Even as Evgeni Nabokov nears a return to action for the Islanders, Newsday’s Arthur Staple speculated on Wednesday that the team could be on the verge of making a deal to solve its season-long goalie issues.
The sooner, the better. Neither Nabokov nor young Kevin Poulin has done anything this season to suggest that he can help New York leapfrog the five teams between it and the third playoff spot in the weak-sister Metropolitan Division. But is there a deal to be made for a goalie who could help improve the Islanders’ already slim postseason chances?
The Hurricanes’ Anton Khudobin is intriguing — athletic and competitive, but hardly a proven commodity. The Ducks’ Jonas Hiller would be an upgrade, but the trading price for him in picks/prospects would be a little steep at this point.
That leaves Sabres goalie Ryan Miller as the obvious choice, but the risk involved in swapping for Buffalo’s netminder would be high — for both sides.
There’s no reason for the Sabres to do anything to help New York. Remember, Buffalo acquired, conditionally, the Islanders’ first-round pick in 2014, as well as a second-rounder in ’15, as part of the Thomas Vanek for Matt Moulson deal. It’s in the Sabres’ best interest then to see New York fail.
And even if Islanders GM Garth Snow was willing to pay Buffalo’s price (a high pick and a solid, though not elite, prospect), it might mean putting his job on the line. Miller and Vanek are pending UFAs, and if both walked after Snow had emptied New York’s coffers to acquire them, the losses would be devastating to the franchise.
So what’s likely to happen? Look for Snow to make two smaller deals: one to acquire a goalie with some longer-term potential, and one for a veteran defenseman to shore up the Islanders’ shaky blue line.
Speaking of Miller, what’s he worth now in the wake of Henrik Lundqvist’s seven-year, $59.5 million deal? At 33, Miller is two years older than the King, so it’s hard to see anyone giving him a contract that match’s the length of Lundqvist’s agreement, but the average annual value might not be that far off. Something in the neighborhood of four years and $26 million for Miller seems likely, although another bravura Olympic performance for Team USA could up the ante.
But will it be the Sabres be writing the check? Coach Ted Nolan is loudly advocating for Miller to be kept around as a painkiller through what looks like a difficult rebuild, and the netminder’s salary would help keep Buffalo above the cap floor for the next few seasons. But for the ultra-competitive Miller, what’s the upside? It’s hard to see him wanting to stick around for a few more years in the Sabres’ shooting gallery, no matter how much the team offers him.
Misery in Vancouver
Zack Kassian is in a lousy spot in Vancouver.
Full of malicious potential when he was drafted by Buffalo with the 13th pick in 2009, the 22-year-old winger has lost his way with the Canucks. His game has stagnated under coach John Tortorella who, understandably, is focused on winning every night rather than on Kassian’s long term development.
At his best, he was a bruising presence who created space through intimidation, with the skill to take advantage of his chances down low. But he’s not that player now, and hasn’t been for a while, really. His play without the puck lacks urgency and smarts. And with the puck? You can tell that the kid’s confidence is shot. His zone exits are terrible and his vision is limited. In the time it takes him to second-guess himself, he’s either coughed up the puck or left himself with no options other than to dump it and head back to the bench to face the glares of the coaching staff.
So, more often than not, he finds himself playing a few meaningless minutes a night on a fourth line that Tortorella scarcely trusts to dress itself properly. Sometimes, Kassian is even tucked away in the press box — a healthy scratch — trying to figure out where it all went south.
Ideally, Kassian would be given a chance to work through his issues with a regular shift, comfortable in the knowledge that his next mistake wouldn’t get him stapled to the bench. But that’s a luxury that Vancouver, locked in a dogfight for playoff position, can’t afford.
It’s a miserable situation for both sides, especially with Kassian in a contract year. And now the pressure is on the Canucks to figure out how best to resolve it.
Maintaining the status quo is one option, but not a very good one with so much on the line. That’s why Kassian’s name is starting to pop up in trade rumors.
That doesn’t mean that Vancouver has given up on him. Far from it. The Canucks recognize that he has the tools to be a very valuable player. But the timing of this marriage is off. If Kassian and the team had come together at a different time, they might have been a great fit, but here, now … it’s not working for either side.
Trading Kassian wouldn’t be an easy deal for GM Mike Gillis to pull off. Whatever return Kassian brings would be compared to Cody Hodgson, the player that Gillis traded to the Sabres for Kassian at the 2012 trade deadline. And given how well Hodgson is developing in Buffalo, the comparison would not be flattering.
Still, even though Kassian’s struggles have devalued him as an asset, there are 28 teams out there that remember drooling over his size and nastiness when they scouted him just a few years back. Given the right opportunity, he could mature into the player they projected him to be.
Sadly, that opportunity isn’t likely to come in Vancouver.
Team Canada’s fatal flaw
An Eastern Conference scout told SI.com this week that he “wouldn’t think twice” about naming Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban to Canada’s Olympic roster. “I know Stevie [Yzerman] has some tough choices to make, but if it’s me [making the call], he’s on.
“What killed [Team Canada] in 2006? They couldn’t create and finish [offensive chances], right? And that’s going to be the issue on the big ice again. It’s not goaltending. It’s scoring. Subban is that guy [who can help]. He skates, he pushes the play in the right direction. He creates chances that other guys just can’t.”
The scout also said that concerns about Subban’s defensive game were overblown.
“The guy lugs the puck a mile a night, so of course he turns it over sometimes. That’s expected. You watch and see how he responds to the turnover, that shows you how good he is. He’s better in his own zone than he gets credit for.
“Take him as your [seventh defenseman], ease him in slowly if you have to. But don’t tell me there’s seven [defenders] better than him because there aren’t.”
Net losses for Russia
You think Team Canada has goaltending worries? Consider what Russia is dealing with right now.
With a little more than a month left before the Jan. 7 Sochi roster selection deadline, all six of Russia’s NHL options — i.e., its best options — come with an asterisk.
Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to miss a month with a groin muscle injury, a lingering ailment that also has Nabokov and Nikolai Khabibulin on the sidelines. Ilya Bryzgalov is dealing with concussion-like symptoms and could be out through Christmas. Khudobin has already missed six weeks with an ankle injury.
And then there’s Semyon Varlamov, the likely starter, who faces charges of third-degree assault for allegedly beating his girlfriend. The Avalanche goalie’s legal situation is not expected to affect his ability to play in Sochi, but it’s a cloud over his head. He’s also struggled with a minor groin injury of his own in the past couple of weeks.
There are a couple of KHL-based options — Konstanin Barulov and Alexander Eremenko would seem to be the favorites — but the Russians know their best chance to beat the Canadians and the Americans is with an NHL goalie between the pipes. Right now they just have to hope that one will be available to them.
The Right Guy
We’re still waiting for Kevin Smith (“Clerks”, “Chasing Amy”) to get around to his promised hockey movie, Hit Somebody, but at least his new walrus-horror movie, Tusk, features a nod to the great game. The pivotal character is a French-Canadian Mountie named Guy Lapointe. Quentin Tarantino was approached to play the role but turned it down, saying he wasn’t into acting at the moment. Just as well. It’s tough to picture Richie Gecko in red serge … or bleu, blanc et rouge.
Check and Make Up
Now that Wayne Gretzky and the NHL have officially made up–an $8 million check signed by the Board of Governors to take care of money he was owed by the Phoenix Coyotes healed old wounds–speculation is swirling around when, and where, the Great One will return to an active role in the league.
Toronto would appear to be the early favorite, with a President of Hockey Operations-type opportunity rumored to be Wayne’s for the asking. The Rangers, Flyers and Capitals could also be interested in securing his services to oversee their hockey departments.
Ultimately it’ll come down to the best fit for Wayne. He’ll want the right portfolio of responsibilities–ie, final call on all hockey decisions–a level of comfort with the decision-makers already in place, and a chance to compete for a title. You can bet the thought of helping to end Toronto’s nearly 50-year Cup drought would have some real appeal to Gretzky.