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Tavares and beyond: Lamoriello has hands full with Islanders

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Let’s be honest. As important a hire as Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations is for the New York Islanders, many of us could barely even utter his name before “John Tavares” returned to the forefront of any Isles thoughts.

That’s just going to be the status quo until we find out if Tavares re-signs with the Islanders or if he ventures elsewhere and breaks thousands of hearts on Long Island.

So, there’s no sense denying the all-world elephant in the room. Lamoriello could do great work for the Islanders if, say, he decided to be full-on GM, but a Tavares departure would still make this front office move a footnote. On the other hand, things would be downright intriguing in Brooklyn if Tavares returns (whether it has anything to do with Lou or not).

As much as we’d like to accurately forecast the Tavares sweepstakes, the truth is that few truly know what will happen. Hey, it’s possible that Tavares himself might still be mulling over his decision.

With or without their best star in ages, the Islanders have a lot of work to do. In a way, it seems like Lamoriello is being asked to do a repair job much like he did with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were able to get rid of pesky contracts and add some key components under his watch.

Get the notion

During today’s press conference, Lamoriello was his usual guarded self, not revealing much about the futures of GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight.

The thing is, Lamoriello could make plenty of inferences, even from the outside.

Really, you could argue that everything starts and stops with Snow. He’s been given rare leeway for a GM considering his 12-year reign, especially considering that the Isles have only won a single playoff series with Tavares and since their glory days. (We’ll get to the messy salary structure soon.)

Snow selected Doug Weight to go from interim and then full-on head coach, and while the interim run almost included a playoff berth, the past 2017-18 season was a disaster. Sure, shabby goaltending didn’t help, but how much of that falls on Weight’s shoulders? This Andre Burakovsky quote should shake any manager to the core:

Lamoriello’s not shy about taking over the GM seat, so you wonder if Snow’s days are melting away. He cannot wait too long to make a decision about Weight, as this is the time of year when you enjoy a greater number of opportunities to find coaching replacements. What’s Dave Tippett doing these days?

(Waits for Jacques Lemaire jokes[?].)

Oh yeah, and Lamoriello also must prepare for the 2018 NHL Draft. That could be awfully interesting since the Islanders boast picks 11 and 12, with the latter choice stemming from the Travis Hamonic trade. This figures to be a whirlwind couple of months for Lamoriello and the Islanders organization.

Cleaning up

If you’re convinced the Islanders will retain Tavares and thus feel little sympathy for this team, just take a look at their salary structure at Cap Friendly. Yikes.

During his time in Toronto, Lamoriello helped the Maple Leafs jettison bad contracts from the Phil Kessel days, whether that came via LTIR loophole maneuvering (just ask Joffrey Lupul, though he’ll eventually delete his response) or savvy trades. It says a lot about Lamoriello’s skills that the Maple Leafs didn’t need to retain salary in getting rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s ghastly contract in 2016, yet the Senators were forced to eat $1.75 million of his cap hit in February.

It’s strange to see a 75-year-old executive serving as a rebuilder/repairer of franchises, particularly after he guided the New Jersey Devils for a generation, but the Isles could benefit from his “cleaning” services. There are some odious contracts, so we’ll see if Lamoriello can conjure some magic to move beyond mistakes like the deals handed to Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck.

(It turns out Lamoriello cleans up more than a team’s facial hair choices. Cue Monty Burns and Don Mattingly.)

Other calls

One rare good thing about the Islanders’ salary structure is a gimme: Mathew Barzal‘s on his rookie deal through 2019-20, so Lamoriello doesn’t even need to worry about extension negotiations during this summer. Worst-case scenario, they’ll still have at least one spellbinding star at center.

Re-signing Tavares stands as priorities one through 91, but there are other choices to make.

Brock Nelson stands out as the most prominent forward alongside noteworthy defensemen (including Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, and Ryan Pulock) who are slated for RFA or UFA statuses. There are some key players approaching contract years in 2018-19, with Jordan Eberle and underrated (and underpaid) scorer Anders Lee headlining the list. Lamoriello must mull over which players to keep, for how long, and for how much.

If Tavares’ situation is the elephant in the room, then goaltending is the massive hole in the wall.

It’s tough to imagine any team taking on Thomas Greiss ($3.33M cap hit through 2019-20) after he submarined his team’s chances a lot like Scott Darling did in Carolina, so Lamoriello’s tasked with finding ways to reduce the damage. He at least has options; the Isles might get more out of Greiss by improving the system around him (replace Weight, or hope Weight improves?) or possibly looking to a different goalie coach. Perhaps Lou would even opt for a sports psychologist?

Either way, Lamoriello must also target another goalie, whether that guy is deemed a true backup, the new starter, or a platoon partner for Greiss.

(Again, a dream scenario would be to somehow move Greiss and get better in net without losing too many other assets, yet that might require Lamoriello to actually become a wizard. Or maybe he’d just need to get Peter Chiarelli on the phone?)

***

That’s quite a brain-full, right?

The scary part is that this is a simplified version of the choices that await. Lamoriello will need to ponder the franchise’s past failures. Did poor pro scouting inspire questionable additions such as Ladd, at least at his price point? Is this team doing enough to develop its draft picks?

Lou Lamoriello faces a ton of questions, with many of them standing as challenges even for a decorated, experienced executive. In some cases, he’ll need to make some key calls soon, and it should be fascinating to learn what the future holds for the Isles.

Of course, the biggest call actually falls to John Tavares, maybe more than all of the other ones combined.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Swiss stun Canada, Sweden crushes U.S. in ice hockey semis

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Switzerland stunned title favorite Canada 3-2 to reach only its third final of the world ice hockey championship on Saturday.

The Swiss will play the gold medal game on Sunday against defending champion Sweden, which strode into the final by crushing the United States 6-0.

Canada and the U.S. will play for bronze.

”We obviously got motivated a lot playing them,” Switzerland defenseman Mirco Muller said. ”They’re the best country in the world, hockey-wise, and they have a great team here. It was a great battle for us.”

Canada goaltender Darcy Kuemper made some fine saves in the first period before Tristan Scherwey scored the go-ahead goal for Switzerland with 1:19 remaining in the first period.

Bo Horvat tied it in the second but Switzerland proved resilient, and Gregory Hofmann restored the Swiss lead on a power play.

Gaetan Haas struck again on a power play in the third, redirecting into the net a shot by Sven Andrighetto from the point.

Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past Swiss goaltender Leonardo Genoni to reduce the lead with 2:07 left in the final period as Canada pulled Kuemper for an extra attacker in vain.

”Switzerland played an unbelievable game,” Canada defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. ”From the drop of the puck they came at us hard in every facet.”

Genoni stopped 43 shots.

”It’s important that we win the last game,” Canada captain Connor McDavid said. ”We’re up to do it.”

Switzerland’s best results have been runner-up in 1935 and 2013. Sweden is going for a third world title in six years, and 11th overall.

”We’re the big underdogs (against Sweden),” Swiss forward Reto Schaeppi said. ”We have a chance if we play a really good game.”

Sweden beat Switzerland 5-3 in the preliminary round.

The Swedes set up their victory over the Americans with three goals in a 3:07 span midway through the second period.

”We didn’t play our best game but we put up a lot of goals,” forward Patric Hornqvist said. ”We still have some improvement to do for the game tomorrow.”

Viktor Arvidsson led Sweden with two goals and goalie Anders Nielsen made 41 saves for the shutout.

Trailing 1-0 in the second, the U.S. had a four-minute power play but allowed a short-handed goal by Magnus Paajarvi, who scored on a rebound after goaltender Keith Kinkaid stopped Mikael Backlund on a breakaway.

Hornqvist stretched the lead to 3-0 on a power play, and Sweden underlined its control when Mattias Janmark made it 4-0 just 11 seconds later.

Arvidsson added his second into an empty net in the final period, and Adrian Kempe finished it off with the sixth. Sweden earned its ninth win from nine games in this championship.

The U.S. pressured in the opening period, outshooting Sweden 16-8 and 41-19 overall. But it was the Swedes who went ahead. Arvidsson knocked in a loose puck in the crease following a shot from above the right circle by Filip Forsberg.

U.S. captain Patrick Kane, the overall scoring leader, failed to register a point for the first time in the championship.

”We just made too many mistakes and they capitalized,” Kane said. ”They’ve got a lot of good players over there and made us pay for those mistakes.

”It’s gonna be tough to regroup (for the bronze medal game) … but we have to do it.”

Five stunning numbers from the NHL conference finals

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The four teams still playing in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs are not only great teams, they are all experiencing some all-time great performances on both an individual and team level.

Let’s take a look at some crazy numbers.

1. Scheifele’s goal-scoring: We already know that Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele has set an NHL record for most road goals in a single playoff run (11) but he is also having one of the great goal-scoring outputs overall. With 14 goals in the Jets’ first 15 games he is averaging 0.93 goals per game in the playoffs, one of the highest marks in league history. Among players that have played in at least 14 playoff games in a single season that would put him ninth all-time. What is extra impressive about that is the fact that his performance is the only one in the top-15 that came after 1992. Twelve of the others all came between 1975 and 1992 when goal-scoring in the NHL was happening at a far higher rate than it does now. The only other recent players in the top-20 are Johan Franzen‘s 2007-08 performance (13 goals in 16 games) and Alex Ovechkin in 2008-09 (11 goals in 14 games).

2. The Fleury wall: Scheifele has even managed to get a couple of pucks behind Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, something that everyone else has struggled with mightily this postseason as he carries a .945 save percentage into Friday’s Game 4. Among goalies that have appeared in at least 12 playoff games in a season only three have ever finished with a save percentage that high: Jonathan Quick (.946) in 2011-12, Patrick Lalime (.946) in 2001-02, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2002-03. Quick and Giguere ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in their seasons. Giguere did so in a losing effort in the Stanley Cup Final.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

3. Tampa Bay and Washington’s power plays are unstoppable: Special teams have been the story of the Eastern Conference Final with the Capitals and Lightning both boasting exceptionally dangerous power play units. Entering Game 5 of the series in Tampa Bay on Saturday, the Lightning power play is clicking at 30.8 percent in its first 14 playoff games. The Capitals are at 28.6 percent. How impressive are those numbers? Among teams that have played in at least 14 playoff games the Lightning’s mark is the second-best all-time, trailing only the 1980-81 New York Islanders (37.8 percent), while the Capitals is sixth best. Of the four other teams in the top-six, three of them went on to win the Stanley Cup.

4. The Capitals offense: It is not just the power play where the Capitals are filling the net. They are doing it in every situation to the tune of 3.56 goals per game. Since the start of the 2000-01 season only two teams with at least 10 playoff games have averaged more, as both the 2009-10 Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings averaged 3.58.

5. Ovechkin and Kucherov the best in the business: Earlier we noted the great individual postseason goal-scoring performance from Scheifele. When it comes to career goal-scoring, though, Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov are the top players going when it comes to playoff goal scoring. Among active players that have appeared in at least 50 career playoff games they are first and second in the league in goals per game. Ovechkin is first at 0.50 goals per game (56 goals in 113 games) while Kucherov is just behind him at 0.49 (29 goals in 59 games).

Data via Hockey-Reference and NHL.com

Related: Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Long-term extension would make sense for Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson

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The Arizona Coyotes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are in talks about a possible eight-year contract extension that would carry a cap hit of a bit more than $8 million per season, according to Craig Morgan of ArizonaSports.com.

Do note that, whether a deal is actually close to be agreed upon or the situation is fluid, an extension wouldn’t become official until July, when “OEL” is first eligible for such a contract. (He’ll enter the final year of his current deal in 2018-19).

So, things could fall apart between now and then.

Still, such an extension could make a lot of sense for both the Swedish defenseman and the fledgling Coyotes. Let’s dive in under the assumption that an eight-year deal would cost (slightly?) more than $64M, which is essentially the extension Brent Burns signed with the San Jose Sharks in November 2016.

Peace of mind (and maybe some control?) for OEL

Ekman-Larsson (26, turning 27 on July 17) is currently on a deal with a $5.5M cap hit and $7M salary heading into 2018-19. OEL’s contract lacks a no-trade or no-movement clause, so if negotiations fell through, he could find himself in a less-than-desirable situation as a “rental.”

By signing a deal in that Burns range, he’d carry one of the biggest cap hits of any NHL defenseman, at least as of this writing (trailing P.K. Subban, but slightly more than Burns, Shea Weber, and Aaron Ekblad). Of course, as of this writing is the key phrase, but we’ll get to that in the Coyotes’ section.

OEL opting to sign that contract brings plenty of benefits:

  • Not needing to answer a bunch of questions about his contract year.
  • Avoiding the risk of an injury derailing/lowering his prospects of getting a new deal. Eight years is the maximum term, so OEL would land the most security possible, covering the next nine years of his career.
  • Speaking of years, the Coyotes are the only team that could sign him for eight. This could be advantageous for Ekman-Larsson even if things actually turned sour with Arizona, especially if he …
  • Possibly gets a no-trade or no-movement clause, gaining more say in his future, even if he loses the ultimate freedom of exploring the free agent market.

Yes, there’s a lot to like from OEL’s standpoint. So, what about the Coyotes?

Getting ahead of the gold rush for defensemen

Now, it’s worth noting that some key moments for soon-to-be-richer defensemen could happen in late June by way of trades at or around the 2018 NHL Draft on June 22. For all we know, Erik Karlsson could be traded from Ottawa, possibly accelerating his own schedule to sign an extension.

Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson are far from the only prominent defensemen who will enter 2018-19 as contract years (assuming they don’t sign extensions themselves). Karlsson and Drew Doughty aren’t shy about possibly driving up their own prices, maybe together. Ryan McDonagh isn’t setting the world on fire with the Lightning, but the market could still send piles of money his way consider the demand for defensemen and the scant supply of capable ones. Ryan Ellis is another defenseman worth watching if he rides things out with Nashville next season.

From OEL’s perspective, he’d avoid the threat of a potential buyers’ market. The Coyotes, on the other hand, might look at the very real potential for Doughty and Karlsson to command deals at or above Jack Eichel‘s extension, thus making $8M a reasonable, risk-reducing price.

Question of worth

Now, it’s fair to wonder if OEL would actually be worth $8M per season. Ekman-Larsson’s mostly been a strong possession player on a bad team, and his 85 goals since 2013-14 ranks second among defensemen. Still, he’s only passed the 50-point plateau once (2015-16), so he hasn’t necessarily had that “huge” year one might demand from a player seeking that big payday. (None of this is to say that he isn’t very good; instead, it’s just a reminder that big cash inspires big-time nitpicking.)

It’s tough to imagine him not being worth it for the Coyotes, though, so the debate feels a bit moot. Perhaps they’d be on firmer ground to grind something out if they won the draft lottery, but the fifth pick likely means adding another nice piece rather than a revolutionary one as Rasmus Dahlin is hyped to possibly be.

The Coyotes showed that they wanted to make the next step by trading for Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, and Niklas Hjalmarsson last summer. While the results weren’t quite what they hoped for in 2017-18, would they really want to take a step back by letting their best defenseman/player* go after next season?

Yes, with just about any big extension or contract, there are risks to consider, especially in a sport where a career-derailing injury could always be one hard collision away. It’s also plausible that Ekman-Larsson might buckle under the pressure of such a contract. Being labeled an “albatross” can really mess with an athlete’s head, even if they don’t get the reference.

All things considered, if the Coyotes and OEL agree to a deal along the lines of what Morgan reports, it would probably rank as an “everyone wins” situation.

Bonus points if Ekman-Larsson can actually, you know, help the Coyotes start winning.

* – Hey, for all we know, Clayton Keller could become “The Guy” in Arizona by next season.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Golden Knights’ top line could torment opponents for years

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The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault weren’t just a great combination “for an expansion team” in Game 2 of the 2018 Western Conference Final. No, they were too much for the loaded, ultra-talented Winnipeg Jets to handle, joining Marc-Andre Fleury as the main reason this series is tied.

Teams around the NHL have to hope that this combination is a mere flash-in-the-pan, because if not, they could be a fixture for quite some time.

And, the scary part is that two-thirds of that line is on the sort of team-friendly deals that can allow GM George McPhee to build a consistent contender, with no need to even consider expansion team caveats.

Let’s consider each player for a moment.

The next Martin St. Louis?

OK, Jonathan Marchessault doesn’t play exactly like the former Lightning star. For one thing, he shoots right-handed.

Still, there are broader, big-picture similarities. Both players went undrafted despite being productive players at other levels. They each took quite a bit of time to truly get a chance. St. Louis ended up breaking through in Tampa Bay, while Marchessault showed early signs of brilliance with the Bolts before lighting it up with Florida and then (well, if you spend a moment on Hockey Twitter, there’s a chance you’ll hear a joke about the Panthers trading Marchessault and Smith). Of course, each scorer had to fight so hard to grab attention because of the NHL’s dismissive attitude toward smaller players.

Like St. Louis, there’s the feeling that Marchessault might take some time to truly clue people in that he’s not just good, he could be great.

Consider his Game 2 performance: two goals, eight shots on goal, and generally one of those drag-your-team-on-your-back outputs. That second goal really crushed the Jets’ spirit after it looked like they might get back into the game. Accomplishing things like this with considerable frequency sure makes you look like a star:

Remarkably, Marchessault’s body of work at the NHL level is still slender for a 27-year-old, so maybe he’s playing a little bit over his head. Still, when you look at his work in the QJMHL and AHL, it’s clear that he produces wherever you put him.

Marchessault’s career-insecurity probably helps to explain why he signed what currently looks like an extremely team-friendly contract extension back in January. He’ll carry just a $5 million cap hit from 2018-19 to 2023-24, covering what would likely be the remainder of his prime.

That contract feels a lot like Viktor Arvidsson‘s with Nashville: a smaller, productive first-line forward who needed to gain notice by sheer force of will, signing a contract that’s all about long-term security, even if it means giving his team a possible bargain.

Then again, there’s a more local comparison to Marchessault’s contract …

No fooling

Maybe it makes sense that Reilly Smith was born on April 1, as teams have been fooled into giving up on him to a puzzling extent.

Smith, also 27, began his career as a third-round draft pick with Dallas. He didn’t really gain traction in the NHL until he joined the Boston Bruins as sneakily the B’s best takeaway from the ill-fated Tyler Seguin deal. Despite generating a 20-goal, 51-point season at 22 and a solid 40-point output in 2014-15, Smith was traded to Florida almost exactly two years later.

The pattern continued. Smith had a great first season with the Cats (25 goals, 50 points in 2015-16), dipped a bit a season later, and then was dumped to Vegas. Spoiler: that worked out really well for the Vegas Knights.

Smith’s strong debut season with Vegas probably flew a bit under the radar because of injuries. Despite being limited to 67 games, he was a regular scoring presence, collecting 22 goals and 60 points. For whatever reason, his shooting luck has dried up in the postseason, but he’s still racking up assists (as PHT’s Joey Alfieri spotlights here).

One of Smith’s standout assists came in Game 3 of Vegas’ eventual sweep of the Kings. Watch as the Golden Knights’ top line created havoc against Drew Doughty & Co., setting the stage for Karlsson’s first goal of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

The delightful thing about Smith and Marchessault is that there’s ample evidence that, while their offense may ebb and flow, their possession games have been strong for much of their careers. At worst, they seem like they’ll be valuable players for Vegas for years.

Smith’s contract brings added value, too. He was traded to Vegas with a $5M cap hit that runs through 2021-22. One could easily speculate that McPhee was able to use his deal as a measuring stick for Marchessault’s asking price, which brings us to the wild-haired wild card of the trio:

Playing the percentages

There’s something fittingly “Vegas Golden Knights” about Karlsson’s place in this group.

While Marchessault and Smith very much fit into the misfits group in Vegas as players who were discarded by multiple teams, it feels safe to at least pencil them in as useful, if not dominant, top-six forwards. Karlsson’s much tougher to figure … yet he also topped the team with 43 goals and 78 points.

It’s almost unavoidable to hear doubters chuckle when discussing Karlsson’s incredible campaign. When it comes to the regular season, that’s fair. No one – not Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux – can sustain a 23.4 shooting percentage over the long haul.

The heartening thing for Karlsson and Vegas is that he’s been productive and dangerous during the playoffs, even as his luck is settling down. The 25-year-old has generated a point-per-game (12 in 12) despite a more earthly 13.5 shooting percentage.

He’s a slick, smart player who can really skate. There’s a lot to like, whether he’s a true first-liner or merely a very nice forward. If he can stick with Marchessault and Smith, Karlsson could remain a threat.

And that’s where it all gets interesting.

Karlsson needs a new contract, as he’s a pending RFA.

Will that 78-point season land him the sort of contract that Vegas might regret? Could both sides acknowledge that explosive season but also an otherwise skimpy track record of NHL success with Columbus and opt for a “prove it” contract? If Vegas offered a clone of the Marchessault deal, would that make the most sense?

***

There are a lot of questions there, but the good news is that Vegas is in a great position. If they make the right call(s) with Karlsson, they’ll have a prime-age trio of forwards who are currently sticking with – and sometimes skating right by – some of the best players in the NHL.

It should all be fascinating and fun to watch … but not quite as fun as watching Smith, Marchessault, and Karlsson exasperate defenders and fill highlight reels.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.