301 projected c/space, with a roster of 23 (13F/8D/2G)
Toronto being where they are still leaves them vulnerable to an offer sheet on Marner, with these two compensation ranges (via the NHL) being the most relevant:
More than $8,454,871 to $10,568,589 — two first-round picks, one second-round pick and one third-round pick
More than $10,568,589 — four first-round picks (can be spread over five-year period)
Each offer sheet possibility would be interesting. An offer right under that $10,568,589 mark would at least make things a little uncomfortable. If a team wanted to push things into the stratosphere, they could also go well over $10.57M.
Under most circumstances, you’d expect the Maple Leafs to match a Marner offer sheet, yet that doesn’t mean that another team wouldn’t want to really put Toronto in a tough spot.
Theoretically, at least. It’s also plausible that teams a) don’t want to waste their time if an offer sheet wouldn’t work, b) winced at the reaction Marc Bergevin received, c) fear retribution if their big-ticket guys become eligible for offer sheets, or d) all of the above.
Overall, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were Dubas. They’ve mostly walked that tightrope with skill, and could really settle this offseason if Marner just wants to hash things out.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see at least some lane to put Toronto in an uncomfortable spot, as the other dominoes have mostly fallen. Could a team try to push the salary up above that $10.57M mark, which might mean that Toronto would have to trade a nice player such as Zach Hyman ($2.25M) to make the pieces fit? Could a team go very high AAV for three years, so Marner’s deal would overlap with possibly needing to give Frederik Andersen a raise, as the goalie’s team-friendly $5M cap hit dissolves after 2020-21?
The Maple Leafs eased concerns about other players by getting Kapanen and Johnsson locked down, so if there’s any chance Marner just wants to get this over with, I’d be inclined to hammer a deal out.
That statement should neatly summarize the notion that, chances are, the Maple Leafs will struggle with salary cap headaches for the duration of their window of contention, if not longer.
As we’ve seen with teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins, it’s difficult to avoid making mistakes, although Toronto will surely hope to avoid trading Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin-type gaffes, or … doing whatever it is the Penguins think they’re doing right now.
We won’t get the Maple Leafs’ full grade until we see how they handle the final exam that is the Marner situation, but judging by this summer school salary structure session, they’ve been honor students so far.
Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.
No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.
Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.
With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.
These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.
Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers
It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”
The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).
They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.
What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.
Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.
His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.
He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.
At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.
There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.
It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.
Other than that, things are pretty good.
If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.
Really, really, really good.
Championship contending good.
The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.
But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.
The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).
Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.
Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.
Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.
Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.
No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.
Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.
Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets
He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.
It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.
Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.
Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?
Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).
The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.
Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.
Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres
This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.
The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.
Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I dolike it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.
But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?
The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.
Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.
This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.
Winning an NHL Draft Lottery should attach a rocket to your team’s hopes, especially when you land that top overall pick even though you don’t have the best odds.
Yet, Taylor Hall‘s been here plenty of times before, so forgive him for not looking at a draft lottery win as a cure-all. Instead, through his time seeing the Edmonton Oilers, and now the New Jersey Devils, landing unexpected No. 1 overall picks, Hall’s name has been associated more with memes (also: “the trade is one for one”) than with being one of the best wingers in the NHL.
They talk about Gretzky’s 92 goals or Sittler’s 10 pts in one game as records that may never be broken. But winning 5 draft lotteries in your first 9 years in the league? In 2 different draft lottery eras, no less. That is a record that will stand forever.
The Fourth Period’s Dave Pagnotta created a stir with a report that mentioned that “as of now,” Hall isn’t interested in signing a contract extension with the Devils, which he would be able to do by July.
In a way, you almost wonder if a light bulb was going off over Taylor Hall’s head as he watched Kawhi Leonard’s situation play out with the Toronto Raptors. Despite being an excellent scorer and player basically since his first NHL game, Hall’s only been to the playoffs once, and that was thanks to his Herculean Hart season where he dragged the Devils into the 2018-19 postseason. Why shouldn’t Hall wait and see if the Devils can actually contend before signing away his rights to hit the open market? As Hall’s agent Darren Ferris mentioned, some players only get one chance to truly sign the contract they want with the team they want to play for – without the artificial bindings of RFA status, and without the aging curve limiting their demands. Hall deserves to explore his options as much as just about anyone else, so it only makes sense that the Devils would need to be really convincing to lock him up for what would could be the rest of his prime.
Got to be smart to take advantage of being lucky
The thing is … the Devils should be aggressive to improve, even if Hall’s $6M cap hit wasn’t expiring after 2019-20.
While Hall’s Oilers blundered despite winning multiple draft lotteries, the Devils should view Jack Hughes’ or Kaapo Kakko’s rookie deal as a window of sorts. You can compete beyond that potential three-year entry-level contract, but you’ll never enjoy savings like these again with whoever the Devils pick first overall on June 21.
The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup of their current era (in 2008-09) when Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were in the final year of their rookie contracts, and made it to the previous Stanley Cup Final in the last year of Sidney Crosby‘s rookie deal.
The Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup of their run (in 2009-10) during the final year of rookie contracts for both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
The Toronto Maple Leafs could still compete for years thanks to the bounty of talent they’ve accrued, yet the 2018-19 stings a bit extra because it represents the end of those rookie contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
So, really, the Devils have two directives to get aggressive during this offseason. First, adding more talent can show Taylor Hall that they’re serious about competing, after Shero’s (wisely) taken the slow-and-steady approach before. Secondly, with Jack Hughes/Kaapo Kakko, the Devils could have a difference-maker on a limited contract for three seasons.
Yes, Shero must be cognizant of future decisions. Along with Hall being up after 2019-20, Nico Hischier only has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, Sami Vatanen is also entering a contract year, and Kyle Palmieri‘s bargain $4.65M cap hit expires after 2020-21.
But, for the most part, the Devils boast as close to a clean slate as you can hope for in the modern salary cap era, and now is the time to really start taking advantage.
Trades, free agency … offer sheets?
While the free agent route is fascinating and more straightforward (is Newark close enough to New York for Artemi Panarin?), Shero can also get creative.
The Devils have three second-rounders and two third-rounders to go with their normal choices in the 2019 NHL Draft, so Shero could use those picks to swing trades for roster players or try to move up in the draft.
Maybe just as tantalizingly, the Devils’ bounty of 2019 NHL Draft picks could also make them more comfortable with the idea of forking over picks to go the offer sheet route. What if the Devils presented Hall with the opportunity to play with, say, Hughes/Kaakko, Hischier, and Mitch Marner or Brayden Point in the future?
Admittedly, offer sheets are a “believe it when you see it” proposition in the risk-averse NHL. Still, the Devils are one of the teams that are best situated to make such a move, as they have the cap space, the urgency to improve, and the requisite picks to hand over a challenging offer sheet.
(All About the Jersey’s CJ Turturo has a fantastic deep dive on offer sheets and how they relate to the Devils, which also understandably emphasizes that it’s an unlikely route.)
Don’t get me wrong; it makes sense that Devils fans might feel a little frightened here. There’s the nightmare scenario where Hall leaves the Devils for nothing, much like what happened with John Tavares and the Devils’ buddies on Long Island.
But, really, this situation should give the Devils another push to be aggressive – and maybe even creative – to get better, fast. Even if Hall isn’t a part of the longer solution, the Devils were gifted with the No. 1 pick, and should take advantage of the significant competitive advantage you can enjoy in competing while key players are on entry-level contracts.
Instead, it’s for the man behind the plan to bring in players like Marner. The Maple Leafs handed Brendan Shanahan a six-year extension as team president (and alternate governor), which means that extension runs through 2024-25.
It’s easy to get lost in the particulars of the contract squabbles involving Marner and William Nylander, and two straight postseason defeats to the Boston Bruins, and forget that the Maple Leafs have come a long way since bringing in Shanahan in April 2014. The team’s press release does a nice job of quickly summarizing that success:
The 50-year-old native of Mimico, Ontario first joined the club in April 2014. Since then, the Maple Leafs have earned three consecutive playoff berths (2016-17 through to 2018-19), while recording their most points in a single season (105 in 2017-18) and consecutive 100-point seasons (2017-18 and 2018-19) for the first time in franchise history.
The “Shanaplan” involved bringing in Mike Babcock as head coach and convincing Lou Lamoriello to come aboard, and then eventually pass the torch as GM to Kyle Dubas. During that time, the Maple Leafs have made some significant moves, most notably landing John Tavares in free agency.
Of course, the biggest tests lie ahead.
The Maple Leafs must solve the riddle of the Marner contract situation, and the salary cap crunch that is likely to result. Who will they trade to make room for the bigger names, or will this situation demand that the Maple Leafs trade a big name to make it work? Dubas likely carries the heaviest burden in making all of that work, but Shanahan’s almost certain to have some say, even if it’s more of a big picture outlook.
Dubas did what he could to squash rumblings about Babcock’s future, explaining that the Maple Leafs “are all in on Mike, and Mike is all in on us.” Still, the perception is out there that the head coach and GM diverge on some key matters when it comes to running a hockey team, and those rumblings will grow louder during every inevitable rough patch in 2019-20, and possibly beyond.
Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe also hovers in the background, in part because he might buy into Dubas’ vision more than Babcock, but also because other NHL teams might try to snatch him up as their next head coach.
So, basically, Shanahan faces difficult challenges both on the ice with cap management and behind the scenes with managing people. This has largely been a success when it comes to rebuilding a lump of clay (or worse) into a consistent playoff team, yet it’s arguably even more difficult to make the leap from “good” to “great.”
There could be many more growing pains along the way, but overall, it’s easy to see why the Maple Leafs have so much faith in Shanahan, and the Shanaplan.
(We might be getting to the point where it’s time to retire Shanaplan, though, as great as that word splice is.)