On Friday May 3rd 2019 the Islanders’ season officially ended. The Islanders need to work on putting the team back together. This is how I see it happening
I’ve assembled a roster whiteboard to better understand the roster construction of the Islanders. This will break down the team by its 23 roster spots and their on-ice roles. This is what the 2018-19 Islanders looked like under that prism.
YELLOW indicates pending UFA, GREEN indicates pending RFA and RED indicates possibly 2019-20 IR candidate.
The team had over $10M to use all season for trades or free agent signings. They were unable to find suitable upgrades without giving up significant assets and ended the season with that money unused. That will probably not be an option in 2019-20.Embed from Getty Images
Unrestricted Free Agents
The Islanders are currently in what could be a mass exodus year. They have seven UFA’s that spent the majority of the season on the 23 man roster (highlighted in YELLOW above) and Tanner Fritz, who was an important piece, even though he only played eight NHL games with the teams before falling to injury.
Entering UFA status this year are:
Anders Lee : The Islanders’ captain and only 40 goal scorer will be a highly sought after LW. I fully expect him to be Lou’s number one priority. The team is stacked with LH forwards, but Lee’s work on and off the ice has made him a fan favorite and the pinnacle of team leadership.
Brock Nelson: Entering the 2018-19 season there were a lot of questions about where Brock would be with his new responsibilities under a new regime. Nelson answered all of the questions positively and proved to be the teams most valuable center. He played big minutes in all situations was in a virtual tie with Mathew Barzal for the lead in TOI amongst forwards. Brock is also among a select few “top 6” centers that will be available on July 1st. I expect him to be an Islander next year, but I also expect him to use that leverage to it’s fullest.
Robin Lehner: Robin signed a one year deal last year at bargain basement rates. He was coming off a season of turmoil with the Buffalo Sabres and had more question marks in his resume than Frank Gorshin. Much like Nelson he answered all of those questions positively. He and Thomas Greiss will share the Jennings Trophy for the least goals allowed by a team, and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. He is the third UFA that I expect back in 2019-20. His leverage has gone up, but he would probably benefit from a shorter deal as one year with a highly defensive system and under the best of coaching teams is just a step in rebuilding his reputation amongst NHL GMs. I expect a 2-3 year deal in the neighborhood of $5M AAV.
Jordan Eberle: This may be a bit of a surprise to some. I started the season expecting Eberle to be gone at the trade deadline. The team’s success kept him in blue and orange this year, and he second half success will probably keep him on the island a bit longer. I wrote on this a while back. Looking at the right handed forward options available, Jordan will have good leverage going into July. The Islanders would do well to sign him for 5 years in the neighborhood of $7M AAV.
Tanner Fritz: Yes, I am listing Tanner ahead of Val Filppula and Tom Kuhnhackl. Fritz checks two very important boxes for the Islanders. He can play center and he’s a right handed forward. He will also come in about $2M AAV less than Filppula. He showed at the end of the season that he can handle decent minutes, kill penalties and will dd speed to a roster that desperately needs it. Tanner will make the 23 more flexible.
Tom Kuhnhackl: I do not expect Tom back. He had a very good season, and an even better playoff run as the Isles’ 13th forward. They are flush at LW, and with the emergence of Michael Dal Colle as a restricted free agent he would just be an expensive waiver wire walker in a healthy year. They have a few left handed forward prospects behind him in Otto Koivula and Kieffer Bellows. Kuhnhackl has probably earned himself a $2M AAV contract somewhere, but most likely not on the Islanders.
Val Filppula: I’d really like to see Val back, but I just see too many scenarios where this is not going to happen. The Islanders could replace him with somebody like Kevin Hayes or (if Lou can find a phone booth with a cape in it) Matt Duchene. Both would truly stretch the Islanders CAP budget, and be miracle signings in a 31 team market. I expect the Islanders to re-sign Nelson, and elevate Cizikas. They’ll then have a few years to work with Fritz, Koivula and other prospects to elevate through the system. If Val returns I expect it to be a very short term deal. 1-2 years, and around the same $3M AAV.
Lucas Sbisa: Sbisa will cause me to have massive stroke should he be resigned. The emergence of Devon Toews made him expendable during the season and with the Islanders probably spending to within $5M of the salary cap it would be hard to imagine a 23 man roster with him on it.Embed from Getty Images
Restricted Free Agents
There are three key restricted free agents this year. They will all cause some thought when they are qualified. They will all be talked about as part of trade deals, but most likely they will all return to the Islanders organization, or at least their rights will.
Anthony Beauvillier: This is Beau’s first year of restricted free agency and with that comes very little leverage. He is a 20G forward and does have some value on the offer sheet table. I’d expect $2-2.5M AAV for 1-2 years so he can build his leverage, and work towards his arbitration deal. A longer deal is possible. If the Isles want to buy some of his arbitration and UFA years his AAV could go as high as $3.5-4M.
Michael Dal Colle: Much like Beau this is Michael’s first RFA year. Unlike Beau, Dal Colle has not built the same leverage. He had a good rookie year in the AHL, but regressed in his second. This year was outstanding. He dominated at the AHL level and did everything he was asked in the NHL. It’s a small sample size though and I expect he’ll sign a one year deal for somewhere between $1M and $1.5M AAV. He should have a lot more leverage next year.
Joshua Ho-Sang: I couldn’t possibly document the scope of, nevermind the actual opinions on where and what Josh could be in this organization. So I’ll just express my own. He is a highly talented hockey player who doesn’t want to color inside the lines. He is in an organization where coloring inside the lines was made the standard the day Lou Lamoriello was named President/General Manager. The team will probably qualify him at the minimum, and shop him on draft day. If he accepts their offer he’ll probably spend another unhappy year in Bridgeport, or be traded. If he doesn’t he might find himself much happier in Europe If the team is unable to sign or replace Eberle and Oliver Wahlstrom isn’t ready for his first call-up, we might see another NHL stint for Mr. Ho-Sang. Hopefully he can work things out. He would be a fine addition to the team if he could just accept being an addition to a team.Embed from Getty Images
It would be almost impossible to speculate accurately about the 2019-20 roster before the 2019 draft. Not that any draft pick would be on that roster, but that day is often a time for NHL GM’s to move surplus role players, prospects, salary and picks for needed role players, picks and prospects.
The Islanders have two general role surpluses. Left handed defensemen and left handed forwards. They have need at center, right handed forward and right handed defensemen. In that order.
I expect a number of players to be in play. There are some health concerns as well. I look at prospective draft day trades with the health of Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck in mind. Both could be issues next season. I’d also add Johnny Boychuk to that list, but I do expect him to at least start the season, and like the past few seasons, soldier through.
They should either target a wing with their available assets or target Brett Leason in the first round. Leason is a 6’5″ 200LB 20 year old right handed center who was passed over in the previous two drafts. He can immediately take his new found scoring touch to the AHL where he would join Otto Koivula as prospective pivots for the fourth line, or a replacement for Clutterbuck.
With that in mind I feel Nick Leddy is the most valuable, and expendable asset the Islanders possess. After that there is Beauvillier, Aho, DalColle, Bellows and Mitch Vande Sompel. I don’t expect them to trade any of the 2018 draft class. Those players have shown some success in the NHL or NHL readiness to where they should have some value in trade talks. Depending on which UFA’s have signed by draft day Lou will be wise to fill as many of the remaining holes with trade targets. Going into July 1st with a roster that looks like swiss cheese is not wise. Especially for the Islanders.Embed from Getty Images
I suspect that every GM goes into each off season managing their team’s cap space for the following three years, or at least he tries. For the optimum result Lou will have to move three salaries. Leddy will most likely be shopped hard on draft day. Ladd and Clutterbuck are almost untradeable, but if they come back they’ll have some value. If they can’t they have to be put on LTIR so their cap space can be recaptured.
I’ll use the projected salaries I expect for returning UFAs as a basis for the below 23 man roster. Of course, there are a lot of variables. For one, I use a $7M/5yr deal for the three top returning UFA forwards, and $5M/3yr deal for Lehner. This would be the base going into July 1st:
If those deals are done before July 1st, then the team can go into the market with three spots to upgrade on and over $12M to spend. That money quickly disappears if any of the UFAs get outrageous deals, or if Lou is unable to manage the three contracts mentioned above. In my scenario, the Isles would be shopping for a 2/3 center, a 4th RHD and a RH forward.
There is still room to manage the return of two of the three contracts I’ve removed. Leddy’s $5.5M, Clutterbuck’s $3.5M and Ladd’s $5.5M. This plan would not work if all three were to return.Embed from Getty Images
If Lou is unable to bring back Nelson his options for an “upgrade” are limited. Matt Duchene is the obvious choice, but he will most likely command over $10M AAV and that will be very difficult to manage as soon as next year when Mat Barzal, Ryan and Ryan Pulock will be looking for substantial raises.
Kevin Hayes could also be a target. I see him more as a lateral move from Nelson, or a substantial upgrade on the third center role. To go into the season with Barzal, Nelson, Hayes and Cizikas down the middle would be a fine accomplishment.
They could also target Nazem Kadri in trade talk on Draft Day.
Right Handed Forward
There isn’t much after Jordan Eberle on the free agent list. There is a slim chance they land Artemi Panarin or Mats Zuccarello. I would suggest the Islanders focus on solving this issue on Draft Day.
Right Handed Defenceman
There are some decent RHD on the UFA list this summer. I’d eliminate any player looking for more than 2 years. The Islanders don’t need a high priced, long term solution. One of their positives is that role is in a god place with the drafting of Dobson and Wilde last year.
What they need is somebody willing to share time with Scott Mayfield and Johnny Boychuk. They may have filled that role with Grant Hutton as a college free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season. They could also use Dobson or Wilde for 9 games without burning their first ELC year.
Dobson was probably ready for that last year, but the new coaching staff opted to sign Lucas Sbisa. The team has established their ability to handle Trotz’ system, so I see Dobson as a seventh defenceman early in the season. If he can handle the minutes he may earn a full time NHL role.
Here’s a list of the most prized UFA’s this summer. The order is my own based on Islander needs.
Matt Duchene: Matt would immediately displace Barzal or Nelson as the Islanders number one center. He’d also need to be paid as such, and would devalue Nelson. So this couldn’t truly happen if Nelson was re-signed. Being strong up the middle is something the Islanders should strive for every year, and Duchene would help that cause for quite some time. The main issue is salary. Giving Matt over $10M AAV would almost immediately make the Isles top heavy in terms of CAP space, as Mat Barzal will get paid next year.
Artemi Panarin: The bread man cometh, most likely to the Florida Panthers. If that can’t be worked out, then Lou has to take a swing here. In the scenario I lay out above there is room for all the returning UFA’s and Panarin. That would be the power ball in the 2019 NHL Summer Lottery. He will most likely demand over $10M AAV and extended term, and is one of the top three on this list because it’s somebody who they should try for, even if the cap future is sketchy.
Erik Karlsson: I didn’t put him in the RHD category because I didn’t think he would be a realistic fit. But if Lou could convince him to sign with the Islanders they could move other pieces and make it work. He’d have to deal with CAP hell later.
Kevin Hayes: Hayes is also a part of the 2010 draft class reaching their first year of UFA status. As a center in that class, much like Brock Nelson, Hayes will get paid. Unlike Duchene, I think Hayes and Nelson can co-exist on the same roster with Mat Barzal. I don’t, however, think that Kevin has Long Island as one of his preferred destinations. I hope I am wrong in this, but it will remain something to look for until he signs.
Mats Zuccarello: Zook was a Ranger favorite. He was moved in their fire sale and helped the Dallas Stars for a few minutes before sustaining a season ending injury. His play in the playoffs, plus his natural leadership qualities make him a good fit to stay in Dallas. If he becomes available in July I’m pretty sure Lou will fire a shot that way. He’d be a nice fit with the Islanders, especially if they lose Eberle to free agency and/or Clutterbuck to injury.
Jeff Skinner: Skinner would be a huge addition to the Islander roster. At the moment it appears he will stay in Buffalo. Skinner, like Anders Lee, has scored over 100 goals over the past three seasons. Two of those years were with the goal scorer oppressing Carolina Hurricanes. Skinner is going to get paid on July 1st regardless of where he lands. If he were to land on Long Island it would probably be for over $8M AAV with extended term. It’s something that could be done. I only see it if they miss with Lee and/or Eberle.
Jake Gardener: Gardener will be out there, and the Islanders should have ZERO interest in him unless they have traded away multiple left handed D with much more valuable contracts. Keep him in your sideview if some combination of Pelech, Hickey and/or Leddy are dealt on draft day.Embed from Getty Images
It appears that Lee and Nelson will be the first dominoes to fall. If they are, or are not, signed by the NHL Draft will determine their trade strategy and the targets in free agency. The Islanders have not done well historically on July 1st. Hopefully Lou is successful bringing back the bulk of his own UFAs. I would like him to start with $7M AAV and 5 years as a target for all three. If he hits or exceeds that target Islander fans should be very happy.
The Islanders have gone through two mass exodus July’s in recent history. In both 2007 and 2006 the following season was a disappointment after a playoff season. The Islanders can’t afford that step backwards while still dealing with arena issues.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Lou stepped in last June and made some very questionable personnel moves. He replaced John Tavares, Nikolai Kulemin, Calvin deHaan and Jaroslav Halak with Val Filppula, Leo Komarov, Lucas Sbisa and Robin Lehner. The addition of Barry Trotz and staff made those moves from an almost certain decline in standings points to 100 less goals against and 23 more standings points.
Lou has certainly changed the culture of the New York Islanders. What was not clear to Isles’ fans last summer should be crystal clear to them this year. Don’t necessarily root for the expected. Let Lou do his magic. He knows hockey, and he understands the type coach he needs to teach it, and the players he needs to execute it.
Islander fans have great confidence in Lou Lamoriello getting the job done. This off season will define his Islander legacy as he has so many spots to fill this summer. It will not be easy, but he does have an opportunity to move the team forward.