Blake’s Takes: ‘Canes Ink Keeps Flowing

This week, I had to scratch and claw to find five things worth writing about, but I did it. I could never disappointment my fans. This week, the Hurricanes dominated the news cycle after they re-signed GM Don Waddell, and after Waddell announced that captain, Justin Williams, is still mulling retirement. There were a few other diamonds in the rough like a big jersey retirement and a trophy malfunction.

1. Luongo’s #1 to be Retired

On March 7th, 2020, Roberto Luongo will be the first-ever Florida Panther to have his number retired after hanging up his skates for good at the beginning of this summer. This is a great move by a Panthers franchise that hasn’t had too much to celebrate in their 25-year history. Luongo is the best player that has ever played for the franchise and is the team’s all-time leader in nearly every goaltending category including wins, losses, and shutouts.

Luongo spent the majority of his 19-year NHL career with the Panthers, spending 11 seasons with the team in two stints, with seven-plus years in Vancouver sandwiched in between. His resume is quite extensive, too. Luongo was a two-time second-team All-Star, was selected to the All-Star Game six times, won gold at the Olympics and World Championships twice, a Jennings Trophy winner, a two-time Presidents, Trophy winner, and a one-time Western Conference Champ.

What made Luongo special was his longevity. He broke out as a 24-year old while playing in Florida and remained one of the top goaltenders in the NHL through his time in Vancouver and into his second stint with the Panthers. He will be remembered as one of the best players of his generation and could find himself in the Hall of Fame. Congrats to Luongo and good on the Panthers for making this happen so soon.

2. Season Preview: New York Islanders

The Islanders had one of the most interesting off-seasons compared to the rest of the league. After a surprisingly successful season, where they made the playoffs in a stacked Metropolitan division and swept the Pittsburgh Penguin in the first round, they added nothing to their roster. If the Islanders hope to make another run in the Eastern Conference, they need to bank on their depth and continuity among a roster that returns almost everyone.

Is there is one thing the Islanders have, it’s depth. There is almost no star power on this team. The 22-year-old Matthew Barzal could certainly become a superstar any minute, for now he is still only just an emerging star. That being said, the Isles sought to re-sign their UFAs rather than make a big splash with an Artemi Panarin or another big free agent. They signed both Jordan Eberle and captain Anders Lee to long-term extensions. All four of their lines are stocked with good NHL players and their blue line is as well. There aren’t many question marks with the roster they are returning.

The downside to having a few question marks is that you know what you’re getting with this team, and it’s vanilla. Before I rag on the Islanders, I must say that Barry Trotz transformed this team. Their decision to buy-in to his defensive style of play worked and helped them make the playoffs after superstar John Tavares left. They led the league in goals-against a year after finishing dead last. That’s incredible. That’s what led to Trotz winning the Jack Adams Trophy and Robin Lehner’s inspirational comeback on the ice. If this year’s team can replicate anything close to what last year’s team did, they have a shot to make the playoffs again. Even if they can play that well defensively, they still don’t have enough firepower on offense to compete with Washington and Tampa.

The only thing they can hope for is that another year of continuity allows this team to gel and improve from last year. There is hope for that. Barzal is improving every year and is a candidate to take a massive leap forward, similar to the way Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon did. If Barzal can do that, the Islanders are in a very good place. That could elevate the play of the Islanders’ other top forwards like Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson, who have emerged as reliable first and second-line players. Eberle also had a down year, so if he can turn it around that could lead to a few more wins.

I don’t think the Islanders will take that step forward this season. Teams will start to figure them out and I don’t like replacing Lehner for Semyon Varlamov. I still think they can compete for a playoff spot, but unless Barzal completely breaks out, the Islanders just don’t have enough talent to compete with the big boys in the East.

3. Carolina Locks Down Waddell

Yesterday, Dan Waddell agreed to a three-year contract extension to remain the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes had their best season in ten years in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Waddell had been working for the team as their GM even after his contract had expired on June 30th.

On the hockey side of things, this was a no-brainer. Waddell transformed this team from lottery-bound to playoff contender. Since Waddell took over the team in March of 2018, he was responsible for a flurry of moves that vaulted the Hurricanes into playoffs. His first major move was hiring franchise legend, Rod Brind’Amour, to become the teams’ coach. This past season, he traded one underperforming forward, Victor Rask, for another, Nino Niederreiter. The Canes won the trade easily as Niederreiter excelled after coming over from the Wild and Rask provided almost nothing for his new team. The jury is still out on the trade of Elias Lindholm for Dougie Hamilton, but Hamilton was still a necessary contributor for Carolina so that helps Waddell’s cause. Waddell has also re-signed emerging superstar Sebastian Aho to a long-term deal and stocked the team with a bevy of young talent ready to break out. Waddell has done everything and more that has been expected of him and has become one of the best GMs in the NHL.

On the contract side, Waddell keeps benefiting from the mismanagement in Minnesota. After Waddell’s contract expired in Carolina, he continued to work for the team as he awaited a new deal (league rules mandate that he be under contract when the season starts). The fact that he worked at all while not under contract is ridiculous, proving owner Tom Dundon is a madman and I’m no longer surprised he lost a boatload of money on the AAF. After the Wild fired GM Paul Fenton, Waddell took a meeting with Wild owner Craig Leipold. That must have been just the right amount of pressure as he signed a new deal six days later. That is the most dangerous move Dundon has made as an owner thus far. Because Waddell was not under contract, the Hurricanes were left completely unprotected if Waddell wanted to leave. Thankfully for him, he didn’t. Now we can all look forward to the moves Waddell will make the rest of this offseason and into this coming campaign.

4. Williams Still Undecided on Return

As the regular season quickly approaches, the aforementioned Don Waddell has still not heard from his captain regarding his future. Justin Williams is mulling over whether he will suit up for the Canes for his 19th season, or retire. Williams is coming off a very productive season, scoring 23 goals and adding 30 assists while playing in all 82 games. He also scored seven points in 15 playoff games while leading his team to an appearance in the conference finals. Mr. Game 7 was every bit as magical down the stretch last season as he assisted on the overtime goal that finished off the Washington Capitals in Game 7.

If Williams returns, there is little doubt that he could slot into the second or third line and score another 40 or 50 points, even at age 38. I would love to see Williams take a victory lap and storm surge his way out of the NHL. He was one of the more underappreciated players of his era because he was never the best player on his team and never scored more than 76 points in a season. That doesn’t change the fact that he is arguably one of the best playoff performers in history and has won the Stanley Cup three times, winning the Conn Smythe once.

5. Lehner Trophy Debacle

One of the best stories of the past season was Robin Lehner’s comeback, both on and off the ice. Lehner had the best season of his career posting a 25-13-5 record, with a 2.13 GAA, .930 sv%, and 6 shutouts. He helped the new-look Islanders make the playoffs and earned himself a $5 million payday from the Blackhawks. Off the ice, he fought back from a difficult battle with bipolar disorder and substance abuse issues that greatly affected his life and his NHL career. He was the winner of the league’s Masterton Memorial Trophy which is awarded to the player that, “exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” Lehner gave an emotional speech during the NHL Awards and stole the show.

It’s too bad the NHL couldn’t even engrave his trophy correctly. On Saturday, Lehner tweeted a picture of his Masterton Award that was engraved, “Robin Lehner, New York Rangers.” The league did him dirty! They couldn’t even take the time to check that he played for the Islanders and not the Rangers. Hopefully, the NHL sends someone out to replace the plaque so Lehner’s trophy can properly acknowledge that he helped the ISLANDERS succeed last season. ■

Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.

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