August typically is a very quiet month in the NHL. Training camps don’t open until mid-September and most of the offseason moves already have been made. Which means the large contingent of Islanders’ fans still campaigning via social media for roster improvement will likely have to remain patient.
It’s been, at the risk of understating it, a rollercoaster offseason for the Islanders, who lost their franchise player to free agency despite ownership revamping the management and coaching staff.
It’s been an offseason that’s left as many questions as answers as new president and general manager Lou Lamoriello tries to rejuvenate a franchise that has missed the playoffs the past two seasons and qualified just four times in former president/GM Garth Snow’s 12-season tenure, winning one series.
So, will the offseason ultimately be judged a good or bad one?
Does importing Lamoriello, who won three Stanley Cups with the Devils, from the Maple Leafs and Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz from the Capitals outweigh John Tavares’ messy departure to Toronto?
Did Lamoriello overreact to Tavares’ joining his hometown team by bringing in too many bottom-six forwards? Is Mathew Barzal, entering his second NHL season after winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, ready to take over as a No. 1 center and face of the franchise?
Will Robin Lehner, the ex-Sabre signed as a free agent, be an adequate upgrade as a No. 1 goalie?
And what about the defense corps, which lost Calvin de Haan and long-in-the-tooth Dennis Seidenberg but has, so far, gone without any additions? After all, the Islanders did allow an NHL-worst 293 goals last season.
Finally, the biggest question that remains is, will Lamoriello make any other moves before the regular season opens on Oct. 4 at Carolina?
“What we’ve tried to do is put together a team,” Lamoriello told Newsday on July 9. “Put together different parts, different pieces. Support the intangibles.”
He did quickly restructure the team’s braintrust.
Lamoriello, hired on May 22, relieved Snow and coach Doug Weight of their duties on June 5, hired Trotz on June 21 and brought in former Devils vice president of hockey operations Steve Pellegrini as assistant GM on June 12 for both salary cap management and talent evaluation.
On Thursday, Lamoriello hired former Capitals director of goaltending Mitch Korn, who has worked with Trotz since 1998, for the same role with the Islanders. Korn has been praised for his work with Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek with the Sabres, Vezina Trophy-winner Pekka Rinne with the Predators and Cup-winning goalie Braden Holtby with the Capitals. A day earlier, Lamoriello brought in Piero Greco, on staff as the Toronto Marlies won the AHL championship last season, from the Maple Leafs’ organization as the Islanders’ new goalie coach.
Korn and Greco’s top priority will be working with Lehner and Thomas Greiss to improve their performances. Both have served as No. 1 goalies but both struggled last season as Lehner went 14-26-9 with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage and Greiss was 13-8-2 with a 3.82 GAA and .892 save percentage for the Islanders.
Lane Lambert, also on Trotz’s staff last season, is the new associate coach.
Yet, while Lamoriello’s off-ice moves have drawn praise and the Islanders’ draft class in Dallas on June 22-23 was widely considered among the NHL’s best, his personnel moves have drawn criticism.
CBS Sports graded the Islanders’ offseason as an F and the Boston Globe, rating each team’s offseason in golf terms, said the Islanders “shanked it.”
The free-agent signings drew the most derision: Leo Komarov, 31, was signed to a four-year, $12-million deal, Valtteri Filppula, 34, to a one-year, $2.75-million deal, Tom Kuhnhackl, 26, to a one-year, $700,000 deal while re-signing Ross Johnston, 24, to a four-year, $4-million deal and Matt Martin, 29, was re-acquired. He has two seasons left on a four-year, $10-million deal.
Komarov and Filppula should help the Islanders’ penalty kill, which ranked last in the league last season.
Still, the Islanders now have a glut of bottom-six forward candidates while Lamoriello was unable to offset Tavares’ loss or bolster his defense corps, only re-signing Thomas Hickey to a four-year, $10-million deal and Ryan Pulock to a two-year, $4-million deal.
Perhaps Lamoriello can use center Brock Nelson, who avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $4.25-million deal, as trade bait to acquire a defenseman.
Prospects such as forwards Josh Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows and defensemen Devon Toews, Sebastian Aho and Mitchell Vande Sompel may be part of the equation. Czech-born center Jan Kovar, 28, who played the past five seasons in the KHL, will get a look.
“We’re going to have to see who we are in training camp,” Lamoriello said. “I feel very good about this group. I feel very good about the coaching staff.”
Until training camp, though, the questions are likely to linger.