As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the New York Islanders offseason.
New York Islanders Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
After another solid season on the Island, the New York team advanced to their second Eastern Conference Final in as many seasons. As optimism grows around the Islanders, general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz will continue to be the architects of this squad. But despite locking up Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock to contracts last offseason, there are still important contracts that need to be inked this season.
Headlining their list of restricted free agents are forward Anthony Beauvillier, defenceman Adam Pelech, and netminder Ilya Sorokin. Other Isles restricted free agents include Michael Dal Colle, Kieffer Bellows, Dmytro Timashov, Otto Koivula, Anatoly Golyshev, and Bobo Carpenter. Their unrestricted free agent slate most notably includes trade-deadline acquisitions Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, as well as Casey Cizikas. Their other UFAs are Andy Greene, Braydon Coburn, Cory Schneider, Cole Bardreau, Joshua Ho-Sang, and Tanner Fritz.
Salary Cap Outlook
A lot’s been made of New York’s salary cap situation. It’s true that at a first glance, the team may run into serious trouble this offseason. After all, they currently have just $5.7 million in space with many spots opening up, as well as big-name RFAs to re-sign. However, there’s some additional clarity for the Isles. With Johnny Boychuk‘s $6 million cap hit still on the books after his retirement earlier this year, the Isles could end up with up to $11.7 million in space if Boychuk is strategically placed on LTIR to give the Islanders maximum benefits.
Major Likely Departures
There’s no denying how important Palmieri’s offensive touch was to the Isles during this year’s playoff run. Posting seven goals in 19 games, he was admirable in filling a giant scoring void left by injured captain Anders Lee. Yet, the reality stands that Palmieri’s on the wrong side of 30. He’s just posted the worst point totals of his career since his rookie season. His performance with the Islanders in the regular season after the trade was even more concerning. Posting just two goals and four points in 17 games, Palmieri looked snakebitten at times.
The Islanders and Palmieri could be mutually interested in an extension, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s just likely that another team will be willing to offer more than the Isles can stomach. It may not be in the Isles’ best interest, considering their still-tight cap situation, to invest long-term in a 30-year-old winger. After all, Boychuk’s relief won’t last past 2021-22. The salary cap is expected to still stay flat at that point.
Zajac, the 36-year-old veteran of over 1,000 NHL games, held up his end of the bargain this year. Serving as a good leader in the room for an Isles team that was extremely strong as a unit, Zajac nearly returned to his first Stanley Cup Final since 2012. It wasn’t to be, however. Bringing Zajac back as a depth piece is an intriguing prospect for Lamoriello. But it’s likely that Zajac will want to return to New Jersey and finish his career by helping guide their improved young core back to playoff contention. He’ll likely go the Jason Spezza route at this point, just signing one-year deals until he’s ready to hang up the skates.
Major Likely Re-Signings
One of the most underrated and understated defencemen in the NHL, Pelech’s formed one of the most solid pairs in the league with Ryan Pulock over the past few seasons. After battling back from injury to play in all 56 games this season, Pelech managed 14 points to supplement above-average possession numbers. Playing 21 minutes a night, he’s due for a raise on his $1.6 million expiring deal. 26 years old and in his final year of RFA eligibility, expect the Islanders to lock him up semi-long term while still signing him to a team-friendly deal. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections pin Pelech’s deal at four seasons for $4.3 million each, still leaving Lamoriello with $7.4 million in space to work with.
The former 28th-overall pick helped cement his status as an important secondary scoring piece this season with 28 points in 47 games. His fourth-straight season of at least 15 goals illustrates his increasing reliability as a scoring option, especially as his ice time continues to climb. ‘Tito’ will be just 24 years old next season and still has two seasons remaining of RFA eligibility. Beauvillier will likely want to sign a short deal because of this. He’ll hope to maximize his value with open-market competition. Evolving-Hockey projects a two-year deal at an affordable cap hit of $3.7 million, still giving New York roughly $3.75 million in space to work with.
The 25-year-old Russian netminder was admirable for New York in his rookie season, finishing with a 13-6-3 record and .918 save percentage. He’ll fight for more playing time with counterpart Semyon Varlamov next season, but is still expected to sit as the backup until the expiry of Varlamov’s deal after the 2022-23 campaign. With this in mind, Sorokin, similarly to Beauvillier, will likely want to sign a contract of the same length. That will ensure that he can be the sole Islanders priority in goal at the end of his next deal. Sorokin could realistically sign a two-year deal with around a $2 million cap hit, allowing New York to retain his services while still giving themselves around $1.7 million to fill out additional holes within the roster.
Cizikas has centred one of the most consistent fourth lines in the league ever since Matt Martin‘s reacquisition. While not necessarily relied upon for offence, he still has 15-goal upside and has a history of defensive responsibility despite a rough season this year. Cizikas and the Isles have demonstrated immense loyalty to each other in the past. It’s likely that this New York Islanders offseason sees Cizikas re-sign on an extremely team-friendly deal. One can expect Cizikas to sign a short-term extension, one or two years, for around $1 million in order to enable the Islanders to retain younger talent. It leaves the Isles with barely enough wiggle room for 2021-22, with under $1 million left in cap space.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Other than the aforementioned re-signings, the Islanders likely won’t be big players in free agency. However, there’s an opportunity for the team with the Seattle Kraken expansion draft upcoming. If a side deal is made to free up cap space, there could be some depth additions throughout the roster. Expect their first priority to turn to defence. They could stand to improve their depth, with ageing names like Andy Greene likely not suited for full-time roles next season. A name like Ian Cole appears ideal. With his ability to play both left and right sides, he’s a natural partner for young D Noah Dobson. While scoring just eight points in 52 games this season, Cole’s still valuable in a third-pairing role. If he’s willing to take a cheap deal, there’s a natural fit there.
All salary cap information courtesy of CapFriendly.com.
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