As we approach the NHL’s brief holiday break (there won’t be games from Dec. 24-26), there have been a few significant developments throughout the league. The Pittsburgh Penguins, which currently are not in a playoff position, made a couple trades, the New York Islanders will be moving back to Long Island, and things are starting to look up for the Edmonton Oilers.
Let’s start with the Penguins. While their first 35 games haven’t been a disaster, it’s fair to at least call them a disappointment. They have a 17-15-3 record due in large part to defensive shortcomings. Matthew Murray has also left something to be desired in his first campaign without Marc-Andre Fleury as his safety net.
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With Pittsburgh’s rough start as the backdrop, they made two small trades that might set the table for bigger moves once we get closer to the trade deadline. They acquired goaltender Michael Leighton from Arizona, providing the Penguins with a veteran alternative should they need one down the road, though Leighton will stay report to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins also acquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak from Dallas in exchange for a conditional fourth round pick.
Oleksiak is the more noteworthy of the acquisitions. He was primarily serving as a depth defenseman with the Stars and while he’s not likely to have a significant role with Pittsburgh either at this time, at 6-foot-7, he’s an imposing force to put out on the blueline. As Penguins GM Jim Rutherford noted, acquiring Oleksiak also means that the Penguins have enough defensive options that they could potential trade a defenseman for a forward later if the situation justifies it without having to worry about getting a blueliner back in the trade.
Again, these aren’t big moves, but they’re a start for the Penguins. Rutherford is likely to get more aggressive if the Penguins don’t improve in the weeks to come.
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A day after Pittsburgh made those moves, the Islanders announced that they’ve secured a bid to build a new stadium in Belmont Park. In other words, the Islanders name will actually be accurate again as they’ll be leaving Brooklyn to return to Long Island. That’ll good news for all involved as the Islanders stay in Barclays Center has been an ongoing issue.
This announcement might also lead to the Islanders re-signing John Tavares. To be clear, Tavares hasn’t made any commitments to re-signing regardless of the Islanders plans and, on the flip side, it is possible that he would have re-signed even if the Islanders’ long-term arena situation hadn’t been resolved, but this will likely push him in the direction of sticking with the team. He seemed to imply as much on Wednesday even while hedging his bets.
"As time goes on and you take time to think about things, look at the big picture, it’s very positive for the organization, for us, for the fans," Tavares said, per Newsday. "For my situation it’s really exciting news. I’m not going to say it’s going to change or ultimately make my decision, but everything that’s involved in my daily life plays into it and going to the rink, playing games is a big part of that.”
Tavares re-signing would obviously be a huge deal for the Islanders, especially in the midst of his outstanding 2017-18 campaign, which has seen him score 19 goals and 42 points in 34 contests thus far. It would also reverberate throughout the rest of the league as it would remove the biggest potential player from the 2018 UFA market and end any speculation about the potential of the Islanders trading him.
It will be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets. Steven Stamkos inked an eight-year, $68 million contract in June 2016, but he likely agreed to less than he was worth and was coming off a somewhat down season by his standards as he scored 36 goals and 64 points in 77 contests in 2015-16. Based on how Tavares has done thus far, his contract year will be among his strongest to date. Anze Kopitar also inked in 2016 and secured an eight-year, $80 million contract. Kopitar is a bit of a different beast as he’s not as big of an offensive force, but also excels defensively. Nevertheless, he might be the closest comparable from the last couple years.
Let’s move on to Edmonton, which has won its last two games and five of its last eight contests. The Oilers are still well behind in the playoff race with their 15-17-2 record, but in addition to starting to play better, Edmonton is getting some reinforcements. Goaltender Cam Talbot returned from an upper-body injury on Saturday, defenseman Adam Larsson returned from an upper-body injury on Monday, and now Andrej Sekera might make his season debut on Thursday after missing the first 34 contests with a knee injury.
Keep in mind that Sekera had eight goals, 35 points, and a plus-14 rating last season while averaging 21:29 minutes per contest, so that’s a big piece of the Oilers’ defense that has been absent until this point. While Edmonton’s shortcomings through the first third of 2017-18 go beyond the absence Sekera, his return could help revitalize this club. Certainly, it’s a storyline to keep in mind as Edmonton preps for some tough contests against St. Louis on Dec. 21, Montreal on Dec. 23, Winnipeg on Dec. 27, Chicago on Dec. 29, and then Winnipeg again on New Year’s Eve to round out 2017.