There are many ways to evaluate the New York Islanders’ controversial addition of Thomas Vanek in a blockbuster deal Sunday night, but let’s start with this one: Why, in the name of Billy Smith, did they not also insist on getting goaltender Ryan Miller in the deal? Vanek, playing with John Tavares, will be a potent scoring combination, but Tavares, playing with Matt Moulson – who went to the Buffalo Sabres in the deal, along with a 2014 first-round pick and a 2015 second-round pick – was already a potent scoring combination.
Tavares-Vanek has to be far superior to Tavares-Moulson to justify the Islanders’ acquisition cost, given that both of the principal players in the deal are unrestricted free agents following this season.
It’s an interesting gamble by Islanders’ general manager Garth Snow, but spicing up an offence that was already good enough (35 goals in the first 11 games) didn’t meet the team’s primary need, which was shrinking its goals-against average. And while Evgeni Nabokov has been a serviceable goaltender ever since the Islanders landed him as a waiver claim from the Detroit Red Wings, if New York legitimately wants to make some playoff noise one of these springs, they’ll need to shore up their goaltending – and what better way of doing that than going after Miller?
Miller, like Vanek, is unlikely to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier didn’t get into specifics about where talks stand on Miller, only to acknowledge that goaltenders tend to be harder to move because there are fewer landing places for them in the NHL compared to position players. So you’d have to assume that either a) the asking price for Miller was too high; or b) the Islanders don’t believe their goaltending issues are as acute as others might think, and didn’t pursue Miller as part of their negotiations with the Sabres on Vanek.
Moulson has been a reliable NHL goal scorer for four seasons now, all of which coincide with Tavares’s arrival in the league. The two have been close friends for a long time and the chemistry that they developed on the ice was thought to be rooted in their off-ice relationship. How will Moulson adapt to playing without Tavares?
The onus will be on him to prove that he can be a good player in his own right, on a Buffalo team that features Cody Hodgson as their No. 1 centre. Of course, if it doesn’t work out, there’s nothing to prevent the Islanders from bringing Moulson back next year as an unrestricted free agent.
The Islanders are 4-4-3, and coming off a one-sided loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday in which Nabokov’s backup, Kevin Poulin, got the start. The Metropolitan is the worst division in hockey, with only the Pittsburgh Penguins boasting a winning record. Chances are, only three of their eight teams will make the playoffs, and if the Islanders aren’t one of them, then the draft choice acquired by the Sabres will be a lottery pick and could produce another high-end prospect, which is what Regier seems to be stockpiling right now.
For Buffalo, the deal is for the future; for the Islanders, it is a transaction ground strictly in the here-and-now. The Islanders haven’t exactly rocked the NHL with aggressive moves these past half-dozen seasons – Nino Niederreiter for Cal Clutterbuck was their splashiest off-season transaction – but this one signals a shift in thinking. They are no longer the rebuilding Islanders. They believe they are playoff contenders and more. We’ll see.
THE RICK DIPIETRO WATCH: Speaking of the Islanders and curious moves, it will be interesting to see if the Carolina Hurricanes’ unabated run of goalie injuries will turn out to be Rick DiPietro’s ticket back to the NHL.
You remember DiPietro, the former Islander goaltender, right? The poster boy for ’caveat emptor?’ The Hurricanes have signed DiPietro to a tryout contract with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, and he was scheduled to join them this past weekend. Depending upon how he looks – physically and otherwise – DiPietro could be playing AHL games later this week. If the Hurricanes determine he has something left, they may sign him to a contract, given that both starting goaltender Cam Ward and backup Anton Khudobin are currently out with injuries.
At 32, DiPietro is a fascinating case study, and has been since 2000 when the Islanders drafted him with the first choice in that year’s NHL entry draft and opened up a juicy starting spot for him in the organization by trading away a young up-and-comer, Roberto Luongo, to the Florida Panthers. Luongo went on to have a successful career with both Florida and Vancouver, while DiPietro’s has sputtered and stumbled along, undermined more by his fragility than his erratic play.
DiPietro’s primary appeal back in the beginning was his exceptional puck-handling ability. There were thoughts that he could become the best ever puck-handling goalie and revolutionize the position – carrying on where future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur and others had taken it.
The Islanders liked him so much that they signed him to what was considered a lifetime contract back in 2006 – 15 years, $67.5-million – a pivotal signing that eventually paved the way for all the excessively long contracts that followed.
Just why so many NHL teams thought that was a good strategy remains a perplexing question and certainly played a major part in the term restrictions built into the new collective bargaining agreement. DiPietro dealt with all the common ailments associated with goalies saddled with heavy workloads – hip, knee, groin and sports hernia problems – in addition to a concussion. The Islanders’ patience finally ran out last year, when they bought out the final eight years of his deal.
Ever since, DiPietro – like fellow free agents Ilya Bryzgalov and Jose Theodore – has been biding his time, waiting for an opportunity and trying to get healthy.
Carolina helped Dan Ellis, now the backup to Kari Lehtonen in Dallas, resurrect his career with Charlotte, but the DiPietro experiment is probably more akin to Ray Emery’s return after he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition, during the 2009-10 season. Emery needed a bone graft to repair the damage and then embarked on a significant conditioning program so that he could play at the NHL level again. The Anaheim Ducks eventually took a chance on Emery and after a successful 7-2-0 spin with them he moved on the Chicago Blackhawks, where he went 17-1 last year and was part of their Stanley Cup championship team, albeit it in a backup role. DiPietro needs a team to take a similar leap of faith in him.
Carolina’s season went off the rails last year after both Ward and Ellis were simultaneously out with injuries. Khudobin is considered a prospect with starting potential, but he hasn’t played since getting hurt against Phoenix earlier this season, and was scheduled to start practicing Sunday. Ward is expected to miss about a month with a lower-body injury.
From a purely short-term point of view, the Hurricanes could use an in-form DiPietro now as opposed to later, but as general manager Jim Rutherford told the Raleigh News Observer, the Hurricanes didn’t want to be caught short of goaltending depth again.
“When Cam was hurt, we started going through the names and looking at possibilities,” said Rutherford. “With an 82-game schedule you have more leeway with injuries. But with that being said, having as much depth as you can in goal is important.”
THE RINNE WATCH: Similar to the Hurricanes, the Nashville Predators will try to muddle along for the next month – and possibly longer – without their starting goalie. In Nashville’s case, Pekka Rinne is out with a bacterial infection in his surgically repaired hip. Though they are optimistic that all will go well in his recovery, there is always the fear that it won’t – and if that’s the case, Nashville may also have to wade into the goalie market.
The St. Louis Blues blasted them for six goals Saturday night – the first five getting past the new starter, Carter Hutton, and the last one past the newly promoted Magnus Hellberg, a goalie the Preds believe has a big future with them. Nashville generally relies on homegrown talent when injuries strike and have had a long history of developing high-end goalie talent, either for themselves or for other teams around the league.
The Preds play such a tight defensive system that many goalies that look great in their system don’t fare nearly as well elsewhere – Anders Lindback, being the latest example of that. The Predators missed the playoffs last year for the first time in eight years and were rewarded with a fabulous consolation prize – defenceman Seth Jones, who will likely give the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and possibly the Calgary Flames’ Sean Monahan a run for rookie of the year honors. But the Preds thought they’d be back in the playoff chase this year, anchored by a healthy Rinne.
Rinne’s start was up-and-down by his standards, but coach Barry Trotz saw his game headed in the right direction before the infection was discovered: “His last game was maybe his best game in two years,” Trotz said. “Real unfortunate.”
HOT AND COLD: The notoriously slow-starting Jarome Iginla is starting to get into a rhythm with his new Boston Bruins’ linemates, David Krejci and Milan Lucic, contributing three points in Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils. When Iginla signed with the Bruins as a free agent this past summer, he structured his contract so as that it included a low base salary ($1.8-million), but easy to achieve bonuses to help Boston with its cap issues. The Boston Globe reported Sunday that Iginla’s first bonus payment (of $3.7-million out of a total $4.2-million) was triggered this weekend after he played his 10th game of the season. If needed, the Bruins can defer the bonus until next year, when the cap is expected to rise significantly ... The Toronto Maple Leafs long ago gave up on Alex Steen, a former first-round draft choice, trading him to the St. Louis Blues in the Lee Stempniak deal. In St. Louis, Steen evolved into a solid two-way player, someone that a succession of coaches from Andy Murray and Davis Payne to Ken Hitchcock relied on in every situation. But Steen has never scored goals the way he has this year. In that win over Nashville that chased Hutton, Steen scored twice, giving him 10 in the Blues’ first nine games, the first NHLer to manage that total in so few games off the start of a season since 2006-07. It leaves Steen tied with the Capitals Alex Ovechkin for the NHL goal-scoring lead, though he was quick to note Ovechkin had been racking up the big numbers for years, and he’s managed to do it for a handful of games. Still, he is in good company. In St. Louis history, only Brett Hull (twice), Brian Sutter and Scott Young have gotten off to similar starts ... Also in uncharted scoring waters: The New York Islanders’ nifty Dane, Frans Nielsen, who until this year, was primarily known for his penalty killing and shootout prowess. Nielsen is up to seven goals already, surpassing his total from 48 games last year ... Nielsen’s former teammate with the Islanders, Mark Streit, made his return successful, assisting on two goals as the Flyers won back-to-back games for the first time this year, in no small part because of Vincent Lecavalier’s seventh career hat trick and first in more than five-and-a-half years. The Flyers’ reversal of fortune had something to do with a week off between games, permitting the team an early-season reset, and a chance for new head coach Craig Berube to introduce his system to the team. It didn’t hurt that Scott Hartnell and Lecavalier are back playing after early-season injuries hobbled them both ... Philadelphia was fighting it out with the New York Rangers for the bottom rung on what looks as if it’ll be the weakest of the four NHL divisions this season – the newly christened Metropolitan, which also features former Western Conference refugee, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Under the new playoff format, the top three teams in every division, no matter how mediocre, make the playoffs, which was the best news the Flyers and Rangers had after their discouraging starts. New York, at least, had an excuse – a season-opening nine-game road trip, necessitated by massive renovations to Madison Square Gardens. By defeating the Detroit Red Wings in overtime Saturday night, the Rangers salvaged arguably the toughest test of all – on a goal by Derick Brassard with 13 seconds left on the clock, for their first win at the Joe Louis Arena since 1999.
THE SCHEDULING GAME: Also on tap Monday: Lindy Ruff returns to Buffalo with his new team, the Dallas Stars, to play the struggling Sabres, a team he coached for 15 years. Ruff’s Stars did not exactly race out of the starting gate either, with defenceman Sergei Gonchar off to a slow scoring start. Gonchar was on an expiring contract, but joined Dallas when they made a deal for his playing rights with the Ottawa Senators, in the hopes that he could anchor the power play and perhaps act as a mentor for Russian rookie Valeri Nichushkin. Gonchar performed a similar role earlier in his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Evgeni Malkin. But while Malkin was an instant hit in Pittsburgh – 85 points in 78 games in his rookie season – Nichushkin has been slow adjusting to life in the NHL and has just one assist in nine games. Defensively, the Stars have also made Alex Goligoski a healthy scratch this season. Goligoski was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for James Neal and Matt Niskanen back in 2011. Neal had 61 goals in 120 games over the past two seasons, mostly playing with Malkin, although he remains sidelined this year because of injury ... The Sabres played consecutive games with four teenagers in the lineup this past weekend, the first time since 1996 that’s happened. The quartet is all European, which may make the adjustment to the NHL even more difficult for Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Zadorov could still be returned to the London Knights since his nine-game trial is not up yet.
AND FINALLY: Not only did Bryan Bickell’s breakout scoring performance during last year’s playoffs on behalf of the Chicago Blackhawks help them win the Stanley Cup, it also convinced the organization to sign the pending unrestricted free agent to a contract extension, a deal that subsequently made both Dave Bolland and Michel Frolik expendable for salary-cap considerations. Bickell responded to the new deal with a slow start, failing to score in each of his first seven games, but then scored goals in four consecutive games to get his season righted. Of course, the team that landed Bolland in the fire sale, the one that’s tripping through Western Canada this week, is pretty happy about the Blackhawks’ decision to go with Bickell too. The Leaf trip starts in Edmonton Tuesday, where they’ll run into an Oilers’ team coached by Dallas Eakins, formerly the bench boss of Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies, in a reunion of sorts. A handful of Eakins’s former minor leaguers, including Nazem Kadri are in the NHL now, helping the Leafs get off to an 8-4 start.
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