New York Hockey: prospects

Isles look to stop skid

November, 9, 2010
Seven games and counting. That’s where the losing streak stands for the Islanders as they prepare to take on the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, the start of a three-game California road trip.

Simply put, the Isles have been outplayed in just about every facet of the game during the skid. Their D has been exploited. Their goalies have been porous. And they’re averaging just 1.71 goals per game over this sad span.

In practice Monday, Doug Weight offered some encouragement, by recounting some of the losing streaks he endured with the 1993-94 Edmonton Oilers to One of which included an 0-13-1 stretch.

In order to get off the slide though, the Islanders have to do more than talk. Here’s a look around the media landscape on Tuesday morning.

Morning Links
  • Jon Lane of The Examiner recounts the weekend loss to Philadelphia and looks ahead to the West Coast.
  • Chris Botta writes (via Newsday) that Garth Snow believes his club will get out of it. Also in line change news, Josh Bailey is moving back to center.
  • Hey, did someone say line combinations? Lighthouse Hockey breaks down the productivity of each of the Isles’ line combos. One very dubious number from the intro to that piece: The Islanders currently own a .40 goals for/goals against mark at even strength. That’s easily worst in the NHL and a figure that absolutely must improve for the Islanders to halt their skid.
  • And here’s a reminder that brighter days lay ahead, as Hockey’s Future writes that the Islanders prospect charts exhibit depth at every position.

Cost of Kovalchuk keeps escalating

September, 14, 2010
Add $3 million dollars and a first- and third-round draft pick to the cost of signing Ilya Kovalchuk.

Despite arbitrator Richard Bloch noting that the Devils did not act in poor faith when they first signed Kovalchuk to the 17-year, $102M contract he interpreted as a form of salary cap circumvention, the NHL nevertheless severely punished New Jersey for the attempt.

The penalty, issued Monday night, strips the Devils of their third-round pick in the 2011 draft and a first-round draft pick sometime in the next four years.

Even as many debate whether the acquisition of Kovalchuk will help the Devils, the cost keeps escalating. The first price was a package of the Devils’ 2010 first-round pick, Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors and prospect Patrice Cormier, sent to Atlanta for Kovalchuk, in addition to Anssi Salmella and flipping second-round picks with the Thrashers. Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record has a running tab over at the Fire and Ice Blog. (And bartender … keep it open.)

Because of Kovalchuk’s new contract, New Jersey must still balance its salary-cap ledger by shedding at least $3M from its 2010-11 player payroll, which will likely require two players to be traded or relegated to the minor leagues/a European team. Should one of those players be talented young center Travis Zajac, or if Kovalchuk’s signing prohibits them from retaining 26-year-old star Zach Parise -- a restricted free agent after the season -- the move may well be indefensible without a Stanley Cup to balance the columns.

Trading Zajac is a last resort, but the most likely trade candidates all carry bad contracts most teams are in no hurry to acquire. And the league requirement for salary cap compliance by the start of the NHL season already strips Devils GM Lou Lamoriello of any and all leverage. Some media speculated that Lamoriello may have to entice trading partners by adding a top prospect or draft pick in addition to The Expendables -- Dainius Zubrus and Bryce Salvador, the most likely players for the Devils to deal.

But now short two more future draft picks, New Jersey’s picks and prospects become even more valuable (New Jersey already swapped its 2011 second-round pick in exchange for Jason Arnott this summer), particularly as the team looks for young, cost-controlled players to balance against Kovalchuk’s $6.67M cap hit. Fortunately for the Devils, the $3M fine will not count against the team’s salary cap, as it could have under league rules. That concession was “won” at the time the Kovalchuk deal was signed, after negotiations between the league and the NHLPA, according to an AP report.

However, with the other teams under scrutiny for possible salary cap circumvention at that time -- the Flyers (Chris Pronger’s contract), the Blackhawks (Marian Hossa), the Canucks (Roberto Luongo) and the Bruins (Marc Savard) – going unpunished by the league, it certainly provides the appearance the Devils are being made the scapegoat for franchises with similar sins. After many of those pacts were finalized last season, the league did warn team to stop signing players to such excessive, long-term deals, so perhaps New Jersey shouldn’t have been surprised by the ruling. However, the league did still accept those previous deals, while the Devils were the team out of which the NHL finally made an example.

Morning Links

Stepan, Grachev highlight Traverse City

September, 13, 2010
The Rangers’ roster of prospects dropped its second game at the Traverse City tournament, but not before generating a little buzz Saturday with a dramatic 5-4 win over Columbus in its tourney opener.

Evgeny Grachev scored the game-winner with just over six seconds remaining, converting on a set play from an offensive zone faceoff win by center Derek Stepan. It was the perfect capper to a game in which the baby Blueshirts’ top line of Stepan, Grachev and left wing Ryan Bourque accounted for four of five Rangers’ goals and eight of 10 points.

The game-winner was Grachev’s second goal on the night, while Stepan put the Rangers on the board just over midway through the first period. Bourque added a power-play tally in the second after RW Christian Thomas pocketed an unassisted goal to start the period.

Netminder Scott Stajcer, a fifth-round pick from 2009, stopped 20 of 24 shots to earn the win. The club’s top pick in the 2010 draft, Dylan McIlrath finished plus-one with two shots on goal.

Sunday’s game didn’t lack for drama, but the Rangers failed to get a positive result, watching Carolina Hurricanes prospect Zac Dalpe score the game’s only goal with under a minute left. Netminder Mike Murphy (sixth-round, 2008 entry draft) stopped all of the Rangers’ 33 shots to steal the 1-0 win.

Cam Talbot, a University of Alabama at Huntsville product, stopped 25 of 26 shots for the Rangers.

The split leaves the Rangers among four teams with a 1-1 record (Carolina, St. Louis, Dallas), trailing undefeated Minnesota. Detroit’s squad stands at 1-0-1 with an overtime loss to Tampa Bay. The Rangers skate at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday against the unblemished Wild. You can follow the game here.

Morning Links

The Aas Man's in town

August, 31, 2010
Norwegian forward Mats Zuccarello Aasen (which, despite the Seinfeld nod, is pronounced Awe-sen) was among the first wave of 11 players to arrive for Rangers training camp. Jim Cerny of Rangers On Demand caught up with him for a post-workout interview yesterday and got his impressions on New York, trying to make the roster and North American hockey as a whole.

The 22-year-old made a name for himself playing at the 2010 Winter Olympics for Team Norway and led the Swedish Elite League in scoring last season with Modo. While the Rangers could use some goals from guys not named Gaborik, his spot with the team is far from assured. Prospects coming over from Sweden sometimes struggle with the smaller ice surface in North America in addition to simply adapting to life in the NHL.

FanHouse supplied this write-up on the 5-foot-7 foward back in May, but the highlight is the YouTube video at the bottom, simply titled: "Mats Zuccarello Aasen - Norwegian Hobbitt Wizard"

El Niņo causing a stir on Long Island

August, 31, 2010
As hurricane season continues, and hockey season creeps ever closer, talk on Long Island is turning towards El Niņo.

No, not that freaky weather pattern folks blame for global warming, never-ending rain storms and Rick DiPietro’s bum hip. I’m talking about the freaky good prospect the Isles tabbed with their first pick in the 2010 NHL Draft -- Nino Niederreiter.

Lighthouse Hockey tackled the topic in wonderful depth yesterday, including a report from Portland, Ore., where Niederreiter’s old WHL club conducted its media day last week … without Niederreiter. WHL scribe Gregg Drinnan of the Kamloops Daily News writes that the Islanders kept their top prospect in New York and speculates the team will keep Niederreiter with the big club to start the season.

ESPN Insider Gare Joyce, the guru of the NHL Draft Blog, wrote back in June that Niederreiter was a prime candidate to crack the NHL from Day One. Here’s what he had to say in an article on the 2010 draftees’ NHL ETAs:
LW Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders
Under GM Garth Snow, the Isles are wide open to the idea of bringing their prospects right in. John Tavares was a no-brainer, but Josh Bailey is a useful analogy. Niederreiter is more ready than Bailey was a couple of years ago when he had his initiation under fire on Long Island.

Recently ranked as the Isles’ top prospect by Hockey’s Future, Niederreiter projects as a top-line forward in the NHL. A sensational performance (6 goals, 10 points in seven games) at the 2010 World Junior Championships started the hype machine for the super-skilled LW dubbed The Swiss Can’t Miss, and coupled with his NHL-ready size (6-foot-2, 205) he raced up draft boards last spring. However, expectations should be tempered a little as he’s still among the youngest prospects in the draft class. He turns 18, Sept. 8.

Should he sign with the team, he doesn’t have to permanently stick on the roster in order for you to see him in game action this year. The Islanders can sample the goods for nine NHL games before returning him to his junior team. Something to keep a close eye on when the puck drops on training camp.

Summer Skating

August, 23, 2010
With training camp coming right around the corner, talk has started to turn to some of the NHL’s young players on the cusp of cracking the big league roster.

A pair of summer series took a look at the New York area franchises late last week. ESPN Insiders can check out some player projections from Puck Prospectus and get a glimpse of the future, as E.J. Hradek lists key prospects to watch for in camp. Here’s a taste:

New York Islanders: Nino Niederreiter

The lefty-shooting right wing doesn't turn 18 until Sept. 8. In fact, he was among the youngest players in his draft class. While he'd probably be better served by another season of junior hockey, I won't be surprised in the least if he's wearing blue and orange on opening night.

New Jersey Devils: Alexander Urbom

Eyeballing him during the Devils prospect camp last month, he reminded me of a young Vladimir Malakhov. I'm not saying he's that good; rather, I just felt he has same lanky build. He seemed to have good feet for a bigger player and he looked comfortable and confident during the prospect scrimmages. Of course, it's hard to say what it really means to look good (or bad) in a summer prospect game.

New York Rangers: Mats Zuccarello Aasen

The undrafted 22-year-old (he turns 23 on Sept. 1) opened some NHL eyes with his play for Modo in the Swedish Elite League as well as his Olympic performance for an overmatched Team Norway. In fact, Zuccarello Aasen led the Swedish league with 64 points in 55 games. (Before you get too crazy about that, keep in mind former Ranger Jan Hlavac was the league's fifth-leading scorer as well as its top goal producer.)

There’s plenty more on each prospect and each team, including projections of players on the rise and others whose production is expected to slip back.

Not an Insider?’s 30 in 30 series (Huh, that sounds familiar … ) explores who’s new, who’s nixed and what’s next for the Devils, Islanders and Rangers.

While the only cup talk on Long Island this summer was followed by the suffix of “cake,” the headline of that Isles’ piece taps the team as playoff contenders.

Don’t scoff. The Isles stayed in contention until late January last season, then fell off following a seven-game losing streak and an epic swoon from John Tavares (9 points in 37 games from Dec. 14 to March 14). If the young center can maintain the point-per-game rate he posted in his other 45 games and the team gets consistent goaltending, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be able to sneak into the top eight teams in the East.

And while Tavares may not have the same supporting cast, another recent No. 1 overall pick shows such an improvement in Year 2 isn’t impossible.

Morning Links
  • The Winnipeg Free Press tells the tale of the Toews brothers, who want to renew their rivalry on the ice. David Toews, the Johnny Drama to Jonathan's Vinny Chase, was a third-round pick for the Islanders in the 2008 entry draft. The article tells about how he once beat his big bro at hockey in the backyard. Before Isles fans get too carried away with his talent, we should probably re-emphasize "once." But that Jonathan Toews kid is pretty sharp, what with his gold medal and Stanley Cup and all.
  • The Sporting News' Craig Custance hosted a round table discussion with NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes (a vet of the Devils, Rangers and Islanders), Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich and new Devils head coach John MacLean. Not that one. This one. The trio discussed this year's most-improved and potential surprise teams (Laich taps the Isles), as well as what it was like to take down Hans Gruber*. (* may not have actually been discussed ... but should have)
  • The Burlington Times News reports on a North Carolina politician who was supposed to actually wrestle an opponent on Saturday (scroll down). Why do you care? Because if the politician got pinned, he'd have to wear a Devils jersey and condemn the Carolina Hurricanes. North Carolina voters getting a dose of the hard hitting issues, indeed. You can see the results here.
  • NESN takes a look at the Devils today, noting that while the Devils could still be dangerous, they need Ilya Kovalchuk for the playoffs. We'll explore the money issues surrounding Kovalchuk on this blog later today.