Say this about the New York Islanders. Historically, as a franchise, they are prepared to bet big.
It doesn’t always work out – see Alexei Yashin for Zdeno Chara and the right to draft Jason Spezza as just one of a half-a-dozen or more examples of how an ill-advised personnel decision can blow up in their collective faces. (Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. A young Todd Bertuzzi and a young Bryan McCabe for Trevor Linden). But this isn’t about piling on former GM Mike Milbury. It’s about piling on the current general manager Garth Snow.
Even knowing their history, the Islanders rolled the dice again in a meaningful way this past week. With the rest of the hockey world distracted by the NHL playoffs, the Islanders notified the Buffalo Sabres that they would use their first-round pick, fifth overall, in the 2014 entry draft and defer until 2015 transferring the first-round they owe them in the Thomas Vanek deal. The Islanders scout players like the rest of the league, so they are aware that not one but potentially two generational players could be up for grabs in 2015 – Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters and Jack Eichel of the U.S. under-18 national development team.
It is the sort of draft that only comes along once in a while, one that can shift the fortunes of a franchise in one fell swoop, one that gets general managers dreaming about ping pong balls and the luck of the lottery draw.
And now, assuming they stay bad for at least one more year, the Sabres will get two cracks at McDavid and Eichel – and wouldn’t it be something if they ended up with both? Hockey in Western New York might never be the same.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are gambling that the return to health of John Tavares and the decision to sign goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a four-year contract, thus stabilizing a woefully erratic position, will make them a playoff team - or if not a playoff team, close enough that the chances of winning the draft lottery and moving into a top-two position are negligible.
It’s a bold gamble, given that the Islanders play in the 16-team Eastern Conference and you’d have to figure that at least three of this year’s non-playoff teams – the Washington Capitals, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators – all have a far greater chance of pushing for a playoff spot than they do.
Vanek, of course, played just 47 games for the Islanders this past season before being flipped to the Montreal Canadiens at the trading deadline - and also cost them the services of Matt Moulson, in addition to that intriguing future first-round pick.
Moulson was eventually shuffled off from Buffalo to the Minnesota Wild, where the fit wasn’t great. Moulson has excellent hands, but his middle-of-the-road speed, which didn’t seem to affect his scoring totals as much in the East where he rode shotgun with Tavares, never translated well to the track-meet style of game they play in the West. A return to Long Island as an unrestricted free agent makes the most sense for Moulson - and for an Islanders’ team that really, really needs to be better next season.
Vanek, meanwhile, has long been rumored to be Minnesota bound, but the way he’s struggled in the playoffs, you’d have to think the Wild will think twice about how much they’d be prepared to spend to bring him in. Minnesota will have extra salary-cap dollars freed up by Dany Heatley’s expiring contract, some of which they will have to dedicate to resigning goaltender Darcy Kuemper and forward Nino Niederreiter, both restricted free agents.
Kuemper, a revelation as a rookie pressed into starting duty in the second half, will get a chance to battle goaltender Niklas Backstrom – two more years at $3.416-million, recovering from off-season surgery – for the No. 1 job. Josh Harding, who didn’t play after Christmas, after adjusting his medication for multiple sclerosis, has a year left at $1.9-million. Ilya Bryzgalov, who played the majority of their games through two playoff rounds, is a UFA.
Presumably, the Islanders want the No. 5 overall pick this year because they traded away the No. 5 overall pick in 2008, Niederreiter, to the Wild for Cal Clutterbuck. This is one decision they better get right.
THE RAY AND BARRY SHOW: Was a hit for a time in Nashville, where Ray Shero spent eight years apprenticing for his first general manager’s job under David Poile and Barry Trotz was the one-and-only coach in Predators history until this past season ended. Could they be reunited again in Washington?
Trotz is the odds-on favorite to land the Capitals job, with an announcement expected later this week. If Washington gets it right, they’ll also be announcing their new GM at that point – with Shero and Paul Fenton (currently the assistant GM in Nashville) as two of the front-runners for the job.
The $64-million question is Washington is always going to be, how do you concoct a playoff-winner around a team that will feature the goal-scoring talents of Alex Ovechkin, plus the young up-and-coming Russian Evgeni Kuznetsov?
Sometimes, in the care of feeding of an NHL superstar, coaches are tempted to play favorites. Trotz is not known for that, part of the reason the skilled but flighty Alexander Radulov never found a home in Nashville, despite two different tours with the squad.
GET CARTER: If you compare an NHL lineup to a Rubik’s Cube - a constant source of frustration to a coach until it suddenly all clicks into place - then the Los Angeles Kings’ decision to switch Jeff Carter back to his natural position, centre, was the key to their season. According to coach Darryl Sutter, the decision was made in meetings with general manager Dean Lombardi during the Olympic break – and ironically, it was because they decided to think big-picture, down-the-road thoughts.
Sutter indicated that the team wanted to make both Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli full-time NHLers, but couldn’t up to that point because of salary-cap reasons. Ideally, they always saw Carter as a centre, even back when they originally acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets, but they needed him to play the wing because that’s where the need happened to be the greatest.
But with Pearson and Toffoli poised to make the NHL, strengthening the Kings on the wings, it gave them the luxury to play Carter at centre. Just about every team in the league is desperate for a skilled centre with size. L.A. has two of them, Anze Kopitar and Carter, who would safely fit in among the top 15 pivots in the league.
Moreover, the switch enabled them to shift Mike Richards to the fourth line, which gives them arguably the strongest depth down the middle in the league. Through three games of the Blackhawks’ series, that’s where the edge predominantly lies. Chicago has a big-drop off after Jonathan Toews, while the Kings can roll the lines, without worrying too much about getting an unfavorable match-up.
“As a coach, you always think, ‘now, now, now,’” said Sutter. “Jeff, we like him at center. Even when we got him, we could see him as a centre. We weren’t in that position yet, on the wings, to do that.”
Now they are.
According to the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, while the Carter line “is hot right now” and has been "a really good line for them in the playoffs,” there’s more to their success than just skill and emerging chemistry.
“If you look at some of the bounces they've had too, they are probably pretty favourable," said Kane. "That's what happens when you're going well. You're going to find those positive bounces."
THE INJURY WATCH: Apart from that pesky task of appointing a new GM to replace Shero, Pittsburgh’s off-season plans could hinge on how quickly their two best young defencemen, Olli Maatta and prospect Derrick Pouliot, recover from shoulder surgery conducted last week.
Both had torn labrums and both will need four-to-six months recover, which in a best-case scenario, gets them ready for the second half of training camp and in a worst-case scenario keeps them out up to six weeks. Ideally, the Penguins would like to re-sign defenceman Matt Niskanen, a pending unrestricted free agent, but if he signs elsewhere, they'll have a pretty thin blueline to start the season.
Whoever replaces Shero as general manager is likely going to be unable to explore potential deals for the likes of Kris Letang or Rob Scuderi until the health of the collective defence corps sorts itself out. As for rookie forward Beau Bennett, he had a second surgery on his wrist and will need about four additional months of recovery time.
Two of the Boston Bruins’ top nine forwards, Milan Lucic and Chris Kelly, underwent surgery last week, Lucic on his right wrist, Kelly to repair a herniated disc in his back that kept him out for the playoffs. Both are expected to be ready for the start of training camp.