The New York Islanders announced on Monday that they’ve agreed to terms with restricted free agent Ross Johnston on a four-year contract.
For Johnston, it’s an outstanding deal, representing a sustained rise for an undrafted player who saw time in the ECHL and AHL before a one-game NHL debut in 2015-16 and a sustained 24-game callup late last season. Good for him, he’s already earned lunchpail admiration from many fans, and he’s worked on his game to become more than just an AHL fighter.
For the Islanders, though? A curious move. Four years is simply a long term for a player of this type — topping out as a fourth-liner, basically, with little track record to show even that he’s even an NHL regular. It’s reminiscent of some Garth Snow deals where he locked up an undervalued RFA on term for a cheap rate, except in previous cases that player (Frans Nielsen, Andrew MacDonald) had potential to become much more valuable, making their contracts bargains in a salary cap world.
But the Islanders under Lou Lamoriello are under a “culture change” that really emphasizes “competitors,” it seems. Lamoriello likes his scrappy team-first guys, as he’s shown with the likewise debatable signings of Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnhackl, and the reacquisition of Matt Martin.
I guarantee there will be moments in the upcoming seasons where Johnston throws a big hit in an emotional game, defends an Isles skilled player, even chips in a timely goal, and Lou looks at the scene and says, “That’s right. That’s culture, baby.”
And it’s not my money; though the financials have not been released, chances are his contract is at near-minimum NHL salary, enabling easy assignment to the minors without affecting the cap. [UPDATE: It’s $1 million per year according to CapFriendly which is frankly insane]
If Johnston’s signing (and perhaps Kuhnhackl too) is made with an eye on Bridgeport — more on the continued investment there later — then that’s one thing. [UPDATE: Given the $1 million salary, I highly doubt it.] Perhaps a four-year, one-way deal is a way of easily passing Johnston through waivers if they want to shuttle him back and forth between the big club and the AHL.
However, if the four years suggests they believe he is ticketed for regular NHL duty? Then Johnston, Kuhnhackl, Martin, Komarov, Valtteri Filppula...they all start combine to be way too many bottom-of-the-lineup bodies in a league that increasingly demands forward skill and mobility go nine to 12 deep.
Since the moment he was hired, in nearly every interview Lamoriello has sounded enamored with the Las Vegas example of last year: An assembly of (relatively) unwanted parts, simply by the force of will and teamwork and unity, rose to nearly capture the league’s ultimate prize. One has the sneaking suspicion that example is Lou’s golden confirmation bias endorsing his way of “name on the front, not the name on the back.”
He pointed to it again in an interview with Arthur Staple of The Athletic:
“If you’re sitting in the seats of some of our players, there are opportunities for players that they might not have had if John had stayed,” Lamoriello said. “The enthusiasm is definitely there. That’s what you like to see. This is their team.”
There is truth in this; there is relevance in this ethos. If prospects have to beat these guys out rather than feel jobs are handed to them, great — as long as the old school favoring of vets does not cloud the judgment. Because while “competitors” are welcome, you still need the talent. And the Achilles’ heel of NHL old schoolers is to allow a surplus of the former blocking opportunities for the latter.