Maybe now, finally, the New York Islanders will be able to take a big step forward, getting back to the playoffs and competing for a Stanley Cup.
On Tuesday, the Isles officially announced the hiring of Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations, giving him “full authority over all hockey matters with the organization.”
After three years as general manager of the Maple Leafs, the three-time Stanley Cup champion moves on to his third NHL stop. Now 75 years old, Lamoriello joins his son, Chris, in the Islanders’ front office and GM Garth Snow also remains in place.
Lamoriello will have his hands full with his newest team. The Islanders have just one playoff series win since 1993, a six-game win over the Florida Panthers in 2016. That series was won in overtime off the stick of captain John Tavares, whose future also looms large. The 27-year-old superstar is a pending UFA and his decision could wildly swing the organization’s outlook one way or another.
Tavares’ future may be the biggest job for Lamoriello to take care of this summer, but it’s far from the only one. The Islanders have missed the playoffs the past two seasons and after a promising start in 2017-18, they faded badly and finished with 14 fewer points than a year ago.
Here’s a look at the challenges that face Lamoriello as he tries to return the Islanders to prominence.
KEEP JOHN TAVARES
Given Tavares’ importance to the organization, this is the most pressing off-season issue the Islanders have had since they drafted him first overall in 2009. On that day, the Islanders were picking someone they thought was the kind of elite talent who would put them team back on the map.
Now, Tavares has the option of becoming the most sought-after unrestricted free agent of the salary cap era. But it’s extremely rare that a player of his calibre tests the market — Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos came the closest, using the negotiation window to talk to other prospective teams before ultimately re-signing with the Lightning days before July 1.
This is Lamoriello’s greatest challenge. If Tavares signs, Lamoriello not only will have kept the centrepiece in place, but would also have had to start to lay the ground work to make the rest of the team better so that Tavares wants to stick around. If Tavares stays, the Islanders could theoretically get back to the playoffs soon. If he leaves, it would be a huge blow that would set the franchise back years.
BUILD A FRONT OFFICE
It’s fair to say the fans have lost faith in GM Garth Snow, and while they won’t influence any decision, it’s hard to imagine Lamoriello being OK with maintaining the status quo. Snow has been in the GM chair since he retired as a player in 2006 — that’s 13 years, four playoff appearances and an 11-18 post-season record. With any other team, that line would have led to a firing long ago.
There’s no telling yet how or if Snow’s role or title will change, but you can bet Lamoriello will want to bring some of his own people in to help build this thing. According to Newsday‘s Larry Brooks, Lamoriello may want Jacques Lemaire and Jacques Caron to join him in some capacity. Brooks also mentioned that Lamoriello wanted to add David Conte to the Leafs front office three years ago, but was denied. Conte ran the Devils’ amateur scouting department for years under Lamoriello and could be a fit there.
And then there’s Mark Hunter, another draft expert who worked under Lamoriello in Toronto. Hunter parted with the Leafs on Tuesday morning, and though he has a non-compete clause that will keep him on the sidelines until after this year’s draft, the Islanders could look at adding him in July.
Lamoriello headed a Maple Leafs front office that included all sorts of voices with varying degrees of experience and different backgrounds the past three years. Could he look at building a similar model with the Islanders, where he would have full control on who those guys are?
Remember, Lamoriello was the one who traded for Kovalchuk as New Jersey Devils GM and then signed him to the massive 15-year, $100-million contract Kovalchuk walked away from three years later. Now 35, Kovalchuk’s best NHL days are behind him, but he’s still got a wicked shot and can move around the ice well enough that the game maybe hasn’t passed him by yet.
Kovalchuk reportedly wanted to go to the Rangers, but with the Islanders located in Brooklyn/Long Island, they’re in the same area and may actually be the more competitive team to go to than the rebuilding Blueshirts.
To be sure, adding Kovalchuk probably isn’t enough on its own to guarantee Tavares’ return and the Russian won’t put the Islanders over the top. But at the very least it would add a complementary scorer up front and be the kind of “win now” move Snow has hesitated to make over the years.
DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE FIRST-ROUND PICKS
The Islanders own picks 11 and 12 in the first-round of this draft and have two more picks in the second round. It’s understandable why Snow didn’t move either of those first-rounders at the deadline as the Islanders fell out of contention: they had two chances to get lucky at the lottery and win one of the top three picks. But now, these have to be on the block to try and make upgrades.
Brooks points out Lamoriello’s track record with the Devils showed a GM unafraid of making “go-for-it” moves. He wasn’t in Toronto long enough to have many of those, and the team was rebuilding and trying to find its footing at the start. But in acquiring Frederik Andersen for first- and second-round picks, Lamoriello swung for a team need and hit a grand slam.
It’s unlikely Lamoriello would make a similar trade to get a goalie for the Islanders, given the weak market at the position, but he could turn at least one or two of those picks (and maybe more) into an impact defenceman. Whereas Snow may have been more conservative with these assets, Lamoriello is here for the win-now approach.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH JOSH HO-SANG?
When the Islanders drafted Ho-Sang 28th overall in 2014, they knew they were taking on a bit of a project. For all the perceived concerns with Ho-Sang, there was no denying his high-end natural skill level. If Ho-Sang hit as an NHLer, he could be a big win for the team.
It’s been a rocky ride for the forward ever since. He famously slept in and was late for practice at his very first Islanders training camp. He returned to junior two years in a row after being drafted and has played a total of 43 NHL games the past two years, scoring six goals and 22 points. Most of his time as a professional has been spent in the AHL, where was sent to work on his defensive game. But as the Islanders season fell off a cliff and Ho-Sang didn’t get a call-up, he vented his frustration.
“I love those guys, I want to make that clear,” Ho-Sang told The Athletic’s Arthur Staple in late March. “I know they’re working hard. But I got sent down for defence and what are they in goals against in the NHL? I only played (22) games up there this year. I don’t think it’s my fault. They really painted it like it was my fault at the beginning of the year and I didn’t like that.
“I do have things I need to work on down here, my game is far from perfect. It can constantly improve. But I do think a lot of the stuff was unwarranted, especially in terms of the rope that other people were given. I understand I have a history and that might be a factor. I don’t know. But it’s frustrating to me.”
So what happens with him now? Ho-Sang was sixth in AHL Bridgeport scoring this season with 31 points in 50 games, five fewer than his offensive totals from a year ago. There’s a belief that Ho-Sang’s skill alone deserved a look alongside Tavares, but that’s far from a concrete plan to move on with. The Islanders also have a need to fill out their bottom six forward units with skill and Ho-Sang could potentially start in that role.
But will Lamoriello put up with the public attention that comes with this player, or would he rather move on? The Islanders haven’t really given Ho-Sang much of an NHL opportunity four years after using a first-round pick on him. This seems to be the year he either gets that, or is shipped off.
IMPROVE THE GOALTENDING
The most obvious area of need for the Islanders is in net, where Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss backstopped the team to the worst GAA this season, 3.57. Halak finished with a .908 save percentage and Greiss was a putrid .892.
It’s also going to be a challenging area to fix. In New Jersey, Lamoriello had Brodeur for most of his tenure and when he needed a replacement, he traded a top-10 pick for Cory Schneider. In Toronto, he made a big move for Andersen. It’s not clear who that goalie would be for the Islanders to target, but at least this GM has the track record of finding these moves.
The Islanders can’t just return the same twosome as last year and expect improvement.
IMPROVE THE DEFENCE
As much bad press as the Islanders’ goalies got this season, you could easily make an argument that the defence was far worse. This is the most pressing area of need.
The Islanders allowed an average of 35.6 shots against per game, the most in the NHL by a wide margin in 2017-18. Since 1995, no team has allowed that many shots per game over a full 82-game season. The defence is the No. 1 problem here.
This is where the first-rounder comes in. The Islanders have Calgary’s first two picks because they traded Travis Hamonic and they now need a top-four defenceman who can skate to replace him.
Most of the work Lamoriello has to do is on the blue line, which could make him a direct competitor against his former employer in Toronto.