The New York Islanders are coming off a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The team showed great promise in its victories over the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers in the postseason. The Islanders challenged the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, only allowing the Lightning to lead for a combined total of 8.8 seconds in games 2, 3, 5, and 6 in the series. However, the Islanders ultimately lost the series 4-2. Under head coach Barry Trotz’ defensive system, the Islanders proved to be much closer to contention for the Stanley Cup than most gave them credit for. It is likely that the Islanders will be able to replicate their deep playoff run if they can maintain their roster; however, this is easier said than done.
Restricted Free Agents
Center Mat Barzal, defenseman Ryan Pulock and defenseman Devon Toews are three young stars that are restricted free agents this offseason. Barzal is the most important piece for the Islanders to retain, as he brings a unique level of speed and puck handling to the Islanders forwards. He’ll be the top priority for three time Stanley Cup champion general manager Lou Lamiorello, who is entering his third season with the Islanders. Ryan Pulock will be a close second, as he is a top-pairing defensemen with offensive ability. Pulock’s 105mph slapshot alone makes him a valuable asset to the team. Devon Toews will also likely be back with the Islanders despite a lackluster postseason performance. The young defenseman could prove to be a key contributor in the coming seasons if he can return to his regular season form.
The Islanders also have seven players in the AHL that are restricted free agents this offseason. The Islanders will likely re-sign a good portion of these players to ensure that their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, maintains their roster. These players will not count against the Islanders salary cap unless they play more than 10 games in the NHL during the regular season. RW Josh Ho-Sang and D Sebastian Aho headline this group of free agents, with Aho most likely to re-sign and Ho-Sang least likely due to his strained relationship with the organization.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Several key contributors enter unrestricted free agency this offseason. Goalie Thomas Greiss will likely not be re-signed by the Islanders, as he was beaten out by last year’s free agent splash Semyon Varlamov. Prospect Ilya Sorokin is also on the roster for the upcoming season, as he signed with the Islanders once his contract with Russian team CSKA expired this summer. Sorokin brings with him an impressive resume, including an Olympic gold medal, the KHL's all-time record holder for playoff shutouts (16), and an overall record of 134-64-22.
LW Matt Martin, another long time Islander, will also be seeking a new contract. After an impressive playoff performance, fans would love to see the 31 year-old return on a short term deal. Martin will need to wait for his contract, as the organization will likely be focused on re-signing their young talent first.
The Islanders lower-tier trade deadline acquisition D Andy Greene also had a productive postseason while filling in for the injured D Johnny Boychuk. Greene proved to be an important piece to the lineup and kept his role even after Boychuk had recovered. He too will have to wait to see how the front office handles the contracts of the younger guys, as the 37 year-old is nearing the end of his career.
The Islanders are in desperate need of a proven goal scorer, as they scored on just 12 of 78 (15.4%) power plays in the postseason. Many times they were caught passing the puck around instead of taking shots on net. Patrik Laine, a 22 year-old RW for the Winnipeg Jets is rumored to be available via trade, but only for a large return. Despite Laine’s impressive goal scoring ability, the Islanders should not make a move for him, as they would likely have to give up D Ryan Pulock or D Noah Dobson, who will be important pieces to the future of the franchise, for a player that is a free agent after next season and could command a contract of over $9 million annually. The Islanders could turn their attention to Laine’s line mate Nikolaj Ehlers, who is also a gifted playmaker and goal scorer. However, he too could command a return centered around one of our young defensemen. If Lou Lamiorello can base the return for Ehlers or Laine around the rights to D Devon Toews, that would likely be easier to sell the fans on.
Rumors continue to surface that connect the Islanders to LW Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild, according to Arthur Staple, the Islanders beat reporter for The Athletic. The Islanders nearly traded LW Andrew Ladd, a 2020 first round draft pick and a prospect for Parise and other players or picks at the trade deadline last season, but disagreement over the draft pick led the deal to fall through. The 36 year-old Parise is due $7.5 million per year for the next 5 seasons, so it is hard to imagine that the Islanders make the move unless multiple bad contracts are headed back to Minnesota in the deal. Although Parise could help the Islanders actual trade deadline acquisition, C Jean-Gabriel Pageau, lead a more productive 3rd line in the short term, decline in Parise’s play is almost guaranteed within the next 3 seasons due to his age.
If Winnipeg and Minnesota’s demands are too rich for the Islanders, they could turn to free agency to find an answer to their power play woes. Florida Panthers RW Mike Hoffman is a player that could fit the need, but the soon-to-be 31 year-old will likely be looking for a 5-6 year deal in the range of $6-8 million annually. That deal seems to be one that could work in the short term, but could come back to hurt the Islanders down the road.
Before the Islanders can look for answers to their lack of scoring ability, they will need to address their salary cap issues. The Isles have $8.9 million in cap room, which may only be enough to re-sign Mat Barzal. They’ll need to move some of the bad contracts on the roster, likely with a prospect or draft pick attached to entice another team to take it on. There are multiple players on the roster that fit this description:
36 year-old D Johnny Boychuk, due $6 million per year for the next 2 seasons
34 year-old injury plagued LW Andrew Ladd, due $5.5 million per year for the next 3 seasons
33 year-old RW Leo Komarov, due $3 million per year for the next 2 seasons
31 year-old D Thomas Hickey, due $2.5 million per year for the next 2 seasons
29 year-old D Nick Leddy, due $5.5 million per year for the next 2 seasons
Nick Leddy is the outlier of this group, as he would have some trade value if traded to another team, likely a mid-round draft pick, according to Arthur Staple. The other 4 players would need a sweetener attached in order for a team to take on the bad contract. Ideally, the Islanders would not like to sacrifice LW Kieffer Bellows or RW Oliver Wahlstrom, two prospects that could make an impact on the NHL level this season, but they may have to in order to make room for the players that will contribute right now.
Islanders fans should be confident in GM Lou Lamiorello, as he has proven throughout his successful career that he can get the job done. For now, it appears that the Islanders will look internally for upgrades to the 3rd line and their power play unit, but never count out Lamiorello. With draft night fast approaching on October 6th, be ready for the Islanders to be active in the trade market. For now, we will have to wait and see.