As the days of July dwindle down, hockey season doesn’t seem that far away.
For the New York Islanders and their fans, the past month has been a time of change in direction by the organization.
John Tavares, Calvin de Haan, and Nikolay Kulemin out, Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, Jan Kovar, Matt Martin, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Robin Lehner in. Now that might not sound like the most exciting transition, but those acquisitions were made for a reason, one President and G.M. Lou Lamoriello explained at length to MSG Network’s Stan Fischler just a week ago. Beyond those additions, the Isles do have a very solid core headlined by now the face of the franchise, Mathew Barzal, youngsters Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Ho-Sang and Ryan Pulock, and veterans Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Nick Leddy, and Casey Cizikas.
Lamoriello and the Islanders still have some pressing needs — another top-four defenseman and number two/three center — that hopefully are addressed by the time training camp rolls around two months from now. But another major question remains on the mind of people who cover the team and those who support the club — Who is going to be the next captain? The answer to that question could come by this time in September or could come by this time next September.
Make no bones about it, Lamoriello is going to run the franchise his way.
In his long stint in New Jersey, Lamoriello awarded the captaincy to only eight players — Kirk Muller, Bruce Driver, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise, and Bryce Salvador. In his three seasons in Toronto, he had only one captain in Dion Phaneuf. But once Phaneuf was dealt, Lamoriello made the interesting choice not to go with a captain for the last two years even though he had a franchise cornerstone in Auston Matthews and experienced guys in Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner as possible options.
So if there’s anything to take from his past ventures in New Jersey and Toronto, it’s that Lamoriello does his due diligence when deciding which player gets the rightful honor to have the “C” on their chest.
Lamoriello could take that same approach with this Islanders squad now entrenched in a new era, but if he decides not to, he’s got a very worthy group and some surprise candidates that could be linked to fellow team legends like Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, Brent Sutter, and Ed Westfall. So let’s make the case for who should be the 15th captain:
Anders Lee: The 28-year old has shown leader-like qualities with his play on the ice, and how professional he goes about himself with his teammates and the media. Lee has also been with the franchise since it’s mini rebirth from four seasons ago and has been a major player.
Josh Bailey: The longest-tenured player of the franchise since 2008, Bailey is a true veteran. His even-keel nature could be significant with the changes now in the room and the different style of play the team will have this coming season.
Andrew Ladd: Ladd captained the Winnipeg Jets for several seasons, so he knows the pressures of being a leader. He would be an interesting choice as he still hasn’t really shown his true colors and what he is really capable of because of injuries and poor play.
Casey Cizikas: Some would say Cizikas would be a unique choice for the captaincy, but frankly he does have the characteristics you want from a leader. Cizikas never takes a shift off, embraces the grind and has his teammates back, and comes ready to play every night.
Johnny Boychuk: As one of the leaders of the team since his arrival in 2014 — and his grizzled veteran status — Boychuk makes sense to be a captain. Injuries and setbacks aside, Boychuk’s hard-nosed mentality could rub off on the rest of his teammates.
Thomas Hickey: Now re-signed for four more seasons, Hickey’s quiet, but hard-working nature could be good for this transition period the franchise is now in. He’s always been known to be a great locker room guy, and he did captain Team Canada in World Juniors back in 2007.
Matt Martin: Though he should have never left, Martin is a heart and soul type guy, someone any team would be lucky to have donned the C. His attitude and enthusiasm can put the pride and light the fire back under the franchise.
Jordan Eberle: Even though he’s only been here a year, Eberle would be a welcomed captain. He was one of the main players leaned on in Edmonton for the club to have success.
Mathew Barzal: A lot of people believe it’s only a short matter of time before Barzal is handed the captaincy. Barzal still just 21, and many also believe it would be putting an immense amount of pressure on the young man despite the team building around him for the future. But remember this from what we saw in his rookie year, Barzal wants the spotlight and he’s ready for the challenge.
Credit Lamoriello with sticking with guns about continuing his evaluation to see what he really has to work with. Signing Ryan Pulock for two years at $4 million dollars was a very shrewd move, but could have him and the team sitting pretty if Pulock makes the leap to the number two spot on the blue line this season.
What the deal basically reveals is that Lamoriello wants to quantify whether Pulock’s brilliant second half of the season — ending the year with 10 goals and 32 points — was just the beginning of bigger things to come for the 23-year old. Pulock once again an RFA after this contract expires, will see his role expand this season from the year prior, and if he proves he can be depended on, he will see a large uptick in not just money but also be a key cog in the long-term plans under this new regime. Some will say that it paid to lock up Pulock long-term now, but if he still wants to prove to himself and the brass that he has top-two d-man painted on his chest, this was the perfect deal.
Brock Nelson is the final RFA left for Lamoriello to get signed. Offered a qualifier at $3.5 million, Nelson made the decision to go to arbitration.
Based on what goes on during that meeting — and the fact that now-departed d-man Calvin de Haan decided to not go through such a process around this time last summer — Nelson should take the deal and break the bank next summer when he becomes a UFA. With fresh eyes now looking at him and the rest of the team, the 26-year old basically gets a new start. It’s well documented how much talent Nelson has — three straight 20+ goals seasons — but he has been known to not play up to his capabilities with his size and strength. If Lamoriello and Trotz and Co. really see Nelson as the number two center behind Barzal, Nelson’s game is going to have to take a completely new dynamic.
As we still await word on if Mitch Korn is, in fact, joining head coach Barry Trotz and fellow ex-Capital assistant coach Lane Lambert on the coaching staff, this might be a so-called “hot take”, but Thomas Greiss could benefit Korn’s arrival more than UFA signing Robin Lehner.
Greiss looked lost last season at points and seemed to have lost his confidence along the way. At 32, he’s not getting any younger, and Korn’s track record with being able to get through to Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby really could be beneficial for Greiss. Greiss’ laid-back attitude would be a great foil for such an established coach as Korn.
One thought on Chris Botta’s article about the Islanders most likely going back to the Coliseum full-time to start the 2019-20 season and the possibly playing more than two years as Belmont is under construction, Lamoriello and ownership shouldn’t even wait till after this season.
The team should be back on Long Island full time starting this October. The players want it. The fans want it. Add in Tavares’ departure, and Brooklyn just doesn’t stand a chance when it comes to the Isles drawing at all this year.
So there’s still a lot going on in the Country while summer, and hopefully, there’s still more on the way.
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