Lou Lamoriello has now swung and missed on another perennial all-star free agent for the third time in his stint as general manager (GM) of the New York Islanders. It started with John Tavares, reached a “being used for leverage” pinnacle with Artemi Panarin, and now it’s Johnny Gaudreau’s turn. Lamoriello and crew did not handle the previous off-seasons particularly well after losing out on Tavares and Panarin in 2018 and 2019, so what can he do now to make this summer a success?
What’s Next for the Islanders?
The pipe dream is over. Fans were burned by the Islanders being the front runners very late in the Panarin sweepstakes but the Gaudreau sweepstakes felt a lot more promising on free agency day. Surely Johnny Hockey was going to pick the Islanders over the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets, right? Well, he did not and left $15 million on the table by picking the Blue Jackets over the Calgary Flames. Reports had the Islanders right in the same neighborhood as Columbus on average annual value (AAV) with New Jersey up in the double-digit-millions. This move was different than losing Tavares – who gave up the extra year – or Panarin – who reportedly gave up at least $500,000 annually by picking the Blueshirts instead – but it still leaves Lamoriello and crew needing a plan B.
After the Tavares signing in Toronto, Lamoriello brought back Matt Martin and signed Leo Komarov, Robin Lehner, and Valterri Filppula. That team unexpectedly made it to the playoffs, in spite of the moves that were made later on July 1, as they eventually had to jettison Komarov’s contract, had no interest in bringing Filppula back, and let Lehner walk in the offseason. While the immediate aftermath was good, that summer was not helpful for the Islanders’ development in the long run.
In 2019, Panarin signed with the Rangers and the Islanders responded by re-signing every free agent they had, as Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle all came back, while Semyon Varlamov replaced Lehner in goal. While those moves were fine at the time, Eberle is no longer with the team and the overpay to Varlamov forced Devon Toews out the door when the flat cap came into place. This offseason is make-or-break for Lamoriello, so what should he do now as free agency enters Day 3? Here are a few players he could be looking at.
Nazem Kadri is coming off a career year and, according to sources, is fielding many offers for his services next season. The Islanders are most certainly in the mix, as they were with Gaudreau, but Kadri is a different story. He will be 32 years old on opening night, putting a 7-year contract in the “high-risk” category, and only has one campaign with over 65 points, which came last season in Colorado. Not to take anything away from Kadri, but putting up 87 points behind Nathan MacKinnon is a different story than paying $10 million for him to play first-line center with the Islanders. He is high on my list of players to stay away from and it will certainly be interesting to see who eventually bites in the coming days.
The team that pays Kadri will inherently overpay him which is not a situation the Islanders can get involved in. If he agrees to sign for around $7 million annually, that would be a deal they could swallow, but anything more than that they should be out of the running. Though, I highly doubt he signs for anything less than double-digit-millions per season.
The Massapequa native is coming off the best season of his career in 2021-22. The 34 points Sonny Milano put up riding sidecar with Trevor Zegras shattered a personal best for the former first-round pick. The risk is pretty low here, as he is coming off a contract worth $1.7 million annually and should not command a drastic pay bump. Anything higher than about $2.5 million per season would be an overpay for him, though.
The questions come from how he ended up as an unrestricted free agent. The Ducks did not qualify Milano and chose to replace him with a pair of former Rangers forwards in Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano. If he is asking for too much in terms of dollar amount, the Islanders would be wise to turn the other cheek, but if it is the term that gave Anaheim second doubts, it would be okay for Lamoriello to swoop in. As such, a four-year, $2.5 million AAV contract would be a fair deal for all parties involved to land Milano on Long Island.
Another player with Islanders connections, Nino Niederreiter seems poised to leave Carolina after the Max Pacioretty trade. As fans might remember, the former prospect was traded to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Cal Clutterbuck after the 2012-13 season. He has had a disappointing career as a fifth overall pick, only cracking 50 points once, but unlike Kadri, he is not coming off of that career year and therefore will not command as much on the free agent market. His previous contract carried a $5.25 million cap hit, so a similar deal on Long Island would slot him right in the same pay range as J.G Pageau and Kyle Palmieri.
With Niederreiter, there of course has to be the conversation about why he left the Islanders in the first place. There were reports that he was not happy that he was not invited to training camp after the 2012 Lockout, but then-GM Garth Snow denied all of those reports. It is possible he does not want to come back, but with different ownership, GM, and a new building to call home, this organization is hardly the same one he left nine summers ago.
Kadri is too much of a risk for the Islanders, but players like Milano and Niederreiter could provide the scoring depth that the Islanders desperately need to return to the playoffs and possibly compete for a Stanley Cup. They lost out on Gaudreau just like they did on Tavares and Panarin, but there is still a chance to make this offseason a winner and Lamoriello has to do that before next season begins.