By Steve Silverman
It is T-minus 25 days and counting for John Tavares and the New York Islanders.
When the last page of the June calendar has been pulled from the wall, Tavares will have an opportunity to gauge his real value in the NHL.
He has a pretty good idea now, but that's not good enough. Barring a late and shocking decision to re-sign with the Islanders, Tavares will open it up to bidders around Gary Bettman's 31-team league and then decide the best place to call home
Lou Lamoriello has taken over the Islanders and fired general manager Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight, and while these moves are clearly popular with Islanders fans, it does not necessarily mean that Tavares will be more included to sign with the Islanders than he was before the moves were made.
Tavares certainly knows that "Lou Lams" is one of the most respected leaders in the NHL, and he has the wherewithal to find solid players and a first-rate coach. But does that mean the Islanders are a cinch to return to the playoffs next year, and turn into a league heavyweight if they get there?
Not at all. Tavares is almost certainly looking to play with a team that has a chance to contend every year, and the speculation has been that he will be most likely to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs when he gets the opportunity.
A good case can be made, but it is not based on reality. Tavares has not tipped his hand at this point.
Lamoriello has accomplished far too much than to fire his GM and coach with the hope of getting one star player to sign. "That certainly has not and did not enter into any of the decisions that were made," Lamoriello said.
We believe him. Snow had made some good moves in his 12 years with the Islanders, including drafting Tavares and Mathew Barzal, along with trading for Johnny Boychuk and Jordan Eberle. However, it just did not work for Snow and he had to go.
Weight gave it his all, as did Jack Capuano before him, but Lamoriello has to find a better head coach who can keep an eye on the bigger picture while still motivating his troops.
Lamoriello has a long way to go to get the Islanders on track, and it would certainly be an easier job with Tavares than without him. However, there is too much uncertainty around this team, and it's difficult to see the All-Star center coming back to his old team at this point.
Here's a look at three other free agents who should have a chance to make a big move July 1:
1. John Carlson, Washington, D, 28
2017-18 cap hit: $3,966,667
He's having a brilliant playoff season and could make $8 million in 2018-19.
2. James van Riemsdyk, Toronto, LW, 29
2017-18 cap hit: $4,250,000
One of the best power-play specialists in the league because he can park himself near the crease, collect rebounds and tips like an NBA center.
3. Paul Stastny, Winnipeg, C, 32
2017-18 cap hit: $7,000,000
Talented and versatile, Stastny has shown he's not afraid to take punishment if it leads to a goal.
Kuznetsov may be real Caps' hero
This has been a wonderful postseason for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. If the Caps can win Thursday night in Las Vegas or either of the two potential games that would follow if they drop Game 5, the Caps will have the Stanley Cup they have yearned for since they came into existence in 1974-75.
Ovechkin certainly has excellent postseason number – he has 14 goals and 12 assists – and he has been the driving force for the Capitals with his relentless physical play.
"Ever since I've been here, he's the guy that drives this team. He seems to score every kind of goal imaginable. He's playing hard. He's finishing checks. He's doing the little things. That's what you need to do this time of year," said hard-nosed forward Tom Wilson.
But Kuznetsov may be even better because he has scored 31 points in 23 games, and he has scored a slew of big goals throughout this playoff run.
He has earned the respect of his teammates for the way he has stepped up in leading the team. He had huge goals against the Penguins when he scored the series-clinching goal in overtime in Game 6, and he scored the second goal in Game 3 against the Golden Knights that gave Washington a 2-0 lead – and the edge in the Stanley Cup Final.
"He's been great all season, for the last couple of seasons, really. One of the most dynamic players and can take over the league if he wants to and I think he's that talented and sees the game better than anyone else," said defenseman John Carlson.
There's no doubt that when Ovechkin gets the puck in his wheelhouse, he can turn and bury his slap shot as well as anyone in the NHL – including Patrik Laine. Ovechkin has also put his imprint on all his opponents with his consistent physical play.
But Kuznetsov is a threat to create something every time he steps onto the ice. He has the ability to hold onto the puck for a half-second longer than nearly any other Cap, including Ovechkin. The Golden Knights have no answer for Kuznetsov, and it may get him the Conn Smythe Trophy.
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