The frenzy-fest leading to Monday’s NHL trade deadline got a major boost Friday when Columbus acquired pending free agent Matt Duchene from the Ottawa Senators, while the Washington Capitals acquired defenseman Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings.
The Islanders are essentially set and healthy on their blueline, so the Jensen move doesn’t affect them beyond an upgrade to a Metropolitan Division rival that is only two points behind them in the standings.
The Duchene move, however, has multiple implications for the Islanders: it removes a possible “big fish” target from the market in Duchene, possibly signals that another big fish is off the table — the Blue Jackets may be all the more inclined to hang on to Artemi Panarin and go for it — and improves another Metro rival. Columbus, currently just outside of a wild card spot, trails the Islanders by eight points with a game in hand.
Of their remaining 20 games, the Islanders have two against the Blue Jackets and two against the Capitals, including the final game of the regular season in D.C. on April 6.
- well-regarded prospect Vitaly Abramov, plus prospect Jonathan Davidsson
- a slightly lottery-protected (if it’s in the top three) 2019 first-round pick
- a conditional 2020 first-round pick if Duchene re-signs with Columbus
- depth (and not so good) defenseman Madison Bowey
- a 2020 second-round pick
No surprise, really, that both moves came without them giving up a useful roster player. In short: Washington and Columbus both improved.
Will the Islanders join the Metro upgrade party?
It has become a boilerplate to these discussions that no one knows what Lou Lamoriello will do — his information control is even marginally tighter than what we experienced under Garth Snow.
But conventional wisdom and indirect reports suggest Lamoriello has at least been shopping, checking prices, “all options on the table” and that sort of thing. Lots of reporters speculate, too, that since he’s 75 and he’s always about the #winning that he will want to go for it this season with the surprisingly first-place Islanders.
If that’s the case, hopefully he’s looking to address offensive improvement up front, including improving the power play, where Cal Clutterbuck is currently relied on to score for the second unit.
Among the high-profile targets likely to be moved are Senators sniper Mark Stone (28 goals) and fellow Senators ginger Ryan Dzingel (22 goals), as well as Rangers center Kevin Hayes — though you’d think there would be a premium to get him across town in an intra-rivalry deal, even if the Rangers are not playoff-bound.
Other possibly more realistic and affordable targets include New Jersey’s Marcus Johansson, who is being held out of the Devils games tonight, and who has a history with Trotz; Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings; and Mark Hoffman of the Panthers, who is dangerous but has some baggage from his exit from the Senators.
Ilya Kovalchuk is also sometimes mentioned as a target, though he is aging, showing his decline this season, and signed for two additional years.
How do the Islanders see their own roster?
One thing we don’t know about Lamoriello, not having seen him make many evaluative moves with this roster yet: we don’t know how he views this roster. A chance to go for it? A surprising “let the kids learn” ride for, um, the few younger players they have? A team that is just fine, thank you?
Josh Ho-Sang added offense possibilities and puck control, but didn’t get points and was again demoted for a variety of murky reasons, which can mostly be chalked up to not “adhering to details.”
Michael Dal Colle didn’t produce either but played with predictable systematic efficiency, pleasing the coaches. Yet he was scratched, and eventually demoted to Bridgeport again, with Tom Kuhnhackl getting a regular shift — and not productively — next to Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey.
And we know what they think of two bottom sixers: As Barry Trotz said in a wide-ranging and entertaining interview with Eric Duhatschek of the Athletic:
“Guys like Leo and Fil, who have come from winning programs, they’re good leaders, they’re good pros and they compete like all get-out. Adding just those pieces has allowed us to forge an identity – and then what we do in terms of structure and accountability and all those things, the players have bought in and got it done.”
So, the Islanders strongly believe they are where they are because of a laser-focused structural discipline and team “culture” instilled by Lamoriello and Trotz, with additions like Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula, referenced above, seen as keys. And that’s not wrong in terms of the backbone of their success, exactly — especially if you factor that as part of the reason the goaltending has been so lights-out — but it could also limit their potential. Especially so, if it makes them think the most obvious areas to upgrade on offensive talent are not worth the risk to culture or structure.
Meanwhile, with Andrew Ladd nearing a return — expect him and defenseman Thomas Hickey to come off IR after the trade deadline — the Islanders will have another forward in the mix who carries both that “veteran presence” and culture as well as a bit of offensive talent. The return of both is already spoken of by some as “like a trade deadline acquisition.”
And of course, three of the Islanders’ better offensive forwards are pending free agents in Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson. Highly unlikely that any of those three will be moved; but if the Islanders don’t make any upgrades, then the decision not to cash in on any of the three will be second-guessed, one summer after they fetched nothing for John Tavares.
Lamoriello is not sentimental or prone to holding on to anyone just for loyalty’s sake. But he also sticks to his beliefs, and if one of those is that the available trade targets aren’t worth the cost, or that this roster is already as dangerous as it needs to be, then he may very well make no major changes at all.
So: prepare for a hectic weekend, avoid falling prey to fake Twitt3rrr handles breaking false moves, and know that the same roster that disappointed most of us in the summer — before surprising us with delight — may become a “stand pat” roster that has us asking once again, even with the Isles in first place, “Wait, is that it?”