The New York Islanders will be in KeyBank Center to finish the Sabres' homestand Thursday night and their lone visit of the season comes as they are building one of the most fascinating storylines going in the NHL right now.
The Isles entered Saturday in last place in the Metropolitan Division -- but just one point out of a wild-card slot. They announced on Monday they're moving back to the renovated Nassau Coliseum (now called NYCB Live) for 12 games next season and for half of their home schedule the following two years while a new arena is built near Belmont Park.
And they're playing this season under the shadow of the impending free agency of captain John Tavares, who has won just one playoff series in his career even though he's clearly one of the game's best players.
The Tavares circus is eerily reminiscent of what went on in the summer of 2016 with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who entertained a move and even talked to the Sabres, before ultimately staying with Tampa.
The Islanders remain focused on signing Tavares and it's almost certain he's not going to be part of a deadline move, even if they fall out of the playoff chase this month. It's a dilemma for sure for GM Garth Snow. You can't ship out the face of your franchise but you also certainly can't let him walk away for nothing either.
(See Drury, Chris or Briere, Daniel).
By announcing their impending move out of the woeful-for-hockey Barclays Center, the Islanders are solidfying their place back in Long Island for the long term. Great move. Their fans hate piling from Nassau County to Brooklyn and Barclays, a beautiful basketball facility, is atrocious for the NHL. It was never built for it and retrofits for hockey simply don't work.
You wonder how much of a factor it will be in Tavares' thinking. The players like the spaciousness of their facilities in Barclay compared to the old Nassau Coliseum setup but they don't like the long ride their from practice facility out on Long Island. The ice has never been good and the fervor of the crowd on the Island can't be duplicated either.
"I’m not going to sit here and say the arena is the No. 1 thing or the most important thing,” Tavares said when asked about his free agency last weekend on All-Star Media Day in Tampa. “Anything that affects my daily life — going to the rink, where I play, where you live and anything is obviously going to impact my decision.”
Stamkos said on Media Day that he had not discussed free agency with Tavares but had some thoughts on the situation.
"He is obviously having an unbelievable season and is probably doing a better job of not letting it affect him than maybe I did,” Stamkos said. “It’s in the back of your head, for sure, but for him to have the season that he has had under the circumstances probably goes to show you the type of character that I know he has. I think that is what has impressed me the most. He has been able, whenever he has been asked about it, to give the right response and just go out and play the game.”
Tavares entered Saturday with 57 points in 52 games and is on pace for career highs in goals (41) and points (90). But the Islanders were teetering this week, with a 4-1 home loss to Florida followed by Wednesday's 5-0 stinker in Toronto.
“It’s really unacceptable the level we’re playing at,” Tavares said after that game. “We’re not going to win many hockey games or really be in it the way we played the last couple of nights. The way we’ve played the last couple nights is not even close to what we need to be to get where we need to get to. It’s hard to be at a certain standard every night, especially in this league, with how competitive it is. We’ve just got to be a lot better.”
The Islanders have built a solid team up front, with only the Lightning scoring more goals. Josh Bailey is having a career year and Mathew Barzal, taken No. 16 in the first round of the 2015 Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel draft, looks like the Calder Trophy winner.
It's just hard to believe that Snow, a former NHL goalie, hasn't done anything about the netminding tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss that's ruining his team's season. They're last in the league in goals against average (3.57) and 30th in save percentage (.897). With only five points separating teams 2-8 in the Metropolitan Division, you can't have goaltending like that.
What's goalie interference?
So Gary Bettman said in Tampa last weekend he wanted referees to stop "overthinking" goalie interference calls and stop searching for reasons to call goals back. Seems reasonable enough. According to Sportsnet, there had been 35 goalie interference challenges overturned from goal to no goal through Thursday -- the same total of all of last season.
But then play resumes after the break and now it seems we won't see goalie interference called at all. Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck took a stick to the head Wednesday against Vegas from James Neal and the play was ruled a goal, and St. Louis' Jake Allen was wiped out by two Bruins Thursday in Boston. Same thing. Good goal. A week ago, it seems there was no way it would stand.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong was alternately outraged and confused when talking about the goal after St. Louis' 3-1 loss.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 2, 2018
“I wasn't shocked because I don't know what the rules are,” Armstrong told The Athletic. “Whether you agree with the rules, it's really irrelevant, but you have to understand them. It's certainly grayer now than it's ever been before.
Armstrong said the Blues were apparently told that officials ruled Allen was so far out of position that he could not make a save, and that's why the goal was counted. Never mind the fact he was pushed far out of the crease.
"That's a new one to me. Now all of the sudden (the referee) is clairvoyant," Armstrong said. "There are great saves in our game for a reason because goalies do things they're not supposed to do. For the referee to feel that he's the judge and jury on who can make a great save, who's athletic enough, again that's a new area that I didn't realize was part of his job description.”
A small group of coaches, GMs and hockey operations officials met with Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly in Tampa to reaffirm goalie interference challenges. It was an unscheduled summit that many GMs were taken by surprise by. Armstrong was one, as he was not in Tampa for the game and was surprised the standard seems to have changed during the season.
"They talked about hooking and holding and slashes to the hands and we had like eight or nine meaningless preseason games to figure it out,” he said. “Now they're changing the philosophy of the game with 30 games left and there's playoff seeding and playoff revenue on the line, and really nobody in hockey from the officials to the coaches to the players have any idea what that rule is, and that's not good for the game."
This corner has long been wildly against offside challenges but the rules are black and white. It's just a bad rule. Goalie interference is so open to interpretation that replay challenges are doing almost nothing but causing more issues than they're worth.
How does the league fix this mess?
"I don't think they know, I don't think we know,” Armstrong said. “I don't think anyone knows now because this cat is out of the bag.”
Because of our proximity to Canada, there are scouts you notice in the Sabres press box all the time. Former Sabres Adam Creighton (Boston) and Terry Martin (Colorado) and longtime Montreal center Peter Mahovlich (Florida) are among the regulars in KeyBank Center. So is former Sabres defenseman and current Habs assistant general manager Larry Carriere.
But at this time of year, you see some interesting names pop up on the list too. Take Thursday night's game against Florida.
Colorado senior pro scout Garth Joy was on the press box registry. So was Josh Flynn, Columbus' director of hockey administration and the Blue Jackets' resident salary cap/analytics guru. And there were player personnel directors from Minnesota (Blair Mackasey) and Anaheim (Rick Paterson).
Scouts and front-office types are paid to watch hockey games but antennas go up when you see outliers in the house who've traveled a long distance to watch a Thursday night Sabres-Panthers game. Especially when an expected top rental talent like Evander Kane is on the ice.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) January 18, 2018
Boudreau angry by All-Star flu
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau was upset the NHL allowed Seth Jones to play in the team's game on Tuesday even he sat out the All-Star Game with the flu. Players are supposed to serve a one-game suspension for skipping the midsummer showcase but the league said it requested Jones stay home so as not to risk infection of other players.
"The rule states that if you miss the All-Star Game — no matter what the reason — you miss the next game or you miss the previous game,” Boudreau said. "He played the previous game. He should be missing this game. It’s cut and dry to me.”
Sidney Crosby (2015), Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews (2016) and Columbus coach John Tortorella (2017) all served the one-game ban for missing the All-Star festivities.
"There’s a gray area in this rule forever and ever," Boudreau said. "Because unless they get written doctors reports from everybody now, it’s hard to sit there and say, ‘OK, he’s going to have to miss a game’ if Seth doesn’t miss his game.”
I get Boudreau's point and, given the seriousness of this winter's flu outbreak, I get the league's view too. But this should not be precedent setting. What's to say we won't see 15 cases of "flu" around next year's all-stars slated to head to San Jose? The league should stay vigilant on this and enforce the rule hard.
Around the boards
* How in the world did Taylor Hall not get a major penalty for his clear from-behind plummeting of Kyle Okposo here Tuesday night? That was a suspendable foul and it gets called a two-minute minor. The league clearly sent a message with a $5,000 fine for Hall and referees Dean Morton and Garrett Rank, who has golfed in six Porter Cups, should hear about this one. Terrible work.
* Hall gets away with a fine and so does Washington's T.J. Oshie for a cross check against Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. But Johan Larsson gets a two-game suspension for what was, admittedly, a scummy cross-check. Don't tell me star players and top teams don't get preferential treatment from the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Ridiculous.
* I'm not a huge fan of the All-Star Skills Competition but it has some good moments. One thing I'd like to see the league do is invite players not selected for the actual All-Star Game to compete. Make them part of the whole weekend. That's what's done in the NBA. Guys in the dunk contest aren't all from the actual game.
* New Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon is already scoring points in Raleigh. The old Hartford Whalers song "Brass Bonanza" was played last week during a stoppage in PNC Arena and Dundon said he's entertained the thought of putting the team in Whalers throwback uniforms. Dundon also ran a ticket exchange for a game against the Senators to try to fill the lower bowl and suites by moving fans out of the 300 level.
* It may have taken the fact that NBC sent its NHL studio crew to Minneapolis as a backdrop for the Super Bowl, but it was still great to see NBCSN air the Vegas-Minnesota game Friday night when it could easily have aired yet another Penguins-Capitals game, seemingly the 700th between the teams in the Sidney Crosby/Alex Ovechkin years.
The Golden Knights are one of the league's best stories in years and the Wild have a rabid fan base and plenty of players worth watching. If you're going to sell the league, we need to see more than the Blackhawks, Penguins and Caps. It was a refreshing change.
* A smiling Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, asked in Tampa if the "Vegas flu" is striking visiting teams at a rate worse than he even expected in the wake of his club's NHL-best 19-3-2 home record: "I think the way we play at home has more factored in than the Vegas flu. Back in my era it might have been a factor but I think the players are more respectful today."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres/ Carolina Hurricanes/ Evander Kane/ Gary Bettman/ John Tavares/ Kyle Okposo/ New York Islanders/ NHL All-Star Game/ St. Louis Blues/ Steven Stamkos/ Tampa Bay Lightning/ Vegas Golden Knights