The summer is a busy time for many, and it’s extremely busy for journalists who are taking some time off after a long hockey season, but Arthur Staple was nice enough to answer a few questions about the team he covers, the New York Islanders as well as the Colorado Avalanche. Arthur currently writes for The Athletic where he covers the New York Islanders. Before that, he wrote for Newsday for 20 years. Feel free to give him a follow on Twitter at @StapeAthletic.
Professor Oak: The obvious big story surrounding the Islanders this year was their inability to re-sign John Tavares. Hindsight being 20/20, can you break down how they found themselves in this situation? What, if anything, could they have done differently?
Arthur Staple: As I’ve written a few times, there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around in the Tavares departure. It starts at the top: Owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky had plenty of opportunities to give Tavares a deadline to sign or be moved once Tavares’ camp informed the team in the 2017 offseason that he wasn’t signing an extension at that time. They gave Tavares all he asked for — not to discuss a new contract, not to discuss moving him and they even retained Garth Snow and hired Doug Weight as the permanent coach hoping it would appease Tavares. It was a curious strategy at the time and it only looked worse as the team struggled and Tavares got towards his big decision.
Snow takes some blame too, since he constructed an inferior roster that didn’t do much to entice Tavares to stay over the past couple seasons. And for Tavares himself, he said early and often he wanted to stay, but clearly as it got down to decision time his heart was elsewhere. That’s a tough one for Isles fans to take.
PO: Was the hiring of Lou Lamoreillo and then Barry Trotz a last ditch effort in their attempts to re-sign Tavares? Where do you see their fit in the long term plan?
AS: I think the Lamoriello hiring in particular was a response partly for Tavares, but primarily to take the team in a different direction. The ownership had the chance to move on from Snow after the 16-17 season — Dean Lombardi was available — but kept Snow on; after last season’s mess, they had to do something. Trotz was really a product of good timing, so I don’t think they would have passed that up even if they knew Tavares was gone.
Lamoriello will be 76 in a couple months, so I’m not sure he’s in this for the long haul. There’s been talk of him setting the table for his son to take over, but I assume there’ll have to be some results in the next few years for that to happen. Trotz is at the top of his game and the Isles haven’t had anyone like him behind the bench since Al Arbour, so that fits with any plan.
PO: The Islanders seemingly got a couple steals when they selected RW Oliver Wahlstrom and D Noah Dobson 11th and 12th respectively in the 2018 draft. Has this helped curve some of the negativity surrounding the Islanders?
AS: I would think the draft helps not only the team’s perception but its actual future! They went from a pretty thin prospect group to well-stocked in a matter of days at the draft. Dobson in particular could be the kind of top-pair defenseman the Islanders haven’t produced (and held onto) in a long time.
PO: With the long term signings of Leo Komarov, Thomas Hickey and Ross Johnston (while also adding Valtteri Filppula for a year and bringing back Matt Martin), what can be some expectations for Isles fans next year.
AS: It’s a very mixed bag for the 18-19 Isles, I’d say. They’re overstocked with depth forwards, their defense could be OK and goaltending is one big question mark. Trotz and his high-end staff certainly will help them be better defensively than they were last season, but there could be a real leadership void without Tavares. If Mathew Barzal can seize the day and make it his team, they could be decent. If they look as disjointed on the ice as they do on paper, it could be a long year.
PO: The Colorado Avalanche surprised the NHL world last year by not only having a fairly successful season, but getting into the playoffs in a win-and-in game against the St. Louis Blues last year. What did you see as they keys to their success?
AS: The Avs really put something good together last season and it obviously starts with Nathan MacKinnon. He’s a top-10 player in the league and having such a young, energetic group of forwards behind him caught some teams off-guard last season. The Matt Duchene deal really helped them, not just adding Sam Girard but opening up minutes for the likes of Kerfoot, Compher, Jost and even Nieto. It’s a really enjoyable turnaround to see for a team that never really seemed as bad as its 16-17 season was.
PO: During the draft, the Avalanche traded a 2nd round pick for Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik (who was bought out). What have you seen and what can we expect from Grubauer?
AS: Grubauer was certainly in demand — the Isles badly wanted him but wouldn’t take on Orpik’s contract, which was a side effect of Tavares not having made up his mind by the draft — and I think he’ll be solid, though it’s hard to know whether he’ll be more Cam Talbot or more Scott Darling. Keeping Varlamov in the fold as a 1A option should help. I tend to think Grubauer will rise to the occasion.
PO: The Avalanche signed Matt Calvert and Ian Cole to three year deals during free agency. What insights can you provide on these players?
AS: Didn’t love either signing, though Calvert will fit nicely with what the Avs already have — I don’t think he’s as good as Blake Comeau but Calvert is a good energy guy. Cole got a decent contract given the Penguins, a team that usually has to beg for defense, dumped him for nothing during last season. But again, if the foundation is good — and Barrie, Johnson, Girard and Nemeth is a good core — Cole should be able to help.
PO: Lastly, what can we expect from the Avalanche for the upcoming year?
AS: The division doesn’t seem to be getting any easier, with Winnipeg and Nashville still sitting at the top and Dallas and St. Louis right in the same talent range as the Avs. Colorado needs to take a step forward to solidify what they did last season; I could see Minnesota slipping a bit to give the Avs a chance to be in the top three. But a few points lost off last season and they could be on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.
Once again a huge thanks to Arthur Staple for taking the time out of his busy summer to answer some questions for us!