Early September is a weird time of year for hockey fans. We’re far removed from the excitement of July 1 and still a month from seeing the Islanders step on the ice. However, it leaves plenty of time to speculate and forecast on this season and years to come. This article is going to focus on the outlook of the Islanders 2020 offseason, their free agents and potential creative moves Lou Lamoriello can make to improve the team.
Where They Stand
Following the Anthony Beauvillier signing, the Islanders are set to have $16.1 million in cap space next season with the contracts of Matt Martin, Tom Kuhnhackl, Derrick Brassard, Joshua Ho-Sang and Thomas Greiss coming to an end. They also have Mat Barzal, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews entering RFA status.
Where it Begins
Without a doubt the Isles offseason will have to start with re-signing the face of the franchise, Mat Barzal. Barzal’s numbers took a minor dive last season after posting 85 points in the 2017-18 season. He registered 62 points in the 2018-19 season, but much of that could likely be contributed to the far more defensive regime of Barry Trotz. After another year of being the top line center and getting more comfortable with Trotz’s scheme, I believe Barzal will be back amongst the best centers in hockey this season.
All Islanders fans remember the pain of John Tavares leaving the team when he had his first chance at unrestricted free agency. With that in mind, and Lamoriello’s history of giving out long contracts, I believe the Islanders would do everything they can to lock up Barzal for an eight-year deal. Barzal will be 23 next offseason, meaning signing an eight-year deal would leave him with the potential to get one more large payday at age 31.
Projected Contract: eight-years, $72 million ($9 million AAV)
This deal leaves both sides happy, as Barzal becomes the 9th highest paid center in the NHL and the Islanders can rejoice that they won’t lose their star player anytime soon. $9 million may be a little high, but the Islanders are likely better off paying a slight premium and assuring Barzal doesn’t hit unrestricted free agency as a young stud.
The next step for the Islanders likely relies on bringing back top-six defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. While the Islanders have plenty of minor league NHL ready talent, Pulock and Toews are undoubtedly keys to the future. After Jacob Trouba’s surprising seven-year, $56 million contract, it’s hard to say what the RFA defensive market will look like next season.
If Pulock continues to improve, especially as a scorer this season, Lamoriello may be in a situation where he have to pay a big price to keep him.
Projected Contract: six-years, $36 million ($6 million AAV)
Pricy? Sure, but locking up a top-four defenseman in the prime of his career is worth it. Especially considering the variability of high performing defenseman’s contracts nowadays.
Toews’ situation is more interesting and is dependent on his performance this season. Even though next season will be only his second in the NHL, Toews will be 26 at the end of next season and close to being eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Projected Contract: two-years, $6 million ($3 million AAV)
Somewhat of a bridge deal is favorable for both sides as Toews likely wouldn’t get a huge contract in unrestricted free agency because of his lack of an NHL track record and the Islanders don’t risk overpaying too much on a two-year-deal. Toews gets more of a chance to prove himself and can’t hit unrestricted free agency with still plenty of years left in his career.
If Barzal, Pulock and Toews are signed to the contracts listed above the Islanders would be $3.8 million over the current hard cap. Here’s where Lamoriello will have to get creative.
Assuming all of these deals would be signed prior to July 1, the Islanders would be fine as they only have to be under the cap for the start of the season. As it stands the Islanders would have (with current NHL talent), a line structure similar to as follows:
Lee – Barzal – Eberle
Bailey – Nelson – Beauvillier
Dal Colle – X – Ladd
Komarov – Czikas – Clutterbuck
Pelech – Pulock
Leddy – Mayfield
Hickey – Boychuk
Scratch: Tanner Fritz
That’s a lineup very close to competing. Prospects Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom, Otto Koivula, Noah Dobson and Sebastion Aho will all (likely) be ready to take the NHL jump. Ross Johnston and Tanner Fritz are also capable of filling in spots at the NHL level. Lastly, another prime goal will be bringing prospect Ilya Sorokin in on an entry-level deal from Russia.
With that much minor league talent and several expensive 3rd/4th line talent players, they will likely have to find trades for expensive contracts. Thankfully, the Islanders own all of their draft capital for the foreseeable future and could look to package draft picks with an unfavorable contract for cap relief.
A prime candidate for trade would be Andrew Ladd. Ladd’s time as an Islanders has been underwhelming, filled with injuries and he will still have three more years on his contract at a $5.5 million AAV following next season. It’s a difficult contract for any team to swallow, but as seen by the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes deal for Patrick Marleau this summer, the Islanders may be able to find a team to take on Ladd’s contract (whether they keep him or buy him out) packaged with draft capital.
Potential Deal: Andrew Ladd and a first-round pick for minor league depth.
Another contract that becomes very tradable for Lamoriello following next season is Johnny Boychuk. Boychuk will have two more years on his deal carrying a $6 million AAV, but the base salary for each season will only be $1.25 million. This is an ideal contract for a basement dwelling team to take on, because it has a high AAV to help reach the salary cap floor, but doesn’t actually cost a lot of money for the owners to pay Boychuk’s checks. Some mid-tier draft compensation in return should be enough to get a deal done.
Potential Deal: Johnny Boychuk for a fourth-round pick
Where are they now?
After these trades and signing Ilya Sorokin to an entry level deal the Islanders would have a lineup similar to this:
Lee – Barzal – Eberle
Bailey – Nelson – Wahlstrom
Beauvillier – Koivula – Bellows
Komorav – Czikas – Clutterbuck
Pelech – Pulock
Leddy – Mayfield
Hickey – Dobson
Scratch: Dal Colle, Fritz, Aho
With that lineup and the above contracts/trades they would have around $8 million in cap space to work with. From there, Lou can sign depth pieces or move other unneeded contracts such as Komorav and Hickey to go after one of the big fish in next season’s free agency. Some of the biggest names in next year’s unrestricted free agency include Nicklas Backstrom, Taylor Hall, Alex Pietrangelo and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, amongst others. Regardless, Lamoriello will have to get creative in order to clear space to sign the Islanders restricted free agents and make room for NHL-ready young talent.