In case you’ve missed it, the New York Islanders made an announcement today that the hockey world has spent weeks waiting for with baited breath. Specifically, they named Lou Lamoriello as their President of Hockey Operations, ending his several… day? week? tenure as a Special Advisor with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who he was General Manager of between 2015 and 2018, ending his term in that role last month.
It’s an interesting switch, but one that makes a lot of sense. Lamoriello isn’t one to play passenger, and the Islanders are offering him a significant role that brings him closer to his previous home in New Jersey and closer to his son Chris, who is an assistant General Manager with the team already.
The Islanders are coming off of a disappointing season where they finished 17 points out of a playoff spot, and as such, are expected to make some changes in an effort to turn things back around. On the other side of things, the Leafs are expected to overhaul their own roster under Kyle Dubas, with the timeline and exact process of that still remaining to be seen.
Either way, I thought it would be fun to look at some players who don’t necessarily fit into Toronto’s core, but address some of the Islanders’ perceived needs. Let’s dive in!
Look, the signs are all there. Matthews was Lamoriello’s first draft pick with the Maple Leafs, and as we all know, Mike Babcock has lost Auston. There is simply no other choice but to..
Hey wait, why are you closing the window? I’m kidding! Matthews, nor any of the big three, are falling back into Lou’s lap this summer. Just testing your blood pressure, y’know? Onto the actual candidates.
Back in January, I wrote a long piece on Matt Martin’s future in Toronto, speculating that his second healthy scratch of the season was just one indicator of the beginning of the end for him in Toronto.
From that point on, Martin was scratched in 37 of the next 40 games, playing just 27 more minutes for the Maple Leafs over three games. All three games came against the Buffalo Sabres, who were both a weaker (last place) opponent and a team known to cause trouble. He was not remotely considered to be an option come playoff time, even as the Bruins began to push Toronto physically.
Simply put, he was leapfrogged in the lineup by Kasperi Kapanen, and again by Andreas Johnsson. That will not change next year. Martin has been a good soldier, a great presence, and a decent enough NHL fourth-liner for the Leafs, but the team simply has too many options available to them at this point.
Martin has been linked to the Islanders, his prior franchise, for several months now. Here’s Certainly, his ex-teammates would be glad to have him back:
“[Martin], Casey [Cizikas] and I have played well together in the past, so I’m sure if he were to come back, it would be business as usual for him and probably a familiar place for him to pick up right off the hop. But that stuff’s way over my pay grade, and I try to worry about what’s in front of me,” [Cal] Clutterbuck said.
In the New York Post yesterday, Larry Brooks suggested that such a move could still be on the table:
And Lamoriello is old-school enough to look after team toughness, both on the blue line and up front. It is even possible that Matt Martin could find his way back home again if the Maple Leafs make the price right.
Lamoriello’s hire in Long Island likely does more to boost the odds of Martin being acquired than where they already sat. To my understanding, Lamoriello was the driving force of Martin’s four-year contract signed in July of 2016, and with that in mind, he’d likely be happy to have him as a tool in his chest once again – particularly in a locker room where you know he’ll be plug and play. Martin would likely be an asset that moves after July 1st: Toronto owes him a $1.5 million signing bonus on that day. After that, his “real dollar” salary drops to just $750,000 for the season and $1.75 million in 2019/20.
Nikita Zaitsev and/or Ron Hainsey
The Islanders struggled defensively in a lot of ways this year. They were bottom-three in the league in conceding shot attempts, unblocked attempts, and shots on goal at 5-on-5. They were the absolute worst at conceding shots in scoring-chance or high-danger regions. Just look at where the bleeding is! It’s everywhere!
In the same article that Brooks made reference to a Martin/NYI reunion, he also left this nugget:
It would be a shocker if the Islanders keep both the 11th and 12th overall selections instead of using (at least) one of them plus at least one of the younger players either on or off the roster in order to deal for a legit top right defenseman to pair with Nick Leddy.
Presently, the Islanders have just four defencemen from their NHL roster signed to contracts beyond this year: Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield. Ryan Pulock and Brandon Davidson are RFAs, though I would not be shocked if the latter isn’t qualified.
If Lamoriello and the rest of his team were willing to take a risk, their best bet might be to promote from within. Their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, went all-in on playing their younger defencemen this year, and of 122 under-24 defencemen to play at least 25 games, Bridgeport has the 1st (Devon Toews), 2nd (Sebastian “5ebastian” Aho), 27th (Kyle Burroughs), 32nd (Mitchell Vande Sompel), and 47th (Parker Wotherspoon) ranked players in estimated primary points per hour.
That’s a good indication that the team has some play drivers available to them, but I imagine that Lamoriello will want a bit more of a veteran presence, that he believes to help them in a stay-at-home sense. Certainly, it seems like he believes that Zaitsev (who he signed to a 7-year extension last summer) and Hainsey (who he signed to a 2-year deal around the same time) can be those types of guys, even if shot metrics can, at times, disagree with that. Both can play the right side, and while it’s unlikely that Toronto can get an upper-mid first rounder for either, I wouldn’t be shocked if he checked in on both of them. I don’t think either of these players really makes the Islanders that much better defensively singlehandedly, but they remain familiar options nonetheless.
The biggest reason that they might be targets, though? The penalty kill. This year, Toronto finished the season with the league’s 11th-ranked penalty kill by success rate, while the Islanders had a success rate of just 73.2% – dead last in the league.
Okay, dead last in the league is a nice way of putting it. It was the worst percentage of any team since the 1988-89 Toronto Maple Leafs, and just the sixth time that a team has dipped below 75% in the 21st century. Toronto’s process didn’t look as nice as its results did, but the results were good, and with Hainsey and Zaitsev accounting for 63% of the team’s shorthanded time on ice on defence, I’d bet at least one of them would be circled as a solution to that problem.
Curtis McElhinney and/or Calvin Pickard
The New York Islanders were ranked 28th in save percentage last year. Forget the shots against totals, if you’re getting 0.899 goaltending, not even an elite defence is getting you far in this league.
Tomas Greiss is New York’s only signed goaltender in their tandem, with two years remaining at a $3.3 million cap hit. Jaroslav Halak is likely gone as a free agent. Former Leafs prospect Christopher Gibson didn’t look terrible in his cup of coffee with the team this year, but there’s no reason to believe that he’ll blossom beyond his rather pedestrian AHL numbers over the past few years.
One would imagine that Lamoriello would like to have another top-end goaltender to build around; a trademark of his franchises. He drafted Martin Brodeur, and when it was time for his career to end, he chased down Cory Schneider. After moving on from James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier in 2016, he quickly acquired Frederik Andersen for the Leafs. He isn’t afraid to go big game hunting.
Now, there’s a lot of talk in Long Island that he might not have to. Currently, he has a 22-year-old in Ilya Sorokin who is arguably one of the best non-NHL goalies on the planet, playing for CSKA Moscow. Lamoriello likely has at least some awareness of Sorokin has been up to, given he’s been part of (or maybe even the driver of) the wooing process to get Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov out of the KHL club and onto the Leafs. Sorokin has put up an absolutely insane 0.936 save percentage over 110 regular season games with the team, and has gone to two Gagarin Cup Finals in the last three years. But Sorokin has no interest in joining the team just yet. A stopgap solution may be more in the cards.
Lamoriello has not one, but two that he can pick from in his old barn. If he’s looking for a pure backup, he can head to Curtis McElhinney, who put up a 0.934 save percentage over 20 games this year, the best of his career, and followed that up by posting a 0.936 over five games for Team Canada at the World Hockey Championships this month. Should he decide he wants someone younger, or with more of a reputation for handling workload, he’ll find Calvin Pickard as an option; the Marlies 1B finished the season with a very respectable 0.918 save percentage over 33 games, good for 12th in the league among goalies that played at least 25 games, and 9th for those who played at least 30. Pickard also has NHL starters experience with the Avalanche; given the disaster they were in the season he played, a 0.905 over 50 games isn’t great, but also not anything to completely dismiss, especially since he looked good in backup minutes before.
Pickard could also be an option that he waits a few weeks on if he believes he has the inside track. The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent this year, but with a $1 million (above the wavier-buryable line) qualifying offer required, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Leafs choose to let him test the market.
The Maple Leafs have a bevy of unrestricted free agents hitting the market this summer: James Van Riemsdyk headlines the list, but he’s also surrounded by Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore, Roman Polak, Colin Greening, and Ben Smith.
Van Riemsdyk seems like a clear match if the team decides to go big game hunting; they presumably have the cap space and he certainly aligns with with the general age of their core. Some are speculating that the Islanders will make a pitch to former Lamoriello star Ilya Kovalchuk to be their top-end winger acquisition, but should that fall through, looking to a semi-local talent with familiarity in Van Riemsdyk might be an option.
As for the others, they all go back to addressing need. The Islanders were a weak faceoff team, which is something that Bozak can mend. I don’t know how much help Komarov or Moore are to NHL teams at this point, unfortunately, but they may catch some eyes for their penalty killing capabilities. Polak’s hustle to get back in game shape this year and his perceived penalty kill ability might make Long Island his next home, and while I’d expect Greening to remain around the Marlies and there is speculation about Smith heading to Europe, they might be options looked at as veteran presences.
Another one to keep an eye on in this regard might be Frederik Gauthier, depending on what Toronto decides to do with him. His playoff form might be enough to earn him another contract, but he could be another RFA that surprises many by not being qualified if management believes the last few weeks to be a hot streak rather than an injury recovery. He’s another player with a reputation at the faceoff dot and on the penalty kill, and could maybe fill in as a depth prospect in Long Island.---
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