Thomas Hickey

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Islanders continue to do things their way — sometimes boldly

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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.

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.

Patience, poise of Islanders’ Barzal leaves opponents guessing

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Anders Lee shook his head in disbelief after being asked whether he had the patience of Mathew Barzal with the puck at age 21. Barry Trotz described himself as an “idiot” at that age. “God, to think what I was doing at 21,” said the New York Islanders head coach on Thursday.

To watch Barzal control the puck in high-pressure situations, you would think he was an experienced veteran with years under his belt. Instead, he’s a 21-year-old forward in his second full NHL season in the league who just experienced his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game.

And boy did he leave a mark.

It was Barzal’s play in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net in Game 1 Wednesday night that led to Josh Bailey’s overtime winner.

As Bailey’s chip out of the Islanders’ zone landed along the boards, Barzal and Jordan Eberle entered the Penguins’ zone on a 2-on-1 against Brian Dumoulin, with Zach Aston-Reese rushing to get back. Barzal had a good angle to take a shot from the circle to Matt Murray’s right. Instead, he cut to the slot, which ended with a diving Dumoulin sliding backward in a failed poke-check attempt. Aston-Reese was trying to pick up Eberle and reached him at the side of the net.

Time almost stood still as Barzal stopped on a dime in the slot. He had what opposing teams try to avoid giving up when defending him: time and space.

NBC

A deke and a backhand later, Barzal’s shot rang off the post and fell right to a trailing Bailey, who (after a brief review) sent the Nassau Coliseum crowd home happy.

“I kind over overstayed my stay in front there,” Barzal said of the game-winning goal. “I was just waiting for the right play.”

Scour the scouting reports on Barzal during his draft year and the words “poise” and “patience” appear frequently. Those aren’t traits he’s developed in his two seasons in the NHL, they were with him before he even reached the Islanders.

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Thomas Hickey remembers Barzal’s first NHL training and the impression that was left. The off-the-charts skating ability wowed the Islanders veterans.

“You don’t have total respect for a guy coming out of junior yet, but I think we all learned pretty quick you don’t want to look silly,” he said.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Making opposing defensemen look silly has been a regular thing for Barzal, who has 40 goals and 107 assists in 166 NHL games. His patience and speed controlling the puck helps create scoring chances. So is there a strategic way to shut him down?

“With him, it’s more what you leave him than anything else because he’s got so many tools,” Hickey said. “Certainly a tough player to defend. You can see that with his cut backs, change of speed, agility. It’s special.”

Barzal’s edge work and ability to go east-to-west on the ice forces opponents to pay attention, and sometimes draws them in to create passing lanes and scoring opportunities for his Islanders teammates. As with all talented players, he thinks the game on a different level than his peers and his vision with the puck is one of his biggest assets.

Now battling against his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, in a playoff series, it was during NHL All-Star Weekend in January that Barzal got to play with the Penguins captain during the 3-on-3 tournament while representing the Metropolitan Division. After the trio helped the division win the $1M prize, the Islanders forward received plenty of praise from one of the world’s best.

“The way he holds onto the puck, the way he skates, 3-on-3, I don’t know if there is anyone better when it comes to holding onto it,” Crosby said. “The way that he can just beat you 1-on-1, beat you with his speed, hold onto it. You watch him out there against the best, I don’t see anyone that really beats him in that category.

Outside of an All-Star Game environment, Eberle and Lee have meshed well on a line with Barzal, after the pair spent part of the season with Brock Nelson in the middle. Trotz reunited the line last month, and Eberle or Lee have become accustomed to playing with the dynamic Barzal.

“There’s definitely a difference between playing with him than there is playing with Brock [Nelson],” Eberle said. “But I played with Barzy all last season, we had a ton of success, and I know how to play with him. I think we play similar games and we think the game similar, that it makes it easy for us. A lot of times he’s doing things that I would be doing and thinking about doing and he’s feeling the same way about my game. It’s just easy to read off each other when you’re on the same wavelength.”

“Thankfully, I think our chemistry’s kind of hit pretty quickly,” Lee said. “Ever since we got put together, Ebs and I and Barzy have done pretty well. The adjustment wasn’t really much at all. He’s so dynamic in the way he creates space for not only himself, but for others, the way he carries the puck up the ice, and sees the ice. It’s really important to feed off each other and make quick plays because he can make those. … He knows when I’m down low, I know when he’s up top, using each other’s strengths has been good for us.”

The scary thing for the other 30 NHL teams and an encouraging sign for the Islanders is that Barzal is still improving. In his first season working day to day with him, Trotz has noticed how responsive his young forward is to being taught, and he possesses the desire to reach the elite level that Crosby achieved years ago.

“He’s maturing all the time, and you want players to mature as players, but as importantly you want them to mature as good pros,” Trotz said. “He’s surrounded by some great people, and he’s learning from great people. There’s some things you want to get out of his ‘junior game’ so he can be more effective at the NHL level.

“He listens and is very coachable. He’s just like all good players, there’s a stubbornness to their game because they’ve had success and sometimes it’s hard to get away from. He wants to be one of the top players in the National Hockey League and hopefully if he stays on the right path as he has he’ll continue to grow and you’ll see him be a player that [he’s capable of being].”

Two years into his professional career, nothing has surprised Barzal’s teammates about their young star. They know he’s going to create scoring chances. They know his speed will turn a mundane situation into a quick attack transition. They know when the moment is big, there will be no nerves getting in his way, as we saw Wednesday night. They know that irrational decisions with the puck is not part of his hockey makeup.

“It’s what made him good at every level he’s played at,” said Hickey. “If you lose that poise, that ability to really show no fear with it, then you take away his biggest asset. That’s what’s got him here. A lot of guys lose a bit of that their first couple of years pro. Thankfully he didn’t lose that because he wouldn’t be the same player.”

MORE: Isles’ Josh Bailey finds redemption in Game 1 vs. Penguins

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Report: Visnovsky considering European options

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Veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky could be on his way overseas.

Per a report from Slovakian news outlet Novy Cas, Visnovsky is entertaining the option of starting the year in Europe — possibly in the Czech or Swiss League — while waiting on a potential NHL offer.

Back in late June, the 38-year-old — who has spent the last three years in New York — said he was “definitely” going to play next season, but Isles GM Garth Snow promptly threw cold water on a potential return to Long Island.

“I don’t anticipate Visnovsky coming back,” he explained. “So there’s potential for one of our young defensemen to earn a spot, whether it’s [Scott] Mayfield, [Ryan] Pulock, [Griffin] Reinhart, we’ll see what happens via the trade route at the draft and then look into free agency.”

Since then, the Isles traded Reinhart to Edmonton and were pretty quiet in free agency, with the only real splash on defense coming in the form of Thomas Hickey’s three-year extension.

If the Isles don’t eventually come calling — and it looks highly unlikely they will — Visnovsky will be hard-pressed to catch on elsewhere. While he had a decent offensive campaign in ’14-15, with 20 points in 53 games, he struggled defensively at times, and often looked a step slow.

Isles find new Halak backup, ink Greiss to two-year, $3M deal (Update: Hickey deal confirmed)

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Michal Neuvirth is out, and Thomas Greiss is in.

That’s the move Isles GM Garth Snow pulled off to open free agency on Wednesday, signing former Pittsburgh goalie Thomas Greiss to a two-year, $3 million deal (per Newsday).

Griess had a somewhat forgettable stint with the Penguins last season, largely due to Marc-Andre Fleury carrying such a heavy workload. The 29-year-old started just 18 times (9-6-3, 2.59 GAA, .908 save percentage), got the mumps and played just a handful of times down the stretch.

That said, player agent Rey Petkau said Greiss was interested in returning to Pittsburgh.

“We’ve spoken and neither side has closed the door,” he explained in late May. “But we’re not actively negotiating at this time either.”

At $1.5 million per season, Greiss is an affordable and seasoned backup to Jaroslav Halak. He has 89 games of NHL experience under his belt and will look to replicate the success he had as Mike Smith’s backup in Arizona two years ago, when he went 10-8-5 with a .920 save percentage.

In another move today, the Isles also confirmed what we posted yesterday — a new three-year deal for Thomas Hickey. It’s a $6.6 million pact, with an average annual cap hit of $2.2M.

Report: Isles, Hickey closing in three-year pact around $6.5M

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Sounds as though the New York Islanders are close to a deal with pending RFA blueliner Thomas Hickey.

Per Newsday’s sources, the contract extension is believed to be of the three-year variety, with Hickey pulling down “in the range of” $6.5 million total — a cap hit of around $2.16M.

For Hickey, 26, it’s a nice bump from the $675,000 he netted annually on his last deal.

The former Kings first-rounder was claimed off waivers by the Isles prior to the lockout-shortened ’13 campaign and has been a steady lineup presence ever since; he’s appeared in 82 and 81 games in consecutive seasons and both set and matched a career-high in points, with 22 each year.

Getting Hickey locked in was fairly important for the Isles, as they dealt away Griffin Reinhart at the draft and don’t expect to return Lubomir Visnovsky.

That puts Hickey in a top-six defensive group with Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic, Nick Leddy, Calvin De Haan and Brian Strait, with youngsters like Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield looking to make the leap.