As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The second batch of Offseason Primers will feature Metropolitan Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the New York Islanders offseason.
New York Islanders Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
The Isles have quite the offseason ahead of them, as their number one centre and number one defenceman are both in need of new deals. Luckily for the team, they have an experienced, hard-nosed general manager in Lou Lamoriello to navigate them through this storm. Even for a manager of Lamoriello’s stature, though, this is a lot of work. They’ll be hard-pressed with their arbitration-eligible restricted free agents (RFAs), a list that consists of Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews, Joshua Ho-Sang, Sebastian Aho, and Kyle Burroughs. The team has some non-arbitration-eligible RFAs too, including the venerable Mathew Barzal, Mitch Vande Sompel, Grant Hutton, Linus Soderstrom, and Parker Wotherspoon.
The Islanders’ plate of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) includes Andy Greene, Thomas Greiss, Matt Martin, Derick Brassard, Tom Kuhnhackl, Jared Coreau, Travis St. Denis, Seth Helgeson, and Christopher Gibson. Jordan Schmaltz is a Group Six UFA.
Salary Cap Outlook
Considering the flat cap and the Islanders’ plethora of pricey deals locked in for next year, the team will be forced to shuffle some pieces around this offseason (much like the Tampa Bay Lightning). The Islanders currently have only $8.12 million in space to work with this offseason, according to the team’s CapFriendly page. It’ll take some wheeling and dealing to fit everyone under the cap, though it is possible.
The Islanders will need to ship some money out of town in order to maintain salary cap health, and defenceman Nick Leddy and his deal may be a casualty of the flat cap. While already in decline at age 29, Leddy is still a valuable contributor on either the second or third pairing. However, he’s making $5.5 million against the cap, something that’ll be hard to swallow for the team as they begin to turn bigger minutes over to their youth. He swallows up minutes, logging at least 20 minutes of ice time per night for six straight seasons. Leddy also has three 40-point seasons under his belt, though his offensive totals dropped once Barry Trotz took over as coach. Leddy’s veteran presence also makes him an attractive trade chip, considering he’s played 720 games over 10 seasons and has a Stanley Cup ring.
It’s feasible that Leddy can rack up some more points on a different team, as Trotz’s system is extremely defensively oriented. Given a bit more leeway, Leddy could return to his 40-point form from a few seasons and be more worth his $5.5 million deal. Assuming the Islanders find a trade partner, he’d increase the team’s cap space to $13.62 million. That’s still a tight fit when you have to re-sign Barzal, Toews, and Pulock.
There were plenty of terrible signings in the now-infamous 2016 free agency window. Ladd’s deal routinely shows up on ‘worst-of’ lists. After a mediocre first season on the Island (23 goals, but only 31 points), Ladd’s totals dropped from there. He only netted 12 goals the next year, and over the past two seasons, has only played in 30 NHL games.
After rehabbing a torn ACL and continually having nagging upper-body issues, it’s likely that Ladd does not pass his physical next season. If that’s the case, the Islanders would be able to move him to long-term injured reserve, relieving themselves of Ladd’s massive $5.5 million cap hit. This would double the amount freed up by Leddy’s departure, bringing the Islanders to $19.12 million in cap space.
A career backup, Greiss made the most of his increased opportunity on the Island. Spending the past five seasons there, he’s started in 179 games and averaged a .915 save percentage, becoming a valuable option in net.
Now 34 years old, however, it’s unlikely the Islanders retain the goalie. His spot will be overtaken by Ilya Sorokin next season as he backs up Semyon Varlamov, and the Islanders’ won’t have the capital or necessity to retain him. Greiss will definitely find another home on the open market, as his capability to either serve as a platoon goalie or backup is highly desirable.
After his career seemed to be falling off the tracks in 2018-19, Brassard righted the ship this year with New York. After only tallying 23 points and spending time with three different squads, Brassard netted 32 points with the Islanders this season in a bottom-six role.
The Islanders won’t have space to re-sign him, and his niche was replaced by the team’s acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline. But Brassard’s increase point totals on a squad that didn’t exactly spur offence is a promising sign for the 32-year-old. Another team will likely give the centre another lease on life.
The former captain of the crosstown rival New Jersey Devils, Greene was acquired at the trade deadline this season for defensive depth after the Islanders had suffered injuries on the back end to both Adam Pelech and Johnny Boychuk. He tallied three points in 10 games for the squad in a reduced role, even with Pelech and Boychuk out.
Now that everyone is healthy, his role with the team in the playoffs has yet to be determined. It’s not a given that he’ll play in the team’s first game. He may even be a healthy scratch the majority of the time. Considering the Islanders already have a strong defensive core and system, it’s unlikely the team cares about Greene enough to retain him. He’ll hit the open market in search of what could be his last NHL contract.
It’s hard to say goodbye to a team that you’ve had a relationship with for an extended period of time. Unluckily for Martin, that moment may have to come twice. Martin was signed in free agency by the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the 2016-17 campaign after seven seasons in an Islanders uniform. However, two years into his four-year deal, the Leafs traded him back to the Island for cap relief. Now that four-year deal is up, and the Isles may not be able to retain Martin for the same reason.
One of the few true grinders left in the game, Martin is a definite fourth-line player who’s been known to rack up penalty minutes. He isn’t a defensive liability and is exactly the type of cheap fourth-line player any true contender would love to have. He’ll still attract interest on the open market, but his NHL career is unlikely to continue on the island.
The 2018 Calder Trophy winner, Barzal has become the centrepiece of the Islanders team. He’s had at least 60 points in his first three seasons. He still has room to grow at only 23 years old. Considering the Islanders will have to clear significant cap room to sign him, they’ll likely lock him up to a longer-term deal to increase cost certainty for the team. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) projects a monster max eight-year deal worth approximately $9.58 million per season. It would leave the Islanders with only $9.54 million in cap space. It’s still a tight situation for their remaining two free agents.
While he wasn’t a star off the bat, Pulock has largely lived up to his 15th overall billing in recent years. In his three full NHL seasons, Pulock’s netted at least 30 points. Playing on the team’s top pair, he’s become one of the team’s more well-rounded defencemen too. At age 25, he’s likely not done developing but still factors in the long-term as an important part of the team. Evolving-Hockey projects a five-year deal for Pulock. However, a shorter-term deal would likely be more affordable and is more within the realm of possibility. For a four-year term, the tool spits out a cap hit of $5.73 million a season. It brings the Isles down to just $3.81 million to sign their last big RFA.
A diamond in the rough, the former fourth-round pick has emerged as an important power-play quarterback for the Islanders. Despite not making his NHL debut until last season at age 24, Toews made an immediate impact and has stuck around with the squad. He saw over 20 minutes a night in ice time this year and netted 28 points.
He’s not ineffective defensively either but isn’t quite ready to handle top pairing minutes like Pulock. He’ll likely receive a one-year deal this summer due to the Isles’ cap restraints. For that length, Evolving-Hockey predicts a cap hit of $3.47 million. Toews will get one more chance to earn a bigger payday. It leaves the Isles with only $340,000 in cap space, preventing them from adding further in free agency.
Potential Free Agent Additions
The Islanders’ lack of cap space will keep them from adding significantly in the free-agent market. Yet still, they’ll have some fresh new faces next season. Goalie Ilya Sorokin will finally make his debut for the team after arriving from Russia, and players like Kieffer Bellows and Sebastian Aho will be in contention for roster spots out of training camp. There will be some shifts in personnel this offseason. However, don’t expect the team to let their foot off the gas.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Metropolitan Division:
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