To say newly-minted New York Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has had an interesting start to his tenure would be more than an understatement.
He’s certainly made a huge impact on the franchise that hired him to take full control of hockey operations six-plus weeks ago, but it’s not quite the one many around the hockey world expected — nor what the one fans on The Island were hoping for.
It was quite clear by the timing of the Lou’s hiring that re-signing John Tavares and ensuring New York’s captain stuck around for the long run was priority No. 1, with the executive brass banking that the veteran executive’s shrewd negotiating style and winning reputation would make JT believe in the direction the club was heading.
That wasn’t enough to keep Tavares in an Islanders uniform, though. And with the departure of their franchise cornerstone brought a quick shift in philosophy and a hope that Lamoriello’s notorious confidence and sureness in his direction — the one he showed on a near constant basis in New Jersey and Toronto — would bring a positive offseason of change and place the organization on the right path to post-JT recovery.
That expectation is a valid one given his track record, but almost every one of Lamoriello’s signings this off-season have been questionable for a myriad of reasons, while putting the team’s future in an even more precarious situation than it was already under Garth Snow.
His latest and strangest move came on Monday when Ross Johnston — a 24-year-old winger with six career NHL points — was gifted a four-year contract extension. The AAV has not yet been confirmed and it likely won’t break the bank salary-wise, but my goodness that’s a boat-load of term for a guy who 90 percent of the hockey world had to Google when news of the signing broke.
As you can see, Johnston never posted more than 18 goals or 32 points at any level of junior and has just 26 points in 100 AHL games. He was handed an extension with more years on it than he has goals in the NHL which is rare as hell, to put it lightly. Even if we assume he makes the league minimum until the details come out, why on earth would Lou just toss four years at him for absolutely no reason? Who was he bidding against? What leverage does Johnston have that Lamoriello felt absolutely convinced that handing a player with little-to-know offensive upside a long-term deal would be wise in this current NHL landscape?
I have no answers. I, like many, am just very confused.
As weird as Monday’s signing was, it shouldn’t prove to be detrimental to the team’s long-term chances. There are a few other recent moves that are taking care of that just fine on their own.
The Leo Komarov deal truly has the potential to go down as one of the worst in recent memory. And what makes it so much more egregious is that Lamoriello sat in a press box high above the ACC ice in Toronto and watched Komarov suit up game after game after game, for three seasons, and still thought it would be a good idea to sign the barely-NHL-level forward to a four-year deal at $3 million per season.
That kind of term and dollars is absolutely ludicrous for a slow-footed, 31-year-old coming off a season which he tallied a grand total of 19 points. Komarov has never tallied more than 36 points in a single campaign and, for the better part of the last two seasons, has looked like a fringe NHLer at best.
It’s a lot of dough to shell out over a long period of time for a (slightly) above-average penalty killer.
Another former Maple Leaf will be joining Uncle Leo on Long Island after the team acquired Matt Martin and his $2.5-million cap hit from Toronto in exchange for a goaltending prospect last month, while forwards Valtteri Filppula ($2.75 million), Jan Kovar ($2 million), and Tom Kuhnhackl ($700K) all climbed aboard with one-year deals under Lou’s watch.
All in all, the five additions of Kovar, Komarov, Martin, Filppula and Kuhnhackl — with the latter four combining for an average of just 18 NHL points in 2017-18 — will eat over $10 million in cap space next year. With the team hovering well-below the cap ceiling heading into a re-tooling year for the organization, some of those signings won’t destroy the franchise in the long run, but a few of them add to what was an already unenviable situation for the team down the road.
The Islanders currently have a core group of 11 players — Andrew Ladd, Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck, Johnston, Casey Cizikas, Komarov, Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield — locked up through 2021 at a cap hit of $33.45 million, which will be in the range of 35-40 percent of the cap ceiling if estimates hold. That is not a pretty picture, to say the least.
It’s not ALL doom and gloom on the Island, though, with a Stanley Cup-winning coach now behind the bench and a couple of good young pieces, including Matt Barzal, looking destined for stardom. Top prospects like Josh Ho-Sang, Kieffer Bellows and Ilya Sorokin all have a chance to develop into solid NHLers, too, and let’s not forget the A-plus draft the team put together this year when Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson fell into their lap at Nos. 11 and 12, respectively.
With the upcoming crop of talent and a new arena on the horizon, things have a chance to look good for the team in four-to-five years, but it may be a rocky road until then — especially of Lou keeps up with the more-than-questionable player signings that have defined the early stages of his tenure.
Lamoriello is definitely still sharp as a tack when it comes to operating and running a club from the top down, but have the intricacies and nuances of the on-ice landscape and methods of identifying and developing talent in the new NHL finally passed him by?
It’s beginning to look like it.
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