Graziano: Why The Islanders Have Swung And Missed In First Days Of Free Agency

Andy Graziano
July 03, 2019 - 2:07 pm
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Change. Evolve. Adapt. Acclimate. 

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Those four words, along with many others, are crucial to survival in 2019 where things are constantly in flux. Same goes for the business of luring attractive free agents to bolster your team's chances of winning a Stanley Cup.

The New York Islanders were in discussions to land the big fish as the NHL opened its doors on free agency Monday afternoon. They were defeated. Not just defeated, but they had their faces smeared in it by their cross-town rivals, the New York Rangers, who signed prized wing Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract for a million (yes, a MILLION!) dollars per year LESS than what team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello was offering.

You can analyze as much as you like, or not at all, but the fact remains it's not a good look for a general manager that seems to have a problem closing the deal. In Lamoriello’s heyday, you could just throw money at a player and that was it. Now, you have to sell - sell the franchise, the city, the shopping, the schools, the commute, the practice rink. Heck, you even must sell it to the wife, children and nanny. Is Lamoriello just not good at it? Or does he refuse to conform? Is it a toxic combination of both?

Keep in mind before reading further this tweet from Jeff Veillette late Monday. ‘In the cap era, Lamoriello has lost Niedermayer, Parise, Gomez, Gionta, Tavares and Lehner. He’s failed to get Stamkos, Panarin, Bobrovsky among others. He kept Kovalchik but needed to give him a contract that got him sanctioned. Maybe he’s just bad with star UFAs?’ 

Outside of shedding Toronto of Dion Phaneuf’s horrid contract, his biggest success there was signing… Patrick Marleau.

He had a Vezina Trophy finalist and Masterton Trophy winner, who had tremendous success under goaltending guru Mitch Korn, waiting and willing to resign. Instead, Robin Lehner took his pads and went shuffling off to the Chicago Blackhawks on another one-year, prove-it deal for $5 million around suspicious circumstances. The Islanders were left to overpay, in both term and dollars, Semyon Varlamov, who just last year lost his job to Phillip Grubauer in Colorado and has battled many injuries over the past couple of seasons, including a torn groin in 2016-17.

There were reports of an offer made by the Islanders to Lehner’s camp of two years at a total of $10 million ($5 million AAV) but that was disputed by Lehner yesterday in his comments after signing his deal with Chicago. Three league sources told me that Lamoriello made ‘an initial offer’ and felt comfortable with it, but when Lehner didn’t respond immediately, abruptly decided to move on to Varlamov with nary a follow-up.

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They also indicated they felt Lamoriello never had any intention of bringing Lehner back - Lamoriello himself admitted he’s been chasing Varlamov the better part of a year - and that his initial offer was made knowing what the result would be. Signing Varlamov was a ‘favor’ per se to agent Paul Theofanous, who also represents Ilya Sorokin. You know, the goaltender nobody has ever seen play outside of the offensively challenged KHL. Nobody knows when he will step foot on North American soil.

All along, we have been hearing about how Lamoriello was sticking to his guns on captain Anders Lee, smartly not wanting to budge off an initial five-year contract term. After Panarin spurned the Islanders and Lehner took off to greener pastures, Lou found himself going back to Neil Sheehy and suddenly felt comfortable enough to give that seven-year term on a player whose style has worn down similar stars quickly. Friendly reminder that James van Riemsdyk, a fair comparison, only got five years from the Philadelphia Flyers. Yes, those same Flyers who just paid Kevin Hayes over $7 million.

Of course, it would have been crushing had New York lost their captain for a second straight season and Lee has tremendous value off the ice as much as on. However, this has nothing to do with Anders, the man. Lamoriello still had leverage. Montreal went with an offer sheet to Sebastian Aho. Minnesota went with Mats Zuccarello. Nashville signed Matt Duchene. Colorado was said to be offering five years at a similar AAV. Lee had few options on the open market and was not even close to a $9 million offer reported right before the opening bell.

When I spoke to three league executives, in addition to grilling a player agent, they all had similar things to say about Lamoriello: that he’s a tremendous hockey mind, sharp and rigid, but seems to lack a “closers mentality.” It’s “this is who we are, take it or leave it” and when plan A doesn’t work out, he often seems to scramble for a plan B that has not even been formulated yet. He must control every aspect of every negotiation and has a hard time delegating anything to others who might have a different or fresher outlook or perspective. 

He knows what the Islanders need. Barry Trotz knows what the Islanders need and said as much after the 2019 season ended in a second-round sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes. So far, Lamoriello has failed to get it. He failed at the trade deadline with the Eastern Conference wide open for anyone to take and failed to land the prize of free agency when he seemingly had him in the palm of his hand. At this point, what he’s left with is trying to wade into the murky waters of the trade market.

Is all of this partially to blame on the two-arena nonsense that still encircles this franchise like a dark storm cloud, no fault of the Islanders’ boss? Absolutely. I can personally attest it has nothing to do with Islanders fans, some of the most passionate in all of sports or living on Long Island, which save for its awfully inflated taxes, is a wonderful place to reside and raise a family.

At present, and admittedly there is plenty of summer left, the Islanders are no different than they were to begin last year. However, for a repeat season, you must hope Korn can work the same magic with Varlamov that he did with Lehner. You must hope that young players like Anthony Beauvillier, Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom are ready to step up and provide some ample secondary scoring. You must hope Casey Cizikas can repeat the best year of his professional career. You must hope Brock Nelson gets even better in year two under Trotz. You must hope New York can again ride a ridiculously high PDO.

That’s a lot of hope. Some might say it’s asking for lightning to strike twice in the same spot. But hey, it’s what Islanders fans seem to have to do yearly.