As much as the New York Islanders’ mantra was “We above me,” Lou Lamoriello’s front office continues to send a specific message: “My way or the highway.”
The demotion of Josh Ho-Sang cements such a thought process, but it’s a motto that reverberates through decisions both big and small.
One could understand why the 2018-19 season would leave Lamoriello, head coach Barry Trotz, and other Islanders people — including fans — feeling almost beyond criticism. After all, even the most optimistic onlookers didn’t see 103-point season and sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins coming.
It makes their approach to 2019-20 even more fascinating, which is saying something because it was already interesting to see if Trotz & Co. could work their magic for another year.
In the case of Ho-Sang, it’s a bit confounding to think that he wouldn’t offer more to the Islanders than, say, Tom Kuhnhackl or Ross Johnston. Then again, it’s stunning that the winger-starved Edmonton Oilers didn’t claim Ho-Sang off of waivers, not to mention plenty of other teams who could use a burst of creativity, and maybe underrated all-around play.
The past few days indicate that the Islanders aren’t really outliers when it comes to Ho-Sang, but demoting the 23-year-old in a hockey version of “Groundhog Day” is far from the boldest decision this front office made.
Instead, we’ll all be watching closely to see how the Islanders fare in net.
In 2018-19, Robin Lehner authored one of the NHL’s most stunning turnarounds, going from a Sabres castoff with personal issues to a Vezina Trophy finalist, winning the Masterton Trophy and sharing the William Jennings with Thomas Greiss, a goalie who saw an even more dramatic improvement in stats under Trotz.
You’d think that the Islanders would want to bring back the duo that combined for the best save percentage in the entire NHL, but the Islanders are instead betting big on their view of the league, the goalies involved, and above all else, themselves.
In a process that remains a little bewildering, the Islanders let Lehner walk to the Blackhawks, who signed him to a fairly low-risk deal of one year, $5 million. Instead of seeing if the 28-year-old could come close to replicating last year’s breakthrough, the Islanders are betting that Mitch Korn and Piero Greco can resuscitate Semyon Varlamov in the same way they breathed life into Lehner’s career.
[PHT PREDICTIONS: EASTERN CONFERENCE / WESTERN CONFERENCE / STANLEY CUP]
On paper, it’s almost as brave as picking the Islanders to make the playoffs last season.
Varlamov is 31, and not a penny cheaper than the younger Lehner. While both register a $5M cap hit, Varlamov’s runs through 2022-23.
While Varlamov’s enjoyed some nice peaks during his career, things have been dicey recently, for the most part. His .909 save percentage from 2018-19 left a lot to be desired, and while he managed a strong .920 in 2017-18, Varlamov’s .898 save percentage from 2016-17 was especially rotten.
It’s popular to say that “goalies are voodoo,” as the position is mystifyingly difficult to predict. Even by those standards, the Islanders are making an audacious gamble that they’re right, while others are wrong. As much as anything else, the term they handed to Varlamov is what stands out as especially … courageous. Where they took a low-risk flier on Lehner before (and the Blackhawks are doing now), they’re not getting the escape hatch with Varlamov if his 2018-19 season was a sign of bad things to come.
And, again, there’s a theme in play that the Islanders’ experienced front office of Lamoriello and Trotz can get it done, and march to the beat of their old-fashioned drums.
Then again, maybe they’re starting to see things a bit differently?
Back in June, Shayna Goldman detailed NHL front offices (sub required), listing the Islanders as one of the only teams without a dedicated analytics staffer, but a recent update paints an interesting picture.
Lamoriello’s downplayed the benefits of such mindsets before, so this alteration makes for another thing to watch.
Expectations are higher for the Islanders heading into 2019-20, yet many of the same doubts linger, especially after the polarizing decision to replace Lehner with Varlamov. Whether those choices work out, fall apart, or fall somewhere in the middle, it should all be interesting to watch.
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.