Semyon Varlamov

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Sustainability, Ho-Sang’s development are top questions for Islanders

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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.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure]

2. Who is going to score the goals?

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.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avs’ rising expectations put Bednar under pressure

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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 Colorado Avalanche.

If you look at lists of the best offseasons in the NHL, chances are, the Colorado Avalanche will be on most of them.

That’s with good reason, as this team seems ahead of the curve when it comes to making savvy improvements to their team, and they’re in an incredible position to be a force in the West, in large part thanks to bargain contracts for superstar Nathan MacKinnon, value in other parts of their roster, and young up-and-coming players who’ve maybe only shown a taste of what they can do in the NHL. Sometimes fans of teams make the error of merely seeing young players and assuming they’ll reach some imaginary potential that’s actually not there, yet with the Avs, such daydreaming doesn’t seem so far from reality.

All of that is great, but a significant chunk of the excitement around the Avalanche focuses on the future. What about the present, though? Are we sure that a team that squeaked into the playoffs the past two seasons can make it again, especially with a very different-looking roster?

Ultimately, head coach Jared Bednar is under a lot of pressure to make it all work.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I X-factor: Makar]

Let’s consider some potential bumps in the road for Bednar and the Avs this season.

  • The team might not be dramatically improved, at least short-term: Some metrics put the 2019-20 Avalanche closer to a “push” with last year’s version. After all, this team lost Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Semyon Varlamov, and Carl Soderberg. In most if not all of those cases, Colorado made the right calls, yet it means players like Burakovsky, Cale Makar, and Joonas Donskoi can’t be seen as pure additions; instead, one might look at them as replacements. That could mean incremental improvements or downgrades for Colorado for next season.
  • A lot rides on Philipp Grubauer‘s play: After a tough first half of 2018-19, Grubauer justified the Avalanche’s gamble that he had starter potential. With Varlamov gone, there’s less of a safety net, so Bednar might be challenged to change strategies if Grubauer struggles and/or gets injured.
  • Integrating the new guys: Bednar and his staff must find the right minutes, roles, and tone to take with Nazem Kadri, Burakovsky, Donskoi, and other new faces. Also, Cale Makar is almost brand-new himself, and his development is crucial for Colorado. (More on Makar, and how he’ll hope to replace some of what’s lost in trading Barrie, in this post.)
  • Keep the top line together, or diversify? For the most part, Bednar’s been comfortable with keeping Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog together on a top line that’s deadly, but sometimes leaves Colorado a bit one-dimensional. Will the above new additions inspire Bednar to experiment a bit? For all we know, finding the right balance could be the difference between another playoff appearance versus a letdown.
  • Challenging Central Division: The Avs may not be able to rise above the wild-card level thanks to a Central Division that – while altered – still figures to be a beast in 2019-20.

The Avalanche have been one of the surprise successes of the league, particularly after the grim debacle that was Bednar’s first season as an NHL head coach in 2016-17.

For NHL head coaches, such success can be a double-edged sword, as expectations rise in the eyes of fans and owners alike. Fair or not, Bednar is under significant pressure to make sure that the Avalanche don’t stumble during what looks like a swift climb up the NHL ladder.

MORE:
• 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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How long interview period changed course of NHL free agency

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Artemi Panarin did not have to imagine what he might look like in a New York Rangers uniform.

His likeness in Rangers blue adorned the giant video screens at Madison Square Garden with the message ”Welcome Artemi” a full four days before he signed with the team.

”There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” Panarin said, ”and my heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

Free agency in the NHL this season had surprises, as it always does, and there was a major factor that went somewhat under the radar: The post-draft ”interview window” for teams to talk with free agent targets was the longest in its short history. It opened June 23 and went right up until the signing period opened July 1, giving it the biggest impact since the window was added to the league calendar in 2014.

Some executives hated it, but the extended chance to wine and dine played a big role in a number of deals – from the Dallas Stars landing veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to the New York Islanders moving on from standout goalie Robin Lehner.

”It was a long week,” Perry said. ”There was a lot of phone calls and just feeling out teams and seeing where they are, seeing what they might have as a plan of attack for next season. I got to ask questions, they told me what they think. It was an eye-opener, not ever going through it, but it was a fun process.”

Florida general manager Dale Tallon said it was not much fun to go from the draft right into a week of free agent conversations – ”I hate this week, to tell you the truth,” he said – but it didn’t turn out so bad: The Panthers signed top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, winger Brett Connolly and defenseman Anton Stralman .

Free agency for years was a land rush at noon July 1 and perhaps the frenzied pace of negotiations contributed to some ill-fated contracts and bad fits. With more time, many contracts were agreed to before free agency began, similar to how things work in the NFL and NBA. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said each year the league sends a memo to its clubs reminding them that deals cannot be signed until July 1 but he was not concerned about how the process went this time.

”I think it’s more an evolution of how clubs, agents and players have handled (the interview period) than anything else,” Daly said.

New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, assistant Tom Fitzgerald and coach John Hynes held a 90-minute conference call with winger Wayne Simmonds and agent Eustace King before signing Simmonds for $5 million. And Pavelski got to tour Dallas with Stars captain Jamie Benn and team executive Tom Holy, a familiar face from San Jose.

”To go spend a little time just kind of casually, you know how things kind of come up organically, it was just nice to kind of hang out and spend a little bit of time,” Pavelski said. ”As a player, teammates definitely come into a big part of recruiting, I think. But it’s one of those things does the fit, do you feel comfortable around different personalities.”

Panarin knew all about Rangers President John Davidson from their time together in Columbus. But the former head of the Blue Jackets’ hockey operations department believes he only had to remind the Russian winger during his visit about all the things that drew him back to New York.

”He’s made it very vocal that he’s always wanted to be in a big city, and there’s no bigger city than New York,” Davidson said. ”In talking to us, (he) talked about how he wants to win. He actually talked about Mark Messier and what Mark Messier did with the Rangers to get into the winning part of the business.”

Seeing Messier’s No. 11 and the 1994 Stanley Cup champions banner at Madison Square Garden didn’t hurt. But it was away from the rink that Panarin’s connection to the Rangers became abundantly clear and led to him taking less money than the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Panthers offered .

”You could sense his enthusiasm for the Rangers, for the big city, for the big stage,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”His knowledge of the game, his knowledge of our team, it all shined right through. Right away for everybody in the room it was pretty exciting to hear some of the things he had to say.”

The interview period is a two-way street, and the Washington Capitals signed winger Richard Panik in large part because they reached out to him first. Panik waited for other teams to come close to the $11 million, four-year offer as the clock ticked.

”For me, it was really stressful,” Panik said. ”It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning. They offered me four years. Nobody else did. That was the main reason. That’s why I chose (Washington). I wanted a longer deal, and they were willing to do it right away.”

Plenty of teams had interest in Perry, who signed an incentives-heavy one-year deal with Dallas to prove himself after being bought out by the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars showing him their map to Cup contention and bringing in Pavelski sealed the deal.

”They have everything that I want in a hockey team,” Perry said. ”They’re on the verge of putting something really great together. I want to be a part of that.”

Lehner was part of a surprisingly great season with the Islanders, who re-signed forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to bring back almost the same team.

Had it not been for the extra time, Lehner might have reached a deal to stay. Instead, the Islanders moved on to Semyon Varlamov, Lehner learned about the potential downside of the interview period and Chicago benefited from it by signing him to a $5 million, one-year contract.

”It was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me and I took a couple days to think about it,” Lehner said. ”When I came back and wanted to make something work, they already went for another goalie. That is the truth.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Goalies sign: Islanders choose Varlamov; Mrazek sticks with Hurricanes

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Apparently, when the post-Sergei Bobrovsky goalie dominoes fall in free agency, they fall fast.

Along with the Chicago Blackhawks taking a one-year flier on Robin Lehner, we have two other significant decisions.

[More on Chicago adding Lehner]

The New York Islanders decided to hitch their future to Semyon Varlamov, whom they signed to a four-year, $20 million contract. The Islanders are rolling the dice with a 31-year-old who hasn’t enjoyed his strongest work lately. Clearly, the organization believes in his potential. This is a medium-sized gamble, if not a big one.

Varlamov started 49 games last season and saw his even strength save percentage dip from .923 to .916. Injuries opened the door for Phillip Grubauer to assume the No. 1 role and put an end to Varlamov’s eight-season tenure with the Avalanche.

The battle for the net on Long Island will be between Varlamov and Thomas Greiss after negotiations with Lehner failed to end with an agreement.

“It’s really tough to see Robin go,” said Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello. “We’re all disappointed it didn’t work out but we wish him nothing but the best in Chicago, he’ll do great there.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes brought back Petr Mrazek, the 27-year-old goalie who helped them break their playoff curse. It’s for $6.25 million over two years, which translates to a $3.125M cap hit in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Between Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, who inked a two-year deal with the Lightning, the pair helped solve an issue for the Hurricanes this past season and helped them reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in a decade. Mrazek boasted a .927 even strength save percentage in 40 starts.

“Petr took a chance on himself with the deal he agreed to here last summer, and we were all rewarded with the tremendous season he put together,” said Hurricanes GM Waddell said in a statement. “This solidifies our options at the goaltending position moving forward.”

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.

Colorado Collapse: What’s eating the Avalanche?

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Typically, the U.S. Thanksgiving break serves as a solid benchmark in the NHL for which teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For this year’s Colorado Avalanche, a peek at the standings on the final day of November would prove that Colorado was tied with Nashville in points atop the Central Division. But since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 7-15-3 (17 points), which is the worst mark in the league. Here in early February, they’re on the outside looking in, two points back of Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card race, after the Canucks defeated them 5-1 on Saturday.

Here’s a deeper look at how the Avalanche problems have (ahem) snowballed:

Top Heavy

Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up arguably the best line in the game. Entering Colorado’s matchup with Vancouver over the weekend, the trio had combined for 199 points (79 goals, 120 assists) after all three had been named All-Stars. But head coach Jared Bednar split them up for the Canucks game, looking to spread a bit of the wealth. Alexander Kerfoot started on the top line in Landeskog’s spot along with MacKinnon and Colin Wilson, while the Avalanche captain played left wing on the second line with Carl Soderberg at center and Rantanen on right wing. It lasted less than 20 minutes, as Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen were reunited by the end of the first period after Colorado had fallen behind 2-0.

Since the start of December, Landeskog (26 points), MacKinnon (30) and Rantanen (31) have combined for 87 points. During that span, all other Colorado forwards have combined for 69 points. Outside of the big three and Soderberg – who has a career-best 17 goals this season – the Avs have struggled to produce up front. That lack of depth will make it difficult for them to turn things around and make a playoff push.

Power Play

Through Nov. 30, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with the man advantage clicking at a whopping 31.4 percent, or 27-for-86 in 26 games. In the following 25 games since Dec. 1, Colorado has 20 power play goals, despite 18 more power play opportunities (20-for-104). While it is unreasonable to expect that the Avs would have continued their torrid pace from earlier in the year, the dip in production on the man advantage helps explain why Colorado’s overall goals per game has slid from 3.73 through November (tied for best in the league with Tampa Bay) to 2.92 since.

Goalie Struggles

Colorado has allowed three or more goals 33 times in 51 games, so defensive structure has certainly been an issue this season. Still, the Avalanche has also failed to get big saves from either of their goaltenders. Since early December, Semyon Varlamov is 4-8-2 with an .875 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average. That save percentage is the worst among all netminders who have played at least 10 games in that span.

Philipp Grubauer – who was signed during the off-season to a three-year, $10 million deal – hasn’t been any better with a 3-5-1 record, an .878 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average during that same stretch.

After regulation

Get this, the Avs are 1-7 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts. Those are precious points they’ve left on the table in a conference with playoff spots ripe for the taking.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, also owns the Los Angeles Rams. On the bright side, if the Avs get just three points, they’d be back in the playoffs.