Monday, 2 July 2018

Scorched Earth On Long Island

In a very un-Lou-like move, the New York Islanders didn't get their man. There had been some rumblings that John Tavares was looking elsewhere after he let the possibility of signing for eight years elapse at midnight on July 1, and it became reality around noon yesterday when John Tavares signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Lou Lamoriello's former team, rather than the New York Islanders, Lou Lamoriello's new team, for seven years and $77 million over that time. Suddenly, there isn't a lot of hope for the Islanders this season when you consider the guy who basically was the engine for that team walked with no compensation.

If you were on social media, you heard about the "boyhood dreams" and all the romanticism that poured out of Tavares at the Leafs press conference where they introduced him, but let's make no mistake that Toronto has a ton of upside that they have yet to realize. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and others who will follow have yet to reach their peak, and are already a playoff team under head coach Mike Babcock. While Toronto has yet to win a round after falling to Washington and Boston in consecutive years, it's pretty clear that the Leafs are going to push for more than a comfortable third-place spot in the Atlantic Division with this signing. Tavares has the capability to push them higher while helping the kids realize some of that potential that they hold.

If you're in Toronto, you're loving this. If you're on Long Island, in Brooklyn, or where ever else the Islanders may play next season, you're in for a tough few years.

Your starting four centerman are any of Matthew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Casey Cizikas, the recently-signed Valtteri Filppula, the recently-signed Leo Komarov, or possibly one of Brock Nelson or Jordan Eberle. In other words, it doesn't look all that great down the middle once you get past the youth movement of Barzal and Beauvillier. Even that tandem isn't going to send pings of fear through many teams at this stage. While the Islanders still have Anders Lee, Andrew Ladd, and Josh Bailey to help pitch in, there isn't much in the way of bonafide scorers on the Islanders' roster.

If you thought the Milbury era was tough, welcome to the Age of Lou.

That being said, Lou did rebuild the Maple Leafs in three years to the point where they could lure Tavares away from the Islanders. Lou has torn down and rebuilt the New Jersey Devils a number of times in his career. There is a distinct pattern of Lou ripping down the old guard's plan and injecting his own through scouting, college free agent signings, and smart-yet-underrated trades. He has already sent Shane Prince, Alan Quine, and Jaroslav Halak packing - all Garth Snow acquisitions - so he seems to be in the tear-down mode of his franchise rebuild already. If Lou worked on HGTV, he'd have a top-rated renovation show with his past successes in turning lame duck franchises into potential and realized winners.

Had Lou kept Tavares, the sell of this franchise rebuild would have been the first task of which he would have had to convince Tavares. Tavares is 27 years-old, so another three years of a rebuild would have cost Tavares his prime years. Trying to convince a kid to give up three years of the best hockey-playing years of his life is a tough sell for any GM, and Lou simply couldn't convince Tavares that his plan was going to work. That happens with players who are seeing their windows of opportunity close, and I don't fault Tavares for that. Most of that should fall on the shoulders of Garth Snow, and that might be part of the reason that Snow was re-assigned within the franchise outside of the GM's office. Snow had opportunities to improve the franchise, and he simply could not or would not make moves that may have made the team better.

Like the Leafs a few years ago, Lamoriello now has a blank canvass to work with when it comes to building the Islanders his way. I don't expect any major signings to happen, I expect Lou to covet and use his cap space to acquire pieces that he wants even if it means taking a bad contract back, and I expect Lou to do what he does best in turning his scouting staff loose to find unsigned diamonds in the rough and overlooked junior and college players that he can use to rebuild Bridgeport with the expectation that they'll eventually contribute with the Islanders.

In other words, it's the Lamoriello Rebuild Show - Season One for the Islanders, and Lou is in destruction/raw materials mode right now.

For Islanders fans, the reality is that this is going to get worse before it gets better - the same message that Toronto fans were delivered. It won't be pretty, but expect a very nice lottery pick next season which Lou can use as the first semblance of a new foundation for the Islanders. Once that has happened, he does own Calgary's 2019 second-round pick, but the draft will be thin in 2019 for the Islanders with no second-, third-, or fourth-round picks of their own unless Lou can make deals to bring back picks.

Outside of Ryan Pulock who is still unsigned, all his defencemen are signed through 2021-22 at the earliest, so it will be trades to improve that bunch unless the CBA negotiations in 2020 present new opportunities. While I wouldn't exactly be overly comfortable with Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield as the five men carrying this franchise on the blue line, there will be teams needing defencemen at some point and Lou won't be afraid to make a deal to improve his team if it means dealing away one of the five (or six) player above. With Sebastien Aho and Mitchell Vande Sompel playing solid minutes in Bridgeport, there might be opportunities for the kids if a trade is made.

Netminding has been a bottomless hole for the Islanders, and there appears to be no relief unless Christopher Gibson can turn a major corner. Kristers Gudlevskis looked good in Tampa Bay and Syracuse for a short time, but his numbers nosedived once he got to Bridgeport. He's still a very raw goalie whose time may be up at some point, but it appears that Gibson may be the future between the pipes over Gudlevskis as it stands.

Lou Lamoriello has a tough job ahead of him, but it starts by jettisoning pieces that don't fit the plan and that has already begun. Ownership has committed to the changes that Lou wants, and bringing in Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz was a good first step in righting the ship. Mike Babcock was the first major acquisition for the Maple Leafs in their rebuild, and it appears Lou is following the same game plan. If he can duplicate the results and possibly even improve on them past where the Leafs' recent history has shown, losing Tavares might be the best thing that ever happened to the Islanders.

Right now, though, it hurts. It hurts bad.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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