Month: August 2019

The Lonely Islanders


I’m not saying the Islanders have had the worst offseason in the league, but they are definitely the first team that comes to mind when I think of a team not having a good offseason.  Starting with the draft, the Isles took a player in the first round that most people figured would go in the mid to late second round. Even the European scouts I talked to thought this kid was good, but not top 25 pick good.  Maybe we’ll all be wrong and Simon Holmstrom will be one of those guys that shocks us all and we wonder how other teams missed him. Lou Lamoriello and David Conte’s history with 1st round Swedish forward prospects doesn’t fill me with confidence though.  Looking at you; Niclas Bergfors, Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby.

Robin Lehner walked for free and ALLEGEDLY the team made no real effort to keep him.  They replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. They gave Semyon Varlamov a 4 year deal worth an average annual value (AAV) of $5 Million, WITH A NO TRADE CLAUSE.  Did anyone think this was a good deal? I honestly thought Varlamov would be KHL bound after the Avalanche parted ways with him. I thought that no NHL team was going to give him starter money, term and minutes, and that he would not accept relegation to backup duty and a backup’s salary.  INSTEAD, Lou Lamoriello whipped out the checkbook and gave Varlamov a big payday and effectively made him the de facto starter. Why? He’s 31, so that’s not really too old for a goaltender, but he’s got some hard miles. His entire career has been a struggle for consistency. Sometimes he’s very good, sometimes he’s really not.  But it’s not like he’s a young goaltender trying to find the consistency that comes with veterancy. This is who he is and who he’s going to be. I’m just not sure what the Islanders saw in him that made them say they had to have him at that term and dollar amount.

The Jordan Eberle signing was good and the contract amount they got him for might actually be a bit of a steal.  ESPECIALLY when you compare it to Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. I know the optics of letting another Captain walk out on you would’ve been disastrous, but $7 million per year for the next 7 years is a steep price to pay to avoid disaster.  The Brock Nelson contract is a little more than I thought they should have to pay for him, but I can stomach that because he’s younger, actually plays center and the contract carries him from age 27-32. Anders Lee is already 29. Anders Lee will be 36 when that deal is up.  How many of these 50ish points per year guys carry that kind of effectiveness into their mid 30s? How many manage to carry it beyond the age of 32? The odds are not in the Islanders favor of that Anders Lee contract being a problem sooner rather than later. It’s like Lou looked at the Andrew Ladd contract on his books and said, “You know what…I want another one of those waiting for me a few years down the road.”  I wonder how much the dollar amount of those contracts is related to the Islanders seeming to circle back around to Lee and Nelson after missing out on Artemi Panarin. How much of that $6 and $7 million is spite money?

Speaking of Panarin.  Not only did the Islanders miss out on Panarin, but they got to watch him go across town to the Rangers.  He wasn’t the only one. Much has been said about the acquisitions made by the Devils and the Rangers. Good things are also said about their prospect systems.  Nobody is saying these things about the Islanders. That in and of itself becomes a strike against them this offseason. The late addition of Brassard gives them more options and depth at center, which was certainly a franchise need.  But, it doesn’t alleviate the fact that none of the kids leftover from Garth Snow, that are still in the system, look like they’re ready to make substantial NHL impacts. I’m at the point where I wonder why the Isles even bothered keeping Ho-Sang and Dal Colle.  Ho-Sang has talent but clearly is a culture clash with the team, while Dal Colle is just so underwhelming that it’s easy to forget he was a 5th overall pick. The Islanders finished 2nd in the Metropolitan Division in 2019. I don’t know if I think they’ve managed to get any better from that 2019 team.  With seemingly everyone around them in their division getting better, it’s hard to picture the Islanders duplicating last season’s success, this year.

10 Thoughts For August

It’s August and the news is slow.  Here’s my short takes on some of the NHL stories I’m following right now.

  1.  For Jake Gardiner to still be unsigned, he must have a handshake deal in place that is pending some of the RFA contracts still not done.  I’m sure Jake isn’t sweating the fact that he’s currently unsigned.
  2. Brian Boyle is the most interesting unsigned UFA.  There aren’t many teams, looking to be in the playoff picture, that couldn’t make usage of Boyle’s services.  He also doesn’t command a huge salary.  Really surprising to me that he’s not signed up somewhere.
  3. Marcus Pettersson has not signed a contract with the Penguins yet.  Reports say Rutherford says the deal will be done before camp, but we’ll see.  If I’m a team that is uncomfortable with my defensive depth, I’m on the phone inquiring about this player.  The kid could really be something this year and the Penguins know it, but their defensive situation is so cluttered that they might be open to moving Pettersson for the right price.
  4.  Taylor Hall was ranked as the 15th best wing in the league following a season where he only played 33 games.  That’s really a testament to how high the regard for Hall is around the league.  They call a guy the 15th best wing in the league, “Right now” and nobody knows for sure that his knee is properly healed.  There’s no doubt in my mind that his lack of a contract extension as of August 13th is a calculated move by both his camp AND Ray Shero.  Shero does not want to throw big money at Hall if that surgically repaired knee doesn’t give him back an Team MVP caliber player.
  5. Andrei Markov needs 10 games to get to 1000 NHL games played.  He wants it to be with the Habs, but I don’t see Bergevin giving it to him.  The Canadiens very unceremoniously jettisoned Markov a couple years back, and I haven’t seen anything to make me think they have an interest, currently, in trying to repair that breach they created.  Markov probably comes pretty cheap and even though he’s 40, he has shown the ability to still play in the KHL.  His skillset, and esteem in which he is held, league wide, would be beneficial to almost any locker room.  Somebody should give him a shot.
  6. The Right Handed defender market somehow became flooded with expensive, middle pairing talent.  It seems the NJ Devils might consider moving on from Vatanen and want to give Severson and Carrick the 2nd and 3rd pairing roles going forward.  Calgary has allegedly been trying to find a buyer for TJ Brodie, while Buffalo and Ristolainen seem to be on different pages.  I could see Anaheim being in the market for Brodie or Ristolainen and I could see Winnipeg being interested in  all of them.
  7.  Chase Priskie has said he will not sign with the Capitals.  He was a four year starter and 2 year Captain at Quinnipiac as a high offensive output defender.  Somebody is going to get an NHL capable right handed defender, and expend ZERO assets to acquire him.  He obviously has somewhere in mind, if he’s turning down a chance to play in Washington.  That, or he figured he can’t take a job from Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas and wants to find somewhere where he will have an easier time making an immediate impact.  Vegas could be a good landing spot for him, as could Toronto, and Winnipeg.
  8. The only member of their defense that the Toronto Maple Leafs have under contract beyond this season is Morgan Reilly.  I’d like to think Dubas is not sitting back and relying Sandin and Liljegren to make the jump, but their right side if they started the season today would be:
    Tyson Barrie
    Cody Ceci
    Jordan Schmaltz/Justin Holl
    That doesn’t fill me with a ton of confidence.
  9. Jesse Puljujarvi is looking after his own brand in demanding a trade and I don’t disagree with his tactic here.  In his 139 NHL games over the last 3 seasons, Puljujarvi has amassed 37 points.  In his limited AHL action, he has 37 points in 53 games.  He obviously thinks that he’s capable of more than this and he obviously holds the Oilers accountable for stunting his growth into a force at wing in the NHL.  By vowing to play overseas this season if not traded, he’s betting on himself that he can be better outside the Oilers system and prove that he’s still destined for greater things.  I’m not sure what the Oilers would demand in trade at this point, but Puljujarvi could be a great bet for a team like the New York Rangers, who are bringing in a ton of European Talent to preseason camp.
  10. Speaking of the Oilers, they’ve gone out and done the thing that I always harp on NHL teams needing to do.  The Oilers have brought in Gaetan Haas from Bern of the NLA and Joakin Nygard from Farjestad of the SHL.  Both players are 6’0 tall, 180 pound forwards from overseas leagues who have been accomplished scorers in their respective leagues.  Haas really came into his own the last 3 seasons in the NLA average 0.79 points per game in a low scoring league.  Nygard has averaged 0.63 points per game in the SHL but is more of a goal scorer, averaging 18 goals per 52 game season.  These players aren’t likely to play beyond a depth role for the Oilers, but they are “free” depth that can possibly provide a jump in secondary scoring.  When you combine these players with the value signings of Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco and Josh Archibald along with the acquisition of James Neal for Milan Lucic, the Oilers have quietly had a very productive offseason.

The Gusev Gambit Means More Than Some People Realize…

The Nikita Gusev trade and sign executed by the New Jersey Devils echoed through the league media as a delightful godsend during the normally slow period of the offseason.  Making the rounds about a week earlier was an interview that Russian skater Nikita Scherback gave to Sport24 regarding his treatment in the NHL. The article is a good read (link at the bottom) when run through a translator, but it tells a story of a young Russian player who struggled to get traction in the NHL.

This is not a new thing.  If you were to sit down and list the number of high profile Russian players whose careers flamed out before they even really got going in the NHL, you could probably name a few top 10 picks along the way.  It’s like there is some kind of weird bias against young Russian players and how they adapt to the game, even though some of the game’s top players are Russian. It’s those supremely skilled, top Russian players that continue to tantalize teams to heavily scout the KHL feeder leagues and Russian juniors to find the next Ovechkin or Kucherov.  Some teams have found the formula because, clearly some franchises have had better luck cultivating Russian talent than others.

Ray Shero’s New Jersey Devils are no strangers to scouting for KHL talent.  In each of his years with New Jersey, Ray Shero has tried to bring an established KHL player to the NHL.  In his first and second seasons, it was former Omsk Captain: Sergey Kalinin. The next year it was Defender, Yaroslav Dyblenko, who didn’t quite work out for NJ, but played a solid year in the AHL before going back to Russia.  Least season it was Egor Yakovlev, a young defender who saw some ice time and showed promise, but opted to return to the KHL for this year. This off-season though, Shero got his big fish, in Nikita Gusev. Why? Why has Shero gone to such lengths to attempt to establish a Russian skater as a core member of the team?  Simple. It’s an unspoken understanding that Russian players seem to prefer playing with other Russian skaters. Teams who have established Russian skaters feel more confident in drafting and acquiring other young Russians because of this. In his 4 draft years leading up to the 2019 Draft, Ray Shero had used 5 out of his 31 total draft picks on Russian skaters (Yegor Sharangovich is from Belarus but played in Russian Juniors).  By the 2019 Draft, the rights to one of those players (Yegor Rykov) had already been traded. He used 3 of his 11 draft picks in the 2019 Draft on Russian skaters. Ray Shero has used 8 of his last 42 picks on Russian skaters and of the 39 drafted players, the Devils still hold the rights to, 7 are of Russian origin.

So, what does this all mean, what’s the point?  The “Russian Factor” as it is unaffectionately called, is the knowledge that it’s always a crap shoot if you can get a KHL player (that you own the rights to), over to play in North America, and if they will be able to adjust to the North American ice.  It would seem that the best way to push these odds into your favor, is to have a good core of Russian prospects and at least one high profile Russian skater on your team.  The reason this increases the odds of success with Russian prospects is because it creates a culture of acceptance for them within the franchise.  The Scherback article is not the only piece of writing that has come out over the years detailing Russian players experiencing isolation and a singled out feeling within a franchise.  Montreal should have been a great place for a young Russian player to succeed.  The roster counted Alexei Emelin, Alex Radulov and Andrei Markov in its ranks.  Scherback even had fellow Russian prospect Mikhail Sergachev to grow with.  So what went wrong?  It’s worth noting that NONE of these players are with Montreal anymore.  In fact, after the 2016-2017 season the only one of these Russian players left in the system for Montreal would be Scherback.  Scherback’s only saw 3 games of NHL action in that 2016-2017 season.  That offseason saw Emelin traded to Nashville, Markov not extended a new contract offer and Radulov gone to Dallas in free agency.  Sergachev was shipped to Tampa Bay to obtain (francophone forward) Jonathan Drouin.  Nikita Scherback would start his official rookie season in 2017 on a team where he was not allowed to speak Russian, and also had nobody on the team to speak it to.  In the span of 1 season, Montreal disassembled what would have been a perfect environment for a young Russian skater to come up in, and left in it’s wake, a lonely, isolated wasteland.  It’s no wonder that his career track went the direction that it did.

If you are able to push the odds into your favor, it can change how you draft and how you approach free agency.  The New York Rangers are an example of a team that has been able to draft Russians fearlessly over the years. The Rangers know the lure of playing in New York, coupled with the fact that they always seem to have a least one stable Russian member of their lineup makes them a good destination for young Russians.  We saw that in the offseason with Artemi Panarin opting to go to New York, while prospects Vitali Kravtsov and Yegor Rykov decided to make the trip across the ocean. These players join fellow Russians Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Georgiyev in training camp for the Rangers.

Since the 2015 Draft, 101 Russian players have been picked.  54 of those players were picked by 9 teams.
russian drafting highlighted graph
I would suggest that the data here is too new to really draw too many conclusions from.  A few years down the road it would be interesting to revisit this data and see what kinds of success rates teams had with these prospects, and how those successes translated to team success.  The one conclusion that we can draw; is that some teams have clearly valued Russian prospects more than others.

So how does this all tie back to Gusev and the “deeper meaning” behind his signing?  The Devils are clearly one of the teams that raids the KHL/Russian cookie jar. They have swung and missed several times, but there are signs that point to Nikita Gusev being a home run.  If Russian prospects see, hear and read about Nikita Gusev, being happy and successful as a Devil, it could be further incentive for them to try to do the same. This is a potential formula for success that other teams are trying.  Only time will tell whether or not these teams obtain that which they seek.

Sport24 Scherback Interview