31 Thoughts: Arena deal a massive victory for Islanders

Check out some of the very best goals of the past year from around the NHL, including Sidney Crosby's one-handed flip against the Sabres and the Erik Karlsson saucer pass to Mike Hoffman.

• How does arena deal affect Tavares free agency?
• Pens’ two-trade day “the tip of the iceberg”
• Karlsson unlikely to move in near future

As one GM who wants John Tavares to hit free agency laughed last night: “This… is not helpful.”

Ah, but it’s the sweetest melody to the NHL, the New York Islanders and their fans. Two months ago, owner Jon Ledecky and GM Garth Snow met the media at a Manhattan restaurant, refusing to even consider questions about anything other than Belmont Park as the franchise’s future home.

“Our focus is solely on Belmont Park,” Ledecky said, over and over again. We twisted the question every possible way we could think of. He wasn’t having any of it. “We want Belmont to be our permanent home.”

And now it will be. If Long Island had chosen MLS’s New York City FC plan for a soccer stadium, the Islanders would have rocketed to the top of relocation rumours to Houston, Quebec City or Seattle. Now that storyline is dead and buried. This is where they belong. We just need Islanders/Rangers in the playoffs to really re-ignite things.

This is a massive, massive victory — particularly for Ledecky, who has gone out of his way to put a positive face on ownership. You can tell Islanders fans truly like him and wanted to believe in his ability to deliver, but there was a not-so-deep-down worry that yet another disappointment awaited them at the end. Not this time.

They chanted, “Yes, yes, yes,” at Ledecky during the media conference. He replied that they “deserved” the arena. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo petitioned NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to play some games at the old Coliseum in the interim, with Bettman replying he’d consider it if Billy Joel (who was in attendance) opened the new arena.

It will be interesting to see the concert setup. It’s believed that with James Dolan’s involvement, those who play Madison Square Garden are also going to play Belmont. That’s one way to fill dates with so many entertainment options in the Big Apple. The Islanders, who currently rank among the lowest NHL teams in per-game ticket revenue, aren’t going to be anywhere near that spot when they open the doors to the new facility.

That’s three years away — well after Tavares is scheduled to hit free agency.

Undoubtedly, there are Islanders fans who hope that one major announcement leads to another. I don’t get the sense anything’s imminent on the Tavares front, but, by now, we should understand not to read too much into his decision-making.

“As time goes on and you take time to think about things, look at the big picture, it’s very positive for the organization, for us, for the fans,” said Tavares of the new arena deal, via Newsday‘s Arthur Staple. “For my situation it’s really exciting news. I’m not going to say it’s going to change or ultimately make my decision, but everything that’s involved in my daily life plays into it and going to the rink, playing games is a big part of that.

“We’ll continue the way things have been going, keeping the communication open and taking it one day at a time. A lot of focus on the ice, on getting us to the playoffs. I’ve always stated how much I enjoy being here, playing here and wanting it to work out here.”

The moral of the story: He’ll let us know when he’s ready. Smartly, the organization is content to wait as long as possible. And, the biggest factor is winning. The Islanders are trending upward in hockey’s toughest division. Staying on that course is the best thing they can do.

But the team and its fans can worry about that another day. Wednesday was a celebration, a huge and well-deserved party.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Tavares’s linemate, Josh Bailey, continues his dream season, finishing Tuesday’s games with 42 points, tied with his captain for third in the NHL. Only Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos have more. After setting career highs in 2016–17 with 43 assists and 56 points, he’s on pace for 77 and 101, respectively. Does he really like the attention that comes with it? Bailey laughed.

“Most of it is praise, so that’s okay,” he answered.

2. As you would expect, Bailey threw most of the credit at Tavares and their third, Anders Lee.

“We would not be having this talk if not for those guys,” Bailey said. “If you don’t have it one night, give those guys credit. They pull you along with them.”

That said, a few different sources credited coach Doug Weight for putting Bailey with Lee/Tavares last year and leaving him there. Bailey pointed out that in the Islanders’ final season at the old Coliseum (2014–15), injuries forced then-coach Jack Capuano to put those three together. Bailey responded with 41 points, at that time a career-high. But the trio didn’t stick until Weight re-united them. Did Bailey ever request Capuano try him there again?

“No, I never asked,” he replied. “I believe you are told who to play with, you go out and do your best. I’m not that type of guy to go into [the] office and do that.”

Last year, after taking over as coach, Weight went to Nick Leddy and said he needed the defenceman to be his second-best player every night. Did he have a similar message for Bailey?

“Yes,” Bailey answered. “He told me he needed me to be better, to continue to grow. He also said he believed that I could do it.”

Are you surprised a your success?

“I try not to think about it. I try to approach each day the same. I’ll worry about looking back when the year is done.”

3. A few years ago, there were reports the Islanders were close to trading Bailey to Edmonton for then-Oiler Sam Gagner. Did Bailey think that he’d still be part of this organization at Christmas 2017?

“Yes, I would have believed you if you told me I was still an Islander. I enjoy it here. It’s where I’ve always wanted to be. My wife likes it here and my kids were born here.”

He’s an unrestricted free agent after this season. Has he thought about his future?

“Yes, I’ve thought about it. And the thing I think about is wanting to remain is priority No. 1. It would be nice to play my entire career here. I believe in where we are going.”

What Bailey concedes is that family and maturity have changed him for the better.

“Every player has a time that their confidence is rattled. Earlier in my career it happened a lot more, but as you grow as person, you gain appreciation for veterans who show up game-in, game-out. You know you can rely upon them every night. That’s what I wanted for myself. Yes, I feel good, because when you jump over the boards those with two guys, there’s added confidence. More results mean more belief in yourself. If I have a bad night now, I don’t think about it. It’s gotten to the point where I can turn the page each day, approach everything as a new opportunity, no matter what’s happened, bad or good.”

As any father knows, a lot of that comes from going home to 16-month-old Wyatt and 10-week-old Mack. (Wife Megan has her hands full with two children that age and a husband on a hockey schedule.)

“I owe them a lot of credit,” Bailey said. “Going to them is always nice. It’s easier to leave the game at the rink.”

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4. A few opposing executives on Pittsburgh’s trades for Michael Leighton and Jamie Oleksiak: “The tip of the iceberg.”

5. Call it more of a hunch, but I can see Vancouver making an increased effort to move Erik Gudbranson. It’s unlikely they re-sign him to what he can get on the market, and there is little point to keeping him on the roster if he’s not part of their future. A fresh start would benefit Gudbranson, too. It just hasn’t worked out for team or player.

6. Winnipeg sent out a note last week indicating Shawn Matthias’s availability. Their success has made it difficult for him to get into the lineup; just two appearances in five weeks. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

7. Fresh Start Number Three: Have to think Edmonton moves Anton Slepyshev, too.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

8. I think teams have asked Montreal GM Marc Bergevin what his plans are for Charlie Lindgren. (Have to think Florida was one.) Bergevin does not discuss trade possibilities, so it’s difficult to know. But the fact nothing’s happened tells you something.

9. Two weeks ago, one Western Conference GM said the Oilers still worried him.

“Any team with Connor McDavid is a threat,” he warned.

The Oilers enter Wednesday’s games six points out and with multiple teams between them and the final playoff spot. But I don’t think the GM I spoke to is the only opponent who feels that way.

10. Columbus talked last week about getting Alexander Wennberg back in the habit of carrying the puck. Their prospective No. 1 centre, who took a major step last season, has really struggled. He’s playing 18:20 per game, just two seconds below last season. That’s behind only Artemi Panarin and Nick Foligno among Blue Jackets forwards. (In 2016–17, only Foligno was above him.)

Producer Matt Marstrom asked SportLogiq, which does some tracking for us, to see if Wennberg’s numbers have declined. They found he’s carrying the puck for two fewer seconds at even-strength and six fewer seconds in all situations. While that doesn’t seem like much, what has also dropped is his ranking among teammates. He’s gone from carrying it third-most in all situations and seventh-most at even-strength to fourth and ninth. That seems really low for a player of his ability, and I wonder how much that has to do with Panarin’s arrival. They’ve played a lot together. They’ve got to find the chemistry Panarin and Patrick Kane did.

11. Idea that might make sense only to me: Columbus, looking for a centre, considering a reunion with Derick Brassard. Brassard and John Tortorella worked well together with the Rangers. You know who Tortorella’s assistant was there? Mike Sullivan. And the Penguins are looking for a centre, too.

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12. A few thoughts about Ottawa, the Senators and Eugene Melnyk: When I arrived in the nation’s capital one week ago, the cabbie said, “They might as well fold the team if they trade Karlsson.”

Some of the biggest battles I’ve had with leagues and/or executives come when an event they are extremely proud of is overshadowed by a story (especially a negative one) released at the same time. That’s why I was shocked by Melnyk’s timing, launching a neutron bomb into a terrific weekend. Whoever or whatever you blame for the team’s attendance woes, I can’t imagine the NHL was pleased. Melnyk is a fighter, and there is a theory he felt boxed into a corner by rumours about his finances, a sale, Karlsson and who knows what else. What does a fighter do when cornered? Comes out swinging.

Senators fans responded by making #melnykout a Canadian trending topic the day of the outdoor game, and people who know the market better than I do worried there was going to be lingering damage. Announced attendance was 13,804 Tuesday against Minnesota, and with the Senators low in the standings, you wonder if this could turn into an ugly, self-fulfilling prophecy: “He doesn’t think we support the team? Well, why would we do it now?”

Then what happens if they decide to cut payroll by trading higher-paid players for youth, prospects and picks?

13. During the 2010 Pittsburgh/Ottawa series, Melnyk tried to enter the team’s dressing room during an intermission — only to be intercepted by then-GM Bryan Murray. I was inches away, trying to do an interview at the time, as Murray prevented Melnyk from getting in. Whether the manager or an advisor to current GM Pierre Dorion, Murray found a way to keep the owner in check. It’s another reminder of how much he is missed.

14. Almost six years ago (March 2012), there were rumours of the Desmarais family’s interest in an NHL team for Quebec City. Andre Desmarais agreed to a phone conversation, saying his family “has no interest in owning an NHL team at this stage.” With all of the recent speculation about Melnyk’s future, I made another attempt. A spokesman politely declined on behalf of Andre Desmarais and Paul Desmarais Jr. (Last April, Andre took medical leave from day-to-day operations at his company at the request of his doctor.) For what it’s worth, staying quiet is always the recommendation if you are serious about NHL ownership.

15. When news broke that Ottawa had asked for Karlsson’s trade list, Dorion said everyone’s list was requested in advance. Initially, Brassard told reporters in French that wasn’t the case for him, although it appears the Senators did do it last summer. As for the captain being asked any time sooner than three weeks ago, well… we’ll agree to disagree.

16. So where does it stand? Prior to Tuesday’s loss to the Wild, the Senators had showed life with home wins over the Rangers and Canadiens. But it is a steep, steep climb. I don’t think Karlsson’s going anywhere in the near future. My personal opinion is he prefers to stay in Ottawa, although an ownership change would make his decision a lot easier. Teams have asked about Mark Stone, a sensational player, but were told he’s not available.

What makes that situation even more delicate is he’s represented by Newport, which also handles Karlsson. It’s always a fine line to walk. No one can have enough centres, so I think there’d be plenty of interest in Jean-Gabriel Pageau. You’ve heard Cody Ceci’s name. Same with Mike Hoffman and Zack Smith. All of them have appeal — depending on the price. My sense is Dorion is looking for young NHLers, prospects and/or picks.

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17. Heading into last Wednesday’s win over the Rangers, the Senators ranked 31st in even-strength save percentage and 30th in offensive-zone possession time. (Only Florida was lower.) Craig Anderson improved the first number in wins over New York and Montreal, but it’s tough to win with that combination.

18. Finally, on Ottawa: Whatever controversy envelopes the Senators at this time, it should not overshadow a superb weekend. I’m not a sentimental person, but it was special to broadcast from the shadow of Canada’s Parliament. The rink setup on the Hill was terrific. It was cold and windy for the main event at Lansdowne, but those fans were having a great time. Underrated excellent moment: the smile on Mario Lemieux’s face when his five-goals-five-different-ways was voted greatest moment in NHL history. We see him so rarely, and he stays so reserved. There was no faking that smile.

19. The NHL has two outdoor games (that we know of) scheduled for next season: Boston/Chicago at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, and the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia rematch at Lincoln Financial Field, 54 days later. It is “unlikely,” according to one source, that there will be a game hosted by a Canadian city until at least 2019–20. And it would not be a surprise if that matchup included Edmonton.

Last May, the NHL announced it will have games at service academies, with the first one coming between Toronto and Washington at the U.S. Naval Academy in March. So you can expect West Point and the Air Force Academy to get their moments, too.

20. Another thing I think the league is considering: new blood. There are always complaints about Chicago’s outdoor appearances, but I look at it this way: You get what you earn. Some new teams are climbing the mountain, and their merits are being discussed. Tampa Bay makes sense, even if the state of Florida doesn’t host.

21. Speaking of Erik Karlsson, Sportsnet features producer Alex Blair debuts a piece on likely 2018 No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin during Wednesday’s night’s Toronto/Columbus coverage:

Dahlin discussed three players that were his role models growing up. Karlsson is one, and he indicated Ottawa’s captain was one of the reasons he switched from forward to defence at age 13.

“My dad (Martin) told me I could score goals and still do fun stuff with the puck,” Dahlin said of the change of position.

The other two role models? Peter Forsberg — for toughness and physical style of play — and Frolunda captain Joel Lundqvist. The 35-year-old, Henrik’s twin brother, is in his 15th season with the organization and regarded as one of the best leaders in the Swedish league.

22. With all of Winnipeg’s tremendous young talent, one non-Jet exec came back from overseas with high marks for 2017 24th-overall selection Kristian Vesalainen. The 18-year-old has 19 points in 26 games for Hameenliina in the Finnish Elite League. Almost a point per game in this league at age 18 is very hard. Carolina’s Sebastian Aho did it two years ago. Other than that, it’s rare.

23. Get a load of the father-son connections for the USHL Top Prospects Game, to be played Jan. 9. There is Jack Drury (father is Ted); Christian and Cole Krygier (Todd); Philippe Lapointe (Martin); Tyler Madden (John); and Ryan Savage (Brian). That’s 3,520 regular-season NHL games between the five fathers.

24. Last year, Carolina coach Bill Peters made headlines when he bluntly criticized Eddie Lack’s goaltending performance. With an 8–1 loss to the Maple Leafs raw in his mind Tuesday afternoon, Peters refrained from similar commentary on the NHL’s brightest stage.

Scott Darling is struggling adapting to the No. 1 role, but Peters wasn’t going there. He smiled — because he knew the Toronto media was trying.

25. The Ontario meltdown came days after one of Darling’s best performances, a 2–1 victory over Columbus. Asked how he would learn from what happened, he replied: “It never happened. I’ve already forgotten about it.”

Burn the tape?

“Yes.”

26. Carolina’s prospective new owner, Thomas Dundon, is on the team’s current trip. He was taking a tour of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre with Bob Hunter, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s Executive V-P of Venues & Entertainment, prior to the defeat. It’s probably not a coincidence these travels take Dundon’s team through Nashville, a huge success story at this time.

27. One owner at the Board of Governors’ meetings on Las Vegas: “They’ve upped the pressure on struggling teams. It’s tough to explain why you’re going badly when they’re winning the division.”

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

28. There are two occasions where a coach ripped his team that I remember pretty clearly. One was Pat Quinn. He was coaching in Toronto when the Maple Leafs blew a Glenn Healy shutout in the last minute. (I’m pretty sure it was against Vancouver.) Despite a comfortable win, he was furious the players let their guard down, because, as a backup, Healy didn’t get a ton of opportunities for a shutout. He didn’t like the idea teammates could do that to each other.

The second was another Toronto coach, Butch Carter. His Raptors laid an egg in one of Antonio Davis’s first games against his former team, Indiana. Carter was furious Davis’s teammates could be so awful in a game they knew meant a ton to his player. So I always notice how these kinds of games go.

Watching the Golden Knights against Pittsburgh, you could tell how much they wanted it for Marc-Andre Fleury. Quinn and Carter wouldn’t have ripped anyone for that performance.

29. Wanted to empty the Derek Dorsett notebook from our conversation with him. First, he confirmed Ryan Johansen’s hilarious story about the penalty-minutes race from 2011–12. Dorsett entered game 82 of the season in second place, nine minutes behind Philadelphia’s Zac Rinaldo. Johansen said Dorsett told him to start a scrum, so the latter could “come in hot” and pass Rinaldo. Dorsett, however, said he got only seven minutes out of it and needed more mayhem. The opponent that day was the New York Islanders, and Matt Martin understood what was going on. One fight later, Dorsett owned the crown.

30. In the goodbye article, Dorsett discussed his parents’ ownership of an A&W burger franchise. I cannot allow it to go unreported that he liked his burgers with only cheese on them. Seriously, who eats a hamburger with cheese as the only condiment?

31. Wanted to say thank you to Damien Cox, who invited me to participate in the Lou Marsh voting for the first time in my career. Awarded to Canada’s top athlete, this year’s winner is Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds. It’s challenging. This country’s come a long way, and the depth of talent is so great that Brooke Henderson, Kylie Masse (world record holder in the backstroke) and Connor McDavid could not make the top five.

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