The New York Islanders’ offseason has already been a busy one, to say the least. General manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello fired head coach Barry Trotz and replaced him with assistant coach Lane Lambert. During the NHL Entry Draft, Lamoriello also made a splash by acquiring defenseman Alexander Romanov from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the 13th overall pick and addressing the defensive position with two of the Islanders’ five selections.
Despite all the chaos that Lamoriello has already provided, the offseason is only just beginning, with free agency starting this week. All the signs point toward the Islanders acquiring a forward, particularly a star scorer that can elevate the offense. And with the salary cap space they have, this offseason looks to be the year Lamoriello makes the big signing.
Johnny Gaudreau is the top player entering free agency and arguably one of the best playmakers in the league. In his nine years with the Calgary Flames, the top-line forward has scored 20 goals or more in six seasons and has added 40 assists or more to the offense in seven seasons. Last season his 40 goals and 75 assists helped the Flames finish the season with the best record in the Pacific Division and allowed Gaudreau to finish in fourth place in the Hart Trophy Award voting. Aside from his stats, the 28-year-old forward is a remarkable skater who gashes opponents on the rush but who’s also a well-rounded player that can elevate his shift.
The Islanders will pursue Gaudreau, but it won’t be easy as many teams will give him a strong offer in free agency. Growing up in southern New Jersey, he could sign with his hometown team, the Philadelphia Flyers, or the close-by New Jersey Devils, two rebuilding teams that will look to open up the cap space to acquire a star like him. However, the Islanders’ toughest competition will likely be the Flames, the team he has played his entire career with but, more importantly, can offer him an eight-year contract.
Lamoriello will give Gaudreau a strong offer (likely in the $10 million or more range) and more than enough convincing arguments to sign with the Islanders. Aside from the brand-new UBS Arena, the Islanders are a team built to compete for the Stanley Cup with a good defense, a great goaltending duo, and a deep forward unit. Gaudreau will be pursued as the missing piece who can not only play alongside Mathew Barzal on the forward unit but put the offense over the top next season and for years to come.
Nazem Kadri had an incredible season with the Colorado Avalanche, scoring 28 goals and 59 assists. But his performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is what stood out, especially for teams looking to acquire him this offseason. The 31-year-old forward scored seven goals and eight assists in 16 games to go along with strong defensive play in the middle of the ice to propel the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup title.
Ideally, Kadri re-signs with the Avalanche, with the current roster being a great fit that allows him to thrive on the second forward shift. However, the team is pressed against the salary cap and might only offer him a team-friendly deal. As a result, Kadri will test the market and can field a strong offer as one of the more skilled forwards in the NHL.
Kadri joining the Islanders would be an interesting fit but one that would likely pay off for both the player and the team. As a center, the team would have to move Barzal or Brock Nelson to the wing to optimize the veteran forward’s skill set. However, Kadri would add an immediate spark to the offense by both finding the back of the net and distributing the puck in the offensive zone while also controlling the center of the ice to help out the defense. The Islanders could see the signing backfire and take up a lot of the salary cap space in the process, but similarly, the signing could pay off immensely for a team looking to bounce back and compete for the Stanley Cup next season.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ondrej Palat removed all doubt about whether he is a depth forward or a star. Playing on the same shift as Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, he scored 11 goals and 10 assists to carry the top line and propel the Tampa Bay Lightning to their third consecutive Stanley Cup Final. Palat is a well-rounded skater that oftentimes finds open skaters in the offensive zone. But when needed, he can create a scoring chance by himself, making him an intriguing forward for teams to pursue in free agency.
There will be doubt about whether Palat can succeed away from the Lightning and their star-studded roster, but the veteran skater has proven throughout his 10-year career that he can step up regardless of the shift he plays on. As a result, the Islanders can sign Palat and have him play in the top-six of their forward unit to not only add star power to the offense but also depth to an already deep unit. The risk also comes with his age, being 31 years old, but on a win-now roster, the veteran presence would likely be embraced rather than discouraged by Lamoriello.
Vincent Trocheck might not be the splash signing like Gaudreau or Kadri, but he would be a valuable addition to the Islanders’ forward unit. While he played center with the Carolina Hurricanes, opening up the ice for Andrei Svechnikov, Seth Jarvis, or Martin Necas, the 29-year-old forward has also played the wing and is a versatile top-line skater. Trocheck also adds 20 goals to the offense with great puck movement and a proven ability to redirect shots into the back of the net, a skill that would notably help the Islanders and the defensemen from the point in Noah Dobson and Ryan Pulock.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had a great regular season and were once again carried by their star players, including Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang. However, Evan Rodrigues also put together a strong season on the second and third line of the forward unit, scoring 19 goals and 24 assists. Last season was a breakout year for Rodrigues, who never scored over 10 goals or 20 assists in a season beforehand, but in his first full season in a starting role, he stepped up. The Penguins would like to re-sign him, but after signing Bryan Rust to a six-year contract and signing Letang to a six-year deal, it’s more likely the 28-year-old forward will test free agency.
Last season saw Rodrigues emerge as a goal scorer in the Penguins’ forward unit. He would find open ice in the offensive zone and, with a good shot, find the back of the net. His skill set would specifically help Barzal, who creates open shots but needs a sharpshooter on the wing to elevate his play. Rodrigues wouldn’t be the major signing for Lamoriello, but he would be one that would help out the Islanders’ offense on the top line and in the forward unit altogether.
Other Forwards the Islanders Can Target
If the Hurricanes don’t re-sign Max Domi, he will play next season on his fourth team in the span of four seasons. While Domi’s career has been a roller coaster thus far, the Islanders can add him to the middle of the forward unit and take advantage of his speed on the wing. Domi wouldn’t cost the team a lot of salary cap space, and if he plays up to his potential, he’d pay off while adding a faster element to the offense.
The Chicago Blackhawks announced this week that Dylan Strome would not receive a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. That means he’ll test the market as a UFA, and while the Rangers might be the best fit, the Islanders could add him to the middle of the forward unit. If they struggle to make a splash signing, they could sign Ilya Mikheyev, who is an under-the-radar type of signing that adds depth to the offense.
The Islanders have plenty of options to add to the forward unit this offseason, and while they might look to add a star, another depth addition would still boost the offense and allow the team to compete for the Stanley Cup next season.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.