Finally, a concrete reason for John Tavares to stay on Long Island.
And a reason to take the New York Islanders seriously again.
That reason in both cases, is Lou Lamoriello, who left the Maple Leafs to join the Isles on Tuesday, and will have carte blanche to do whatever he sees fit with the long troubled Long Island hockey organization.
That’s an organization that could use Lamoriello’s oh, how shall we say, personal touch.
No nonsense. No beards. No individual agendas. No outside distractions. Hockey first, second and third and sure, sell tickets if you feel you have to, but he’ll just focus on winning games, thank you very much.
Whether that old-fashioned hockey approach appeals to Tavares, well, we’ll find out July 1, unless the Islanders can find a way to get his name on a contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Until now, all Tavares has known as an Islander is an organization that has missed the playoffs six of the nine seasons he’s been there and shuffled from Uniondale to Brooklyn and is still looking for a new home.
Owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky now appear to have a new facility set to be built on the Belmont Park site. It will be up to Lamoriello to help Tavares see better times ahead and want to stay. Until now, the biggest reason for Tavares to stay has been loyalty to the team that drafted him, although given that he’s been underpaid for at least five years and surrounded by a sub-standard support group as long as he’s been an Islander, it’s hard to see how far that loyalty should extend.
Garth Snow, meanwhile, has been general manager for all of those years for Tavares in an Islander uniform, and nobody’s really been able to figure out how such a lack of success has resulted in such longevity for Snow. Well, that no longer matters, because Lamoriello will be calling the shots, and if Snow stays – doubtful – it will be under dramatically increased oversight.
“Right now I have no preconceived notions,” Lamoriello told a conference call today. “I will take a step back, see exactly what people you have in place have to offer, and make decisions as I go along.”
That’s about as expansive as Lamoriello got in discussing his move to his second NHL club in three years after spending almost three decades with the New Jersey Devils. He’s now skipped across the Hudson to the Islanders, with the three-year stop in Toronto in between. During his time with the Leafs, the club started 30th overall and finished seventh overall this season, a remarkable improvement that nonetheless resulted in Lamoriello losing his GM duties to Kyle Dubas earlier this month.
Now the breakup of the alpha dogs in Toronto is nearly complete. Lamoriello is gone, Mark Hunter’s departure was announced on Tuesday and we’ll see how Dubas, Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock make out as they try to turn the the Leafs from contender into champion.
Lamoriello, to be clear, has a lot more to work with on Long Island than he did in Toronto in terms of player talent, although he did position Toronto perfectly to acquire burgeoning superstar Auston Matthews in the draft.
On Long Island, there’s Tavares, Matt Barzal, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee up front, and good talent on the back end led by Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. There’s a bevy of good prospects, although one imagines Lamoriello might take a dim view of prospect Josh Ho-Sang’s act.
Goaltending is a big question mark, with Jaroslav Halak headed to free agency. Remember, one of Lamoriello’s first moves in Toronto was to make a deal with Anaheim for Freddie Andersen, so it’s reasonable to expect a similar move on Long Island.
The Isles have lots of cap space, and two first-round picks and two second-round picks next month in the draft, which gives Lamoriello lots of flexibility. With Ilya Kovalchuk apparently intent on coming back to the NHL, the Islanders will also be a team to watch given that it was Lamoriello who gave Kovalchuk that outrageous and controversial contract back in 2010.
Lamoriello refused to confirm reports that he already met with Tavares last week, or to speculate on the future of Snow and head coach Doug Weight. He chuckled when asked if at age 75 he still has the energy to run an NHL squad.
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be on this conference call,” he said.
He took pains to try and downplay speculation he was unhappy not to be allowed to continue as GM of the Leafs, or that he was treated unfairly. He said Islanders co-owner Scott Malkin called Leaf minority owner Larry Tanenbaum during the playoffs to ask about his availability, and after some time off after the Leafs were eliminated by Boston, Lamoriello agreed to meet with Malkin and was impressed by what he heard.
“I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of the Islanders,” he said. “That’s going to take some time to find out.”
When Lamoriello left New Jersey after the club decided to bring in Ray Shero, it seemed his time as a leading NHL executive might be over. Some suggested the game had passed him by. Instead, he presided over the growth of a strong young team in Toronto, something many believed couldn’t be done, and now has all the hockey power on Long Island.
At this rate, Lamoriello won’t be retiring until he’s at least 90.
As much as the league changes, Lamoriello’s traditional style and priorities seem to still be effective. The Islanders could clearly use his disciplined manner. It’s been a scattershot organization for more than two decades, probably since the legendary Bill Torrey’s 20-year run ended in 1992. Either Mike Milbury or Snow has been running the team for the past 23 years, with only 10 days of Neil Smith separating those two regimes.
The results have generally been lousy, and the Islanders have gradually become one of the strangest organizations in the league. Lamoriello isn’t about openness, and he won’t likely take a great interest in ownerships plans to attract more fans, but chances are the Islanders will soon start to be a much more logical, orderly operation.
Lamoriello still knows how a hockey team should run. He proved that in Toronto, giving discipline and focus to an organization that badly needed both.
Now, working with his son, Chris, Lamoriello will get the chance to turn the Islanders around. Knowing him, it won’t take long.
That will be the pitch to Tavares, who seemed inclined to stay before and has to be encouraged that a deeply respected hockey man is now running the franchise. The Vegas Golden Knights have demonstrated how quickly a team can go from loser to winner in the NHL these days, and the betting has to be that Lamoriello won’t take long to put his mark on the team and start the Islanders back on the path to being a contender.