As we near the NHL Draft and free agency, the Islanders fan base doesn’t have a clear picture of GM Lou Lamoriello’s plan for the short-term future. Most called this season an evaluation year for the Islanders, as no one could have predicted what direction the Islanders were headed 11 months ago. Rather shockingly, the Islanders proved themselves to be a playoff team and a legitimate threat to any club that crossed their path.
There were glaring flaws on the team this year, however. Scoring, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, decreased across the board. To compound that, the Islanders had a faceoff percentage of 47.4%, ahead of only the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. Although they’ve lacked in the faceoff dot for years, this was a factor many stat geeks like myself were hoping Lamoriello would address at the Trade Deadline.
The culprit for both aforementioned faults can be pinned on the four centers. The departure of a certain he-who-shall-not-be-named last July was undeniably the reason for the decline in offensive output, but John Tavares’ faceoff percentage while he was on the Island was never consistently at an elite level. While his absence was addressed by Lamoriello in the signing of Jan Kovar, the Czech center was unable to perform to expectations in the preseason. This left the Islanders completely exposed at the center position at the beginning of the regular season.
The only viable option in the eyes of Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz was to move Brock Nelson to the top line center position. For his efforts, he received a six-year contract worth $36 million. With this extension, it seems as though he’ll be the long-term option for the second center and even the first line center until Mat Barzal develops more.
The possibility of Nelson’s season being a fluke, however, leaves some fans concerned. Though Nelson regressing is a possibly, many believe Lamoriello’s plan is to keep him as a top-six center. Nonetheless, there has been speculation that Nelson will be moved back to his original position as a winger.
Why, exactly? Albeit an unlikely scenario, rumors have stated that the Islanders appear to have an interest in pending UFA Matt Duchene. Duchene had a 70-point campaign this year as a member of both the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets. His faceoff percentage is even more impressive, at a 55.3% win rate. Though Duchene and the Islanders have been linked in trade talks for years, this may be the most opportune time to snag him.
Duchene hasn’t been the only center rumored to possibly be wearing a blue and orange sweater in four months though. The Islanders have been linked in trade talks with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with Nazem Kadri being the center of discussion. The Maple Leafs’ have a desire to dump dead contracts, such as Patrick Marleau and the aforementioned Kadri, to free up cap space to sign pending RFA Mitch Marner. Kadri seems to be an unlikely option though, as he has a lower point total (44) than Nelson and is also considered to be a slightly dirty player. While he played for Lamoriello in Toronto, it is doubtful Kadri will be an Islander.
There’s another option for the long-term, though. The Islanders are entitled to the 23rd overall pick in this year’s draft, which they will likely use to select a center. The options may be limited at that spot, but there’s one player in particular that should intrigue any Islander fan: Connor McMichael. While not a truly elite player, McMichael shows incredible prowess in his hockey sense and his speed. He’s capable of moving the puck to prime scoring positions and getting the puck across the goal line when he has the opportunity. His efforts resulted in a 72 point campaign for the London Knights this past OHL season. McMichael, while not an immediate solution, can bring about an increase in scoring and improve the overall offense of the Islanders one day.
There are many directions the Islanders can go in the coming weeks, some of which can’t even be speculated due to Lou Lamoriello’s notorious constant silence. Whether or not they choose to stay the course with Nelson or shake things up by bringing in someone new, expect the next few days to be exciting nonetheless.