Been a busy week around the NHL. New team, lots of moves, lots of rumors. The Islanders have been in the thick of all of it since the season ended and we’ve already seen three longtime players leave the team in a varied a set of circumstances, much like the way they all arrived on Long Island.
The moves have all been hashed out here and elsewhere, but I wanted to say some proper goodbyes and talk about what I’ll remember about each player.
I was in the supermarket in October of 2014 when Garth Snow was busy trading for Nick Leddy. Waiting on the checkout line, I scanned Twitter on my phone to find some buzz about the Islanders trying to acquire either Leddy from Chicago or Johnny Boychuk from Boston. I was certainly intrigued by either and stunned that they would even be in the conversation. By the time I got home and put everything in the fridge, Snow had, perhaps miraculously, reeled in both fish.
There’s always an element of luck - or maybe being in the right place at the right time - when it comes to making trades. Snow knew the the Bruins and Blackhawks were both facing cap crunches and would need to move a couple of players who were due big raises. Boychuk was going to be a UFA and Leddy an RFA. Both had won Stanley Cups. Both could help the Islanders immensely. And they had room under the cap to sign them longterm, provided they wanted to stay.
Two draft picks went to Boston (one acquired from the Flyers in the Andrew MacDonald trade, which turned into defenseman Brandon Carlo) for Boychuk. Leddy cost four players, including the oft-traded TJ Brennan, random guy Kent Simpson, and Ville Pokka and Anders Nilsson, two guys who we thought might be Islanders of the future. Pokka, in particular, was a favorite of a few prospect watchers. The hope was that Leddy was already what Pokka could be later.
Turns out, none of these expenditures hurt the Islanders. And both did stay longterm following extensions. Boychuk and Leddy - who were immediately paired on defense from that training camp through the majority of the next seven seasons - instantly gave the fledgling team an experienced top pair that was solid on both ends of the ice. The Islanders flew out of the gates that season and were one of the NHL’s best teams right through the All Star break. The season ended in the first round of the playoffs, but it was one of the most exciting in recent memory and shifted expectations in a meaningful way.
Leddy in particular was somewhat of a unicorn. He could skate like the wind and evade defenders with shocking ease. He seemed to get from one end of the ice to the other in about five strides, and would often arrive in the offensive zone as if teleported from another dimension, surprising defensemen, goalies and some people in the arena. It’s a shame Leddy and Mark Streit were never on the Islanders together because watching them skate circles around other teams would have been delightful.
The Islanders leaned on Leddy and Boychuk for years, some more successful than others. Leddy finished as the fourth highest scoring defenseman in Islanders history, with 45 goals and 198 assists in 518 games. Quality numbers to be sure. But as time went on, his rushes became less electric. More often than not, they seemed to not lead to any actual results. And the mediocre powerplay, which he often quarterbacked, was a consistent disappointment, more known for indecisiveness than effectiveness. His trade to Detroit, for depth center Richard Panik (at half price) and a second rounder, is as much about clearing cap room as it is about upgrading his position (I hope).
Watching Nick Leddy play always made me feel like there was more there that we weren’t getting. Maybe I had more confidence in him than he had in himself. I wanted him to be this unique, slick-skating, defender-dodging weapon that only the Islanders had. He never became that, and maybe he was never meant to.
But his arrival was something special. In an instant, the Islanders became a team to deal with, with a legit top pair that could effect the game, which allowed the rest of the lineup to set up more productively. That October day in 2014 was a massive one for this franchise, one I’ll never forget. Particularly every time I drive past my local Shop Rite.
Ebs and Flow
One-for-one trades are always fun. For us, anyway.
For the players involved, it’s probably annoying to be directly compared to another, given how different circumstances can be. Jordan Eberle-for-Ryan Strome was a immediate win for the Islanders, thanks to Eberle’s 25 goals in his first year on the Island. The Oilers dumped Strome a year later, while Eberle became an entrenched Islander, understanding the area and the franchise and the fanbase on a personal level from the moment he arrived.
Sadly, the 25 goals that first year would be his high water mark. But while the regular season returns diminished, his playoff production flourished. Edmonton traded Eberle in large part because of a poor postseason performance in 2017. In his first playoff series as an Islander in 2019, Eberle was a machine, racking up nine points in eight games and almost singlehandedly victimizing the Pittsburgh Penguins in this franchise’s first sweep since the early 80’s. This alone makes Eberle a Schadenfreude All Star.
Fourteen points in 22 playoff games the next year was still pretty good. Eleven points in 19 playoff games this season is less so, but the number is aided by good timing, particularly his goal in Game 6 of the semifinals against Tampa Bay, which started the Islanders’ epic rally to force Game 7. The backhand goal from the slot seemed to catch Andrey Vasilevskiy by surprise, which was Eberle’s specialty. He’d often appear at the side of the crease and score into a top corner, or hang around behind the goal and find a streaking teammate to pass to. He was also a lock to get at least one 2-on-1 opportunity per game.
But with those goals came the droughts. And what droughts there were! When he was hot, Eberle couldn’t miss. When he was cold, the slumps seemed to drive both he and us crazy in equal measure. Now he’s a member of a brand new expansion team, where he’s one of only a few players on the roster who might be able to put the puck in the net.
Ultimately, Eberle became a casualty of the flat cap NHL where today’s contract extension is tomorrow’s obstacle to be dealt with. With the money saved, perhaps Lou Lamoriello can find a scoring winger for Mathew Barzal who can be a little more consistent and less prone to streaky stretches while also continuing the dominant zone play alongside Anders Lee. Again, that’s the hope.
Because whatever his faults, Jordan Eberle was a New York Islander. He got it, maybe faster and clearer than anyone else who was ever traded here. He knew what every goal and every win meant and how much it was appreciated by a fanbase that desperately wanted success as much as he seemed to.
Only a Ladd
I’m pretty sure Andrew Ladd is a good dude. He seems to love his family and fishing and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Doug Weight showing him around Long Island and talking up the tony neighborhoods and local school systems must have really had an effect on him.
The Islanders have never been a big player in free agency and Ladd’s signing is a strong argument that it was all for the best. He signed a big money, big term, buyout-protected deal with the Islanders thinking they were ready for big things. Like Eberle, Ladd was at one point expected to play alongside star center John Tavares. Unlike Eberle, Ladd signed a pricey free agent contract while three longtime Islanders - Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin - all walked out the door. In a way, Ladd never had a chance.
Even at his pre-Islanders best, Ladd was a player of some substance but no discernable style. In his first year in blue-and-orange, Ladd had maybe the quietest 23-goal season in Islanders history despite nagging injuries. That number got cut in half in season two, while the injuries became worse and the surgeries started piling up. There was always the idea that he could come back and hit his stride (or, at least, a stride) and be a meaningful contributor for the first time. But that stride never materialized. In his final two seasons with the Islanders, Ladd played just 30 regular season games and scored four total goals.
Part of what made Ladd a target of the Islanders’ previous administration was his two Stanley Cup rings from his time in Carolina and Chicago. Incredibly, Ladd would finish his Islanders career playing only a single playoff game for them, and it’s one we can all remember very, very vividly.
The visual of Ladd confusedly skating around while Nikita Kucherov scored to give Tampa Bay the lead in the dying seconds of a tightly-played Game 2 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Final is burned into every Islanders fan’s memory banks forever. He would not take the ice for the franchise again, suiting up occasionally for their AHL affiliate. Ladd never complained (at least, publicly), but the franchise clearly and confidently had moved on without him. That one playoff game was a final, fitting cherry on top of an Islanders tenure that was never fully baked in the first place.
The team that signed Andrew Ladd to that lavish contract is not the same one that literally paid three draft picks to the Arizona Coyotes to take him off their hands and asked for nothing in return. That team wanted the legitimacy of a two-time champion choosing to sign with them and be the future running mate for their franchise center. This team wanted him to get the hell out of the way while they try to build a roster that can get past the Lightning and win the Stanley Cup.
Sometimes the red carpet gets rolled out for you. Sometimes you get rolled up in it and left on the curb. It’s nothing personal. But it’s time to move on.