Hockey

With the opening three games on the road going about as balls-up as could have possibly been imagined, the Hawks return home with some serious heat on them after a roster overhaul and reassurances that yet another Magic Training Camp would make things different. But things have not been different, and cries that “It’s only X games” into the season are largely meaningless when the same disorganization and bleeding of chances has been on display for nearly 200 games since almost three calendar years ago with Coach Vinny Del Colliton’s hiring. An underreported event that has somehow slipped through the cracks in all of this was Marc-Andre Fleury’s meltdown in the tunnel following getting yanked in his “homecoming” against the Penguins on Saturday night. For all the pear shaped playoff games he spat up in Pittsburgh to getting his job taken both there and in Vegas, there has never, ever been one reported instance of him losing his shit in such a fashion, and yet it took less than four periods here enduring the barrage he’s been subject to. It could just be a prideful professional feeling embarrassed in a place he called home for so long, but he hasn’t gotten the reputation as being one of the best locker room guys in the league for a generation and a half now because he takes shit like that to heart. Truly something to monitor as he makes proper home debut tonight against the Isles.

10/19 vs. Islanders

Game Time –  7:00PM CDT
TV/Radio – ESPN, WGN-AM 720
Profane Geometry  – Lighthouse Hockey

The Isles hit the West Side tonight looking for their first win as well, though their losses came against actual teams in the Canes and Cats, and on the road, as they wait for their brand-new non-charming-scum-bucket arena at Belmont Racetrack to get the finishing touches on it prior to its grand opening. One time Hawks flirtation Anders Lee is back after missing all of their second consecutive ECF run with a torn ACL, and Lou has brought in the remnants of Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise to do….things. And while the Islanders have more skill than their reputation indicates with Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, and Kyle Palmieri who will give you 22 goals whether you need them or not, the story as always here is the structure in which Barry Trotz has this team playing, as they will rarely beat themselves. What’s been uncharacteristic so far has been their goaltending allowing 5 goals in each of the first two games, with Ilya Sorokin getting off to a tough start. They’ll be looking to correct that this evening.

10/21 vs Canucks

Game Time – 7:30 PM CDT
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, SportsNet Pacific, WGN-AM 720
Diaper Time – Nucks Misconduct

After the back half of last year’s abbreviated season had the team absolutely beset by covid running wild through their dressing room causing the team to hilariously play meaningless games after the playoffs had started elsewhere, this Canucks campaign threatened to start equally as auspiciously with Young Go-Hards Elias Petterson and Quinn Hughes not getting their second contracts signed until camp in Vancouver had already opened. But after much rending of garments in the streets, both were ready to be in the lineup on opening night. This is another team that got an overhaul that likely isn’t going to accomplish much, with long time blue line fixtures Chris Tanev and Alex Edler (and his elbows) now gone in favor of whatever might be left of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Conor Garland also came over in that deal, and was likely the centerpiece of it and taking on OEL’s increasingly smelly contract was the cost of doing business. In the process they were able to jettison Loui Eriksson and Antoine Roussel, so it kind of all comes out in the wash. The Pacific division is a complete moldering corpse, so this team might make it in by default, but it will certainly help their chances if JT Miller continues to play at a Selke level to take some responsibilities away from Petterson. However, this team did most recently lose to the loose conglomeration of the Detroit Red Wings, so anything is possible.

10/24 vs Red Wings

Game Time – 6:00PM CDT
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network, SN1, WGN-AM 720
This Is Me Breathing – WIIM 

Speaking of which….those same Red Wings come to town on Sunday night. In a perpetual rebuild that has somehow not yet cost Jeff Blashill his job, the Wings once again have next to no expectations this year, and still basically only have Dylan Larkin to be concerned about. That being said, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of blowing this Hawks team’s doors off in terms of burying them in shots as they did a couple times last year and as recently as a couple weeks ago in Detroit. The blade sharpens….

Hockey

There was no bigger surprise team than the Islanders last season, as Barry Trotz took a contract dispute from DC up the Acela and then proved he can turn just about anything into a useful team. But his boss, Nosferatu, blames free agency for the global warming he assuredly doesn’t believe in, and the Isles look like they’re just going to count on running it back again. Will it work? It’s hard to think a Trotz team will ever be bad, but catching lightning twice has eluded just about everyone in history. Let’s learn about the Islanders.

2018-2019

48-27-7  103 points (2nd in Metro)

Won 1st round over PIT, lost second round to Carolina

2.72 GF/G (22nd)  2.33 GA/G (1st)

47.8 CF% (26th)  51.2 xGF% (12th)

14.5 PP% (29th)  79.9 PK% (19th)

Goalies: The Islanders lost one half of their tandem that anchored this team last year, as Robin Lehner toddled off here in July. The Islanders are going to attempt to take the whispers of Trotz and Mitch Korn and apply them to Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov was very up and down in Colorado last season, eventually losing his job to Philip Grubauer. That was kind of his whole career in Denver, where he flashed Vezina form at times and then was one of Jack’s French girls at others. But overall, he’s got a career .915 SV%, and considering how all Trotz teams make it easier on goalies, it would be reasonable to expect some good numbers from him.

He’ll pair with Thomas Greiss, who flourished behind this team last year at .927. He and Lehner had high expected-save-percentages thanks to the ultra defensive system, but both exceeded that in actual save-percentages. Greiss has done this before, but hasn’t been able to back it up. He won’t be asked to carry the load here though, and again, goalies under Trotz rarely shit a chicken unless their hip falls off.

Defense: Again, the exact same crew you remember from last year, though this time with a full season from the promising Devon Toews. They’ll hope for another step from Ryan Pulock, as Nick Leddy really struggled for most of the year to push the play. Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech are about as solid as you can ask for without doing much you’ll remember. Johnny Boychuck will pair with Leddy as he has for the past five seasons, but time seemed to catch up to him last year. As we cannot hammer enough, this defense gets a lot of support from the forwards, but was somewhat exposed by the speed and possession of the Hurricanes last year. Both Trotz and Lamoriello don’t want much to do with puck-moving d-men here, so they’re lucky in that they don’t have a prime one. Still, in a conference that requires you to get past Carolina or Toronto or Boston or Tampa, it probably takes more than obstinance to do so. Maybe Noah Dobson gets a look? That would be a real stretch.

Forwards: Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but it’s the exact same crew as last year. The only addition to it has been Derick Brassard, or whatever pod person is occupying his body now as he hasn’t been productive in the last three seasons at least. Which leaves Mathew Barzal and his missing T to carry the mail on the top line next to Anders Lee and Josh Bailey. Brock Nelson anchors the second line, and after that it’s a whole bunch of grunts and agriculture. Only one Islander forward managed more than 60 points last year (Barzal) and only three had 20 goals or more. And one of those was Casey Cizikas, who shot nearly 20%, and that’s not going to happen again. The Isles will hope to smother and bore their way to a playoff spot again.

Prediction: It’s not wise to go against a Trotz-led team, but the margins are so thin for this bunch. They limit good chances, even if they don’t limit attempts. There’s just so little scoring here, and if they don’t get water-tight defense, the percentages are going to go against them. Neither Varlamov or Greiss is really capable of taking a full starter’s load at this point, so if one falters the whole system might sink underneath them.

Luckily for the Isles, the division blows hardcore. The Caps and Pens are on the downsides of their cycles, with only the Canes looking like their pivoting up beyond the Isles. The Devils day may yet come, but not this season you wouldn’t think. And you can catch a lot of teams cold in January and February when they can’t locate the fucks to give to work hard enough to deal with a Trotz trap. Still looks short to me, but I said that last year too.

Everything Else

Monday is when the doors fly open and GMs go climbing and rushing over each other for the chance to splash the cash on whatever player or players they think will take them to the promise land. Or save their jobs. Stan Bowman and the Hawks have been making noise at being interestingly active for once past July 1, so what might they be in the mood for? We start with the winger they’ve been most heavily linked to. 

Anders Lee

Height: 6-3  Weight: 231

Age: 28 (29 on Opening Night)  Shoots: Left

2018-2019

Team: New York Islanders

82 games – 28 G – 23 A – 51 P – 58 PIM

49.2 CF% (+1.96 Relative)  54.2 xGF% (+4.29 Relative)  49.5 Zone-Star Rating (or offensive zone starts

Why The Hawks Should Sign Him

What they’ll tell you, though we might not necessarily believe, is size and goals. Lee would immediately become the Hawks’ main power forward threat, now that Artem Anisimov is no more than a fourth-line winger if not garbage to be jettisoned before the jump into hyperspace. On the top six, the only winger with size at the moment is Brandon Saad, and he’s not really much of a crease-crasher, space-eater, greasy goal-getter. While we might hem and haw, you do need that somewhere and Lee does that. And the dude scores. 28 last year, 4o the year before when playing with Tavares, 34 the year before that. That 102 goals over the past three years ranks Lee 12th in the league, ahead of names like Skinner, Seguin, and MacKinnon and right behind Kane and Draisaitl. Goals are still the name of the game. While the 28 goals might look a drop, Lee moved from the first line to the second line with Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle.

While Lee isn’t exactly swift, he does carry the “moves well for his size” label. And perhaps under the radar, the dude is good in both ends, with an expected goals percentage way over the team-rate both last year and three seasons ago and consistently ahead of it every year. And he’s done that with Captain Jack Capuano‘s Fury Road With No Planning methods or Barry Trotz’s cure for insomnia. So he can do just about whatever you ask him. He’s also been the picture of durability, missing nine games in the past five seasons total.

Why The Hawks Shouldn’t Sign Him

Well, that depends on how much you think speed matters in the game in terms of size. Lee won’t make the Hawks any faster, and they already are behind in the game when it comes to speed with which it is played. It’s also a little hard to picture where Lee would line up. He’s almost always been a left-winger, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to play him with Kane unless Toews was between them. As we’ve seen, Kane will make just about anything work but ideally has an actual sniper on the other side instead of just a crease-crasher. Lee isn’t really that. You could play him with Toews and RW du jour (Saad?) and have a hybrid scoring/checking line again, if Toews is up for that. Lee also might come at a higher price than you might think given that goals-standing over the past three seasons. He will be 29 when the season starts, so committing a ton of years to him might just leave you with an awfully expensive Andrew Ladd (now) on your hands in three or four years.

Verdict

Much like his former teammate in de Haan, you can’t see how a Lee signing would make the Hawks any worse. He would be an excellent weapon on the power play blotting out the sun, and he can do more than just stand there and shift out and make plays as well like Strome did. Whether that’s on the first or second unit, it would certainly strengthen it. The Hawks need someone to occupy defenders down low, and Lee does that, which should open up more space for the more creative forwards he plays with. And he probably helps defensively, too.

On the other hand, we’re talking about a not all that quick player heading into his 30s, and you have to wonder how much of a step he can lose before the hands and brain can’t compensate any more.

Like with anything, it’ll depend on the deal. You’d be awfully antsy about handing him more than five years, or anyone really. Second, given that goal-total the past three years, Lee wouldn’t be remiss in asking for $8M or more. Jeff Skinner, whose numbers Lee has essentially matched the past three seasons, just signed an extension that’s $9M per year. On the other end, Cam Atkinson–another numbers match–is only paid $5.8M per year, though he signed that extension a little while ago.

Eyeballing it, the upper-limit on what I would hand Lee is $7M per year. And that’s if you absolutely have to. That would still leave the Hawks with wiggle room to either do more or save space for DeBrincat and Strome (if he earns it). Skinner’s $9M seems too high as he has four 30-goal seasons on his resume to Lee’s two. Even $8M feels that way. If you can get Lee in for between $6-7M and for five years, six at the absolute max, you’ve probably got a good deal. Otherwise, shop better.

Everything Else

As the weekend wore on, I sold myself more and more on the Kirby Dach pick. We’ll never know, but my hope is at #3 the Hawks wouldn’t ever pick for need. Those picks come around maybe once or twice a decade (unless you’re the Oilers), and you take the best player on your board. If for the Hawks that was Dach, fine. Any argument for Turcotte there seems equal to me as Dach at this point, and at least Dach was playing in the realest junior league. He also seems to have a higher ceiling, and I’m always here for guys who make the game look easy, as Dach does, than go-go-motor guys like Turcotte kept being advertised as. That “making it look easy” can easily devolve into just remaining on the perimeter and fading into the background of games, which is why the Getzlaf comparisons are frightening. It’s up to the Hawks to make sure that doesn’t happen.

But what bothers me about the whole drafting policy is that it seems a whole new sense of direction, and a dumb one at that. We’re only two years removed from THAT press conference after the Predators had left tire tracks all over the Hawks where Stan Bowman definitely wrestled total control of personnel from Quenneville and his cronies, and promised that this team would and had to get faster. Saad-for-Panarin didn’t really make the Hawks faster, but you could see the logic (only kind of). Murphy-for-Hammer did make them more mobile on the blue line.

And their draft kind of reflected it. Jokiharju is hardly big and is supposedly mobile, though I haven’t really seen that yet. Ian Mitchell is definitely mobile. Altybarmarkyan is small and fast. Evan Barrat isn’t even that quick and he’s small too. Same goes for Tim Soderlund.

Last year’s offseason moves are barely worth talking about, because all it really included was Bowman spiking Q with Brandon Manning. But signings like Kampf (admittedly earlier) and Kahun and other Euro signings stuck to the “getting quicker” theme. And at the draft it was Boqvist, Beaudin, Kurashev. All meant to get to playing at a quicker pace in the future, especially from the back end. They even reached on Boqvist to do that.

And now we’re here. Dach at #3, Vlasic at #43, who just happens to be 6-5 with skating concerns. Michal Teply is 6-3, and he doesn’t have the skating worries that Vlasic does but the “good speed for his size” doesn’t make you think he’s a burner.

This goes along with the rumors that the Hawks are hot after Anders Lee, who is a good player and has a fit here but is also something of a big plodder. So has there been a gear shift? And why?

The why you know, even if it is complete horseshit. I don’t know how the Hawks could buy into the theory that the Bruins and Blues grunted and farted their way to the Final through the use of viking warlords or something. Here’s the Blues top players from the playoffs, and that’s even if you think you should be using a team that missed the playoffs last year and then got sweetheart matchups all the way to the Final as some sort of model:

Schwartz, Schenn, Tarasenko, O’Reilly, Perron, Pietrangelo, and Parayko.

I guess Pietrangelo and Parayko are big and the latter plays like it, but where are these crushers at forward? Do the Hawks really think Pat Goddamn Maroon is such a difference maker they need like four of him.

Now the Bruins:

Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, Krejci, McAvoy, Krug, Grzelcyk.

Chara was a fucking anchor all playoffs. Where are the monsters here as far as size? Back it out to the conference finals and you have the Canes, who simply battered Lee’s Islanders, and the Sharks. Again, where are the heathen hordes on those teams? Or on the Lightning, who did manage to be one of of the best teams ever in the much larger sample size of the regular season?

I don’t know where the Hawks think they’re going to go by getting slower. What are you going to do about Colorado on the five nights you’re lining up against MacKinnon, Rantanen, Makar, Byram, and Girard? If Nashville does sign Duchene, he is pretty damn quick if nothing else. Did Winnipeg lose speed? You’re still trying to catch up to all these teams, and you’re going to do it with Anders Lee and Olli Maatta?

Having your finger in the wind isn’t a plan, and maybe that’s why the Hawks have told you they don’t have a plan.

-The Hawks were making it seem like they really want Dach to take a spot this season, though most experts think that’s a stretch The thing is, they can shelter him just about as well as any team could. A center at 18, you’d want to keep him at the offensive end as often as possible. Which means you’d have to have Kampf and Toews take most of the defensive zone shifts. And you can do that, but is that what Toews is anymore? He could do it, but you’d lose a fair amount of offense from him because he’s no longer the guy who can continually flip the ice. Maybe he’s got one more year of doing that in him, but I’m skeptical.

And who would Toews do that with? Saad in theory, but then who? Would be a waste of Kane (and don’t be surprised if you never see Kane and Saad on a line together ever again) or DeBrincat. Is that what Lee would be for? That involves flipping Saad over to the right, which he’s never really taken to. It’s an odd fit, though I guess you could scratch it out.

Then one wonders who plays with Dach. Kane? You want shooters with Kane, and Dach isn’t that. Just give him Kubalik and like, Sikura and shelter them as heavily as possible?

The problem for Dach might not be what he can do, but what the Hawks can give him. Still, I find it hard to believe that there’s that much benefit from beating up on children he’s already played with for another season, and because the AHL isn’t an option you might as well keep him here. At least show some urgency. You just said it’s not like you’re waiting for him to grow.

 

 

 

Everything Else

Oh right, the Islanders.

It’s not easy to wipe away the buzz and impact of sweeping a long-time tormentor with just the flick of a wrist, but then nothing has been normal about the Islanders since…well, ever. You’re supposed to carry the momentum of a franchise-turning win like the first-round sweep of the Penguins into something that will define this era and be remembered for a while. Scoring five goals in the next four games, including getting two and a half games against the perpetually bewildered Curtis McElhinney reduces that first round to odd trivia shared in various Long Island and New York bars where Tammy from Queens will offer to blow you in the bathroom but won’t remove her bubblegum to do so.

The Islanders sold their soul already, assuming they had one. You can’t blame them, really. This is a franchise that has managed consecutive playoff appearances just once in the past 15 years. So you see why they turned to Barry Trotz, the Jose Mourinho of hockey (though about 1/130th of the asshole). You’ll get results, your defense will improve, but good god it will be about as entertaining as checking your dog for fleas. And if you give him a historic collection of offensive talent, he just might get your team to grunt and belch to a Cup (though it’s important to note no other Trotz team has ever made a conference final, which seems his destiny in wherever the Isles call home). There’s definitely a floor you acquire with Trotz, you’re just going to end up on it if you watch them for more then two weeks straight.

You’ll hear a lot over the coming weeks about how the Isles future is so bright after this. Yes, clearly a GM who has acquired Matt Martin twice and Leo Komarov  for a second team, who has openly admitted he hates playing players anything, and is managing a team with literally no home is sure to steer this club into the sunshine. Nothing hockey players love quite like shaving every day and having to throw a dart to remember where the home game is today! Certainly worked out well for the last big free agent the Islanders had, all the way back to last summer. Can’t help but notice Brock Nelson and Anders Lee haven’t re-upped yet. Perhaps they and their agents are going over the Lamiorello, “Every player is overpaid,” comment and wondering just how much they enjoy life between the highways of Long Island and commuting an hour to an arena where the structure and the fans are constantly off-center.

And the Islanders need them, and then probably another two top six forwards. See how they do that when they’ve never been a free agent destination before. Thomas Vanek once went here to die, I think. Andrew Ladd did die, and he’s only got four years left on his deal. If you sign in Brooklyn in the summer you’re going to end up smelling like Brooklyn in the summer…sweat and mistakes. No, the Isles acquire players when they essentially become Australia and other teams send their unwanted contracts there just to get them off the books. And then they stay, because much like a prison a lot of Islanders realize they don’t belong anywhere else.

Still, this is the Metro Division and you can stay around the top merely by floating for a while. The Penguins are exhausted, the Flyers, Rangers, and Devils are too busy trying to give themselves enemas orally. So maybe your future can remain bright by doing literally nothing and watching everyone else fuck up. That must be what Isles fans are getting at. Assuming both their goalies don’t quit the team to go build the wall on the Texas border themselves, or bring guns into the dressing room (which is hilarious, because would the NHL actually punish anyone for doing that?).

But hey, the Islanders have now won a round in consecutive playoff appearances, which they haven’t done since 1985. And yes, those playoff appearances are three years apart, but when you’re an Isles fan or player you have to grab onto whatever you can. That, and perhaps the most boisterous atmosphere in the league, for the 10 games the Isles play on Long Island that is. Just another lesson in how Brooklyn pretty much ruins everything. Tell us about your parking lot tailgates again though, which you have to have because there’s literally nothing else in Nassau. Is Nassau even a place? I don’t know and I don’t care and no one else does either. It only is inhabited because Robert Moses built a kingdom on getting white people to flee black people. And the only team that belongs in Brooklyn plays in Chavez Ravine.

So farewell to the Islanders, who will spend the next few years wondering if an arena can be built next to Belmont Race Track, which will hinge basically on how to get at train to go backwards efficiently. No really, it will. You have to take a moment to realize the wonder of a sports organization longing to get to a nowhere place like Elmont, NY. Every other team wants to get downtown, the Islanders want to get to a freeway exit. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

 

 

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE: Game 1 at Islanders – Wednesday 6:30, Game 2 at Islanders – Friday 6:30, Game 3 at Penguins – Sunday 12pm, Game 4 at Penguins – April 16th 6:30

Ho-hum, here the Penguins are with 100 points again, and likely as anyone to get out of the Metro Division. Before anyone tells you what the Hawks have gone through the past four seasons was unavoidable due to the cap and success, ask yourselves if the Penguins ever went four seasons without a series win, or three without a playoff win, or even two without the playoffs. The answer…is no. They’ll meet up with the league’s biggest surprise, and its tightest defense. Which will probably make this one a slog to watch, other than the Nassau crowd being utterly bonkers and frothing and smelly, because it’s Long Island. This will be the first series the Islanders have started at home since the Mesozoic Era. Let’s run it through.

Goalies: You have to start with the Isles, and their tandem that brought home the Jennings Trophy. As of now, Barry Trotz hasn’t announced a starter, and the Isles might just tandem it up as they did throughout the season. While Trotz certainly did lock things down defensively after Doug Weight had turned the Isles’ zone into what Springfield Elementary looked like when Flanders was the principal, both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner both performed above their expected ranges. Which makes beating the Islanders quickly almost an impossibility. However, playoff runs rarely work out when you’re switching goalies, the 2010 Flyers being something of an exception and that was due to incompetence. Generally you get one trigger-pull. The Isles are unique, and if one drops the ball they can just go with the other. But then there won’t be the safety net they’ve had all season. It’s a tough balance.

And if New York was hoping that their playoff fortunes hinge on getting significantly better goaltending than their opponent, they’ve picked the wrong fight here. Since December 1st, Matt Murray is rolling up with a .929 SV% overall. And a .933 at evens all season. And he’s already gone the route twice, so the stage won’t frighten him.

Defense: While the blue and orange faithful are probably hoping Barry Trotz can conjure more magic from last year, he doesn’t have the horses on the blue line this time around. I would argue John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov are better than anyone the Isles can boast. While promising, Pelech, Pulock, and Mayfield have only ever projected to be middle pairing guys. Nick Leddy was woeful for most of the season, as his freewheeling style doesn’t fit in with Trotz. Devon Toews has been something of a revelation, but you see how far Trotz trusts a rookie in the postseason. They play a style that shields them well enough, but there’s also a couple legends on the other side.

The Penguins will actually head into this series healthy on the blue line…for about five minutes. Again, it has the experience. There’s just way more firepower here with Letang and Schultz. Somehow, Erik Gudbranson didn’t sink them, and the Isles aren’t going to play fast enough to expose him and Jack Johnson. Maybe they capitalize on a mistake or two, but aren’t going to constantly cave them in.

Forwards: There have been series in the past when the Penguins won because they had Crosby and Malkin and the other team didn’t. Malkin had what everyone called an offseason, and he was pretty bad at times, and he still ended up with 72 points in 68 games. It’s still Evgeni Malkin. Jake Guentzel had 40 goals, and I’m not sure he does anything but stand still and let Crosby bank it off of him in the net, but he’s good enough to finish all those chances. Hornqvist is a nasty playoff weapon because he’s just around the net all the time, and especially in a series that could easily be trenched the fuck up, those kinds of goals and those kinds of scorers are paramount. PHIL!’s goal-scoring has dropped off a touch but he’s actually a better playmaker now. Again, the Pens don’t starve for weapons.

The Isles aren’t bereft of skill, it’s just not used that way. Barzal led them in scoring with 62 points. The Penguins feature four players who topped that, and a d-man who wasn’t far behind in Letang with 56. Brock Nelson is a hell of a second center, and Anders Lee could be a Hornqvist in the playoffs. But boy, beyond that…

You can write off Jordan Eberle now. This isn’t his time of year. His one playoff journey in EdMo saw him manage an 0-fer in 13 games. Sure, playoff narratives are built around grind-y, check-y, grunt-y guys like Casey Cizikas and ClusterFuck, but I’ll still take the Hall of Famers on the other side, thanks.

Prediction: Trotz is going try and make every game 2-1, because the Isles sure can’t shoot it out with the Penguins. And he did get one over the Penguins last year. He also lost to them twice. You honestly can’t count on the Islanders getting better goaltending than the Penguins will with how Murray is playing. Sure, it’s hockey and when things are this tight bounces can go either way. Still, if the goaltending is even, the offenses aren’t. Who do you think is more likely to get the 2 than the 1?

Penguins in six. 

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Islanders 29-15-4   Hawks 17-24-9

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: WGN

NO ONE LEAVES THE ISLAND: LighthouseHockey.com

The Hawks are one game away from a nine-day break that encompasses their bye and the All-Star game. So either that means they can leave it all on the ice tonight, or given how the season has gone, they’ll probably already have the buses running and lay a true, dense, unforgiving egg. I know which one I’d bet on! Still, if they’re still claiming that the season isn’t over then they’ll make a lot of noise about hitting the break with momentum carrying on from Sunday’s win–the now regular thrashing of the Capitals in the middle of the winter–to a second night. But when has that happened with this team?

We’ll start with the Hawks, who will put Cam Ward in net. I know this is going to send most into hysterics and apoplecticia, which isn’t a word, but it makes sense. Delia had his first rough outing last Sunday, so get him to the break to reset without the risk of backing it up with another bad one tonight. With Ward you’re at least guaranteed a bad one and everyone can go about their day. The Hawks had an optional this morning so no idea bout lineup changes, but it’s hard to imagine there would be any changes from a team that just put up eight. The one you’d expect is Jokiharju coming back in for Koekkoek, but they’ve talked about not pushing The Har Ju and giving him rest here and there, so maybe they’ll think a full two weeks off will have him primed for the rest of the season. But then trying to figure out what the Hawks think is why I drink. That and the crippling emotional problems, but mostly trying to figure out what the Hawks think.

To the Islanders, who are the league’s biggest surprise. While the Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets were all doing a “Here, you take it” routine with the Metro lead, the Islanders rushed up from the background and took it themselves and ran off. They’re three points clear of Washington and Columbus and four of Pittsburgh. And no one thought they would be here. That tends to happen when you win 15 of 18, as the Isles have done since the middle of December.

How did they get here, David Byrne? As you might have guesses, since December 15th when this silliness began, the Islanders have the best SV% in the league at .952. The next best after that is the Stars at .942. so yeah, that’s something that’s sure to continue. Because the rest of their metrics are just middling, ranking 11-15th in the league in just about all of them. The 9.2% shooting-percentage since then doesn’t hurt either, but it’s their ridiculous goaltending for six weeks or so now that has seen them rocket up the standings.

This is a Barry Trotz team, so you know the drill. They’re going to be bothersome all over the ice, they never take a shift off, and they most certainly don’t ever trap. No sir, no trap here. Never heard of such a thing! Don’t be ridiculous! And they’ll get timely goals from the talent they have, which isn’t nonexistent here.

That’s a problem for the Hawks, who really need a defensively wonky opponent to create openings for their thin offensive skill. Sure, Kane will find ways against whoever, but after that DeBrincat is going to have to be more creator than he’s been asked now that he’s with Strome and a surge or two from Saad wouldn’t go amiss either. Trotz will have the generally confused and drowning Hawks defense under constant pressure, moving his trap up to the Hawks blue line as he’s been doing for a decade now. They will simply sit on the boards, both at the half-wall and the points, daring the Hawks to go up the middle or over their heads. The Hawks didn’t cope at all with it in their first meeting, giving up 721 shots or around there to the Isles before losing in overtime. They’ll try and do better tonight, we hope.

And then we all get a break from Hawks hockey! Doesn’t that sound nice?

 

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Leave it to a crusty old bastard like Lou Lamoriello to make us look even stupider than we normally do. Earlier in the month, when the Hawks were on the Island, we wrote the Lou didn’t really have a place in the game today. That he would hold the Isles back at a time when they needed forward thinkers. And basically the Islanders haven’t lost since, and have shot up to the top of the Metro Division. Sure, Lou is benefitting from the bonkers goaltending the Isles have been getting as much as anyone else, but here we are.

Still, we’re curious what lies ahead for the Islanders when everything shakes down to where it’s supposed to be. And that’s most important in the case of Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, who are both free agents when this season is over.

You would think that Lee would be the type of player that if Lamoriello were going to pay anyone, it would be him. He’s a true power forward, who put up 74 goals the past two seasons and is on pace for another 30 this year. Sure, he’s gotten to play with John Tavares for most of last year. But this year it’s been him and Nelson together, under the top line of Barzal. He scores where he goes.

The problem is that Lee is still a premier goal-scorer, and those guys get paid. And at the moment, Lee is making $3.7M against the cap, or just $700K more than Lou gave Leo Komarov. So yeah, he’s going to get a raise. And a big one. And the Isles have the cap space, with about $35 million for next year unclaimed. Lee’s 92 goals the past three seasons are ninth most in the league, more than Marchand, Skinner, and Kane. Marchand signed recently for a very team-friendly $6.1 million, and his linemate Pastrnak at $6.6M. That’s probably the number Lee has circled.

Nelson has been a pretty consistent second-line center for the Isles this year. With Barry Trotz upping the amount of times Barzal starts in the offensive zone from last year, it’s Nelson who has had to take on harder responsibilities. It hasn’t clipped his scoring at all, as he’s on pace to break his career-high of 45 points and possibly tickle his high in goals too 0f 28. Teams still need to be built down the middle, and a second-center like Nelson aren’t something you can pick up at the bodega.

And Lou has to keep in mind that no matter what he does, Barzal is going to be looking for a contract out of his entry-deal starting on July 1st. And he’s going be more in the $8-9M category than the $6-7M one.

The thing is, we can’t remember Lou ever paying someone that premium. Zach Parise walked out of New Jersey after banking about $3M a year out of his entry deal. He got a one-year deal at $6M when he was still restricted, but then headed to Minnesota for the real money. In Toronto Lou signed Patrick Marleau, but that of course was the aging veteran he could trust. It’s probably not a coincidence that Lou was moved along before it came time to negotiate with Nylander and Matthews. Lou has openly mocked the money that players make already, but someone has go to attract the residents of Long Island to that new arena in Belmont, right?

It’s a strange landscape in the Metro. The Jackets are about to be stripped of their two biggest talents. The Penguins and Capitals are at least on the back nine. The Flyers and Rangers are in rebuilds, and remain the Flyers and Rangers. The Devils are rebuilding as well. Splash a little cash, a shrewd move here or there, and there’s no reason the Islanders can’t fill the vacuum quickly. But has that ever been Lou’s way?

 

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The Lighthouse Project may be dead, but LighthouseHockey.com lives on. Dominik is their maven, and he joins us today to fill in on the blue and orange. 

The Islanders sit atop the Metro. In your wildest dreams did you think anyone would say that this year?

At no point did I expect the Islanders could say in 2018-19 they are in first place in the Metro. I don’t expect it to last, but I am now convinced they should be a playoff team, and one others won’t want to face.

Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are both free agents after the year. If things had gone as expected they might have been trade bait. Are they both getting extended now?

I think everyone has long expected Lee would be extended, at least from the point where they named him captain. He’s a risk because he’s a big body heading into his 30s, but he’s also someone who has continually improved his game rather than peaked and declined. And obviously, he’s not someone who needed Tavares to set the table for him. He’ll get a deal that is probably a little uncomfortably long, but not in an Andrew Ladd way.
Nelson is more uncertain. I expected him to be trade bait, but Trotz has taken a liking to him, cracking the code that long frustrated Islanders fans. (Nelson seemed like yet another drafted center who ended up at wing, yet Trotz has found a way to make him productive at center.) The Islanders are also fairly thin at center in their system, which gives Nelson leverage. And Nelson has taken them to the wire on the previous two RFA extensions, including accepting a one-year deal to bet on himself last summer. So he won’t be traded, but how the rest of this spring plays out will determine whether both sides can feel good about the other’s terms.
Jordan Eberle is UFA too, and while it’s hard to see all three being retained, it doesn’t sound like they’ll be selling any rentals.

Help us with something. It’s easy to attribute the Isles surprise run to Barry Trotz being a really good coach. They are best in the league in goals against. But every other metric against–attempts, shots, scoring chances–has them middle of the pack at best. While that’s a massive improvement from last year, isn’t this just having two goalies playing really well?

On their surprising standing: No, it’s because Barry Trotz is a really good coach. The goaltending has been great — and certainly they were key to banking wins early on when those other metrics looked pretty bad. But look at the metrics after the first month of the season and a different story emerges, certainly a legit top-10 team right now. So Trotz did what he always does, locking down on defense first and then building from there. That organization and predictability has helped Greiss and Lehner, who both always had real talent, rediscover their games.
You remember how frustrating Trtoz’s Nashville teams were even when they had no talent? Well the Islanders have become like that — organized, robotic, suffocating — except they do have some talent on top of it. It’s fun to watch in a gawk-at-this-experiment kind of way. Finally calling up Devon Toews and using him regularly has helped, but Toews is one of several examples of decent talent finally organized and channeled into the right place.
Hell, Trotz has even figured out how to make a functioning team out of a roster that added Matt Martin, Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula (and extending Ross Johnston for four years) over the summer — a gluttonous helping of bottom-six acquisitions even Trotz admitted he wasn’t sure about until Lou “made the case.” Basically those guys are all still what they are, but under Trotz they have a role and are playing to their ceilings. I’m sure it’s helped that collectively the team has a post-Tavares chip on their shoulders. As we see so often in this sport, it’s easy for everyone to stay on the same page and do all the necessary but less sexy grunt work game after game when the perceived common enemy is outside the room.

Before the season it was thought the Isles would be something of a project. Is their current standing going to see them make a deal or two that might be considered short-sighted down the road?

As for the trade deadline, I have no idea what Lou will do, and it doesn’t seem like anyone ever does since he keeps a tight-sealed ship. But it’s even harder to figure now because this is Third Life Lou. In a lot of ways he’s the old ’90s GM with old-school ways and archaic priorities (e.g. no facial hair or high number because I said so), so I’d fear him adding some Grinding Veteran With Winning Experience. But in other ways he appears to have adapted at least a bit to the post-post-lockout-cubed NHL, and is realistically evaluating the team. Meanwhile, Trotz thinks they’re still a year away from being ready to contend and their lineup has been stable…so short-sighted moves seem unlikely.

 

 

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 15-21-6   Islanders 21-13-4

PUCK DROP: 6:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago locally, NBCSN elsewhere

FUTURE ISLANDS IS A TERRIBLE BAND: Lighthouse Hockey

The Hawks are back on Long Island for the first time in four seasons, as while waiting for their new arena the New York Islanders are trying to make it up to their fans who never took to Brooklyn because they didn’t want to stay in New York after work for one extra second, unless it was the three times a year they bother Rangers fans at MSG. Or Brooklyners never took to the team because Jay-Z’s playhouse sucks for hockey. Or because those stuck on the Island didn’t want to come into the city for fear of meeting a minority. Whatever the reason, the Isles are splitting their home schedule between Brooklyn and the revamped Nassau Coliseum (where they come to see ’em), and the Hawks get the latter trip tonight.

What they’ll find is one of the bigger surprises in the league. The Isles were supposed to be left for dead after they made up for John Tavares‘s departure by hiring Toronto’s decrepit GM and letting him pick up Toronto’s trash. While they did poach a Stanley Cup winning coach in something of a coup, this roster was supposed to be in the first step of a rebuild. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

But don’t fool yourself. Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz haven’t found some magic formula in their metamucil and oatmeal to turn a roster full of whatsits into a fine oiled machine. What they have is two goalies playing bonkers and some luck. The Isles have the third-best SV% at evens in the league, and the third-best PDO at a kind of unsustainable 103.5 (hey, remember The Blaze?). The Isles are not a good possession or defensive team, they’re just getting two guys stopping just about everything

For Thomas Greiss, it’s not a huge surprise as he’s put up more than competent split-seasons before with the Islanders. He was simply woeful last year, ceded the job to Jaroslav Halak, but has rebounded this season. Robin Lehner, who is nominally the starter at the moment, has done this before as well, with some excellent cameos in Ottawa and Buffalo. Because neither is being asked to shoulder the load alone, and it has benefitted both of them. And they are the reason that the Islanders are one point out of a playoff spot no one saw coming.

Up front, Mathew Barzal and his missing ‘T” have taken the #1 center responsibility and ably so. He’s kept Josh Bailey scoring, which is a trick because pretty much everyone assumed Bailey was a Tavares-product. Anders Lee and Brock Nelson have anchored the second line, and new toy Josh Ho-Sang is running with them in an exciting vision of the future…assuming Nelson and Lee are both re-signed in the summer.

That’s about it though. Anthony Beauvillier has put up 11 goals, and Marcus Kruger East Casey Cizikas has spasmed 10, but this is not a team that scores a ton. They average just about the same amount of goals per game as the Hawks. Their margins are thin.

On the back end, their top-pairing of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk has been woeful, and constantly bailed out by Lehner and Greiss. Leddy seems to have struggled all year with all the things Trotz has asked of him, and around here we know especially how fragile his confidence can be. The Isles are waiting for the young troika of Scott Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Scott Mayfield (not as much) to grab the brass ring. And they have at various times and definitely not at others. It’s a work in progress back there, though the Isles are pretty middling in terms of shots and chances against in the league.

For the Hawks, one should expect Collin Delia to return to the net tonight after Cam Ward got his gold-watch ceremony in South Bend. Few other changes would be likely. No word on if Drake Caggiula will make his debut in red or not, but that might be the only one you see. There aren’t any other d-men right now. Unless you are about the usual Martinsen-Hayden flip, and you shouldn’t.

A little further on down the road, peeps…

 

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