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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.

Islanders’ biggest question: Will they finally make a deep run?

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The New York Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since they foiled Mario Lemieux’s quest for a three-peat.

In case that doesn’t provide you context (or if you’re a Penguins fan, memories of a bloodied Kevin Stevens), that came back in 1993.

Let’s skip the “insert list of historical events/amusing Geocities references since 1993” portion of the post and merely note that the Isles have seen seven first-round exits and 14 failed postseason bids since they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Eastern Conference Final.

One would assume that Islanders fans have learned to be patient over the years, and GM Garth Snow’s steady approach is really starting to pay off, even if some fans might feel a little antsy.

“We have a lot of players that still have term on their contracts,” Snow told NHL.com recently. “We’re looking for our younger players to take another step in the right direction, guys like Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee … they’re all good, young players that had quality seasons and they’re just going to keep getting better.”

When you pour over the Islanders’ roster, it’s clear that the team boasts a little of everything. John Tavares is absolutely one of the best forwards in the league. Their defense may lack a Duncan Keith-type superstar, but Johnny Boychuk isn’t chopped liver. They may not have the most mainstream recognition, but Jaroslav Halak – Thomas Greiss ranks as one of the better goalie tandems in the NHL.

The possession stats were there, too, last season.

Just about every sign points to the Islanders possessing the tools to finally make a nice playoff run, now they just have to get there.

It could get a little messy if they provide an all-too-familiar feeling, albeit in a new building.

It’s New York Islanders day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The New York Islanders.

The Islanders finished the 2014-15 season with a 47-28-7 record good for third in the Metropolitan Division; however, their first round playoff woes continued as the Washington Capitals edged New York in seven games. Four of the seven games were decided by one goal.

The Islanders have not been to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1993.

“We were disappointed that we lost a Game 7 against Washington,” GM Garth Snow told NHL.com. “We have a great group of players in that room that are motivated to win a Stanley Cup, and I’m sure there are 29 other teams that are saying the same thing. We know we’re in for a battle. It’s a grind of a season for 82 games and just to make the playoffs is quite an accomplishment. Once you get in, anything can happen. We feel we have a team that can compete on a nightly basis.

“Two of the last three years, we’ve been in the playoffs. We lost a Game 6 two years back to Pittsburgh and lost a Game 7 to Washington last year. You hope that those experiences help a player grow, and that’s what we’re counting on.”

Captain John Tavares led the way offensively scoring a career-high 38 goals and 86 points in 82 games. The 24-year-old was a finalist for the Hart Trophy for the second time in his career.

Rookie Anders Lee had a solid first full season in New York scoring 25 goals and 41 points in 76 games. The 25-year-old finished ninth in Calder Trophy voting.

Nick Leddy, who was acquired by the Islanders last October, paced all New York defensemen with 10 goals and 37 points in 78 games.

In goal, Jaroslav Halak went 38-17-4 while posting a 2.43 G.A.A. and a .914 save percentage in 59 games during his first season with the Islanders.

Off-season recap

After 43 years of playing at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders begin playing at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this season.

On the ice, Snow didn’t make many changes to his roster, but he did ink goaltender Thomas Greiss to backup Halak.

The Islanders also dealt prospect defenseman Griffin Reinhart to the Edmonton Oilers for a pair of draft picks in June.

Isles give Poulin another one-year, two-way contract

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The New York Islanders announced the signing of goalie Kevin Poulin to a one-year, two-way contract on Tuesday.

It’s an identical deal to his previous one ($600K at the NHL level, $275K in the AHL), according to Newsday’s Arthur Staple.

At 25, Poulin still has time to emerge, although he must be at least getting a tad bit anxious. The Islanders added proven backup Thomas Greiss this offseason, so Poulin stands as the third option (at best) beyond Greiss and starter Jaroslav Halak.

Poulin lost his only start with the Islanders in 2014-15. He was mediocre in the AHL, going 16-21-7 with a .912 save percentage for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

While he hasn’t distinguished himself at any real point (aside from a nice start in 10 appearances back in 2010-11), Poulin does have 50 games of NHL experience under his belt, so there’s that.

Pens opt against making AHL record-breaker Murray a backup for Fleury

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The departure of Thomas Greiss and a record-breaking AHL season apparently aren’t enough to inspire the Pittsburgh Penguins to tab Matt Murray as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup, as the team website reports.

Management’s explanation is simple enough: Fleury is the No. 1 guy, so why not allow Murray to get more reps as the top dog in the AHL instead of being glued to the bench?

“He’s not coming in here and beating out Marc-Andre Fleury and taking over this team,” Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald said. “We love what we have down the line here, and it is down the line. He just turned 21. He needs to play hockey games. You can’t develop if he’s sitting on the bench. That’s just a fact.”

Although he said the Penguins knew he was good, Fitzgerald admitted that they didn’t expect him to generate the kind of 2014-15 campaign he did, winning the AHL’s goalie of the year award while putting up big numbers.

A devil’s advocate take might be that it’s sometimes wise to ride out surprise hot streaks with goalies. The Ottawa Senators rode Andrew Hammond’s out-of-left-field surge to a playoff berth while Devan Dubnyk went from the scrap heap to saving the Minnesota Wild’s season, and neither team anticipated either scenario, right?

Regardless, the good news for the Penguins is that Murray seems fine with both scenarios.

“I think either way could be good for me,” Murray said. “I think playing in the AHL wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but also practicing with the best players in the world wouldn’t be a bad thing either, so the way I look at it, either way I can take the positives out of it. Wherever I end up, I’m still going to have the same determinations and play the same way each and every day and let things take care of itself.”

Matching a record-breaking season might be asking for too much, but if Murray’s for real, he’ll get his big chance sooner or later.