The New York Islanders are looking to make a big move this offseason, whether in free agency or with a trade. After missing the playoffs, firing head coach Barry Trotz, and hiring assistant coach Lane Lambert as the new head coach, a lot of pressure is on general manager Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders front office to not only get the team back to the playoffs but possibly to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Oilers, meanwhile, are coming off a remarkable season, one where they advanced to the Western Conference Final but, after getting swept by the Colorado Avalanche, suddenly enter a difficult offseason. With a lot of players on expiring contracts and players possibly looking into different roles, the team could make a handful of moves this offseason to give the Oilers a new-look roster by the start of next season. As a result, the Islanders can not only benefit from a handful of pending free agents but possibly make a trade with the Western Conference team this offseason.
The Oilers’ defense had a rocky season, but after finding a rhythm in the playoffs, the unit continued to limit opponents with Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Duncan Keith, and Evan Bouchard. Despite the defense stepping up, Tyson Barrie played a limited role, with less ice time throughout the season. With a handful of defensemen like Nurse already under long-term contracts and younger defensemen like 22-year-old Bouchard looking to take on bigger roles with the team, Barrie could be traded this offseason.
While Barrie is 30 years old and predominantly plays the right side of the defense, the Islanders would benefit immensely from the veteran defenseman. Despite averaging 18:58 ice time last season, the Oilers’ defenseman contributed 2.8 defensive point shares and 73 blocked shots while scoring seven goals and 34 assists on the offensive end of the ice.
The Islanders would likely trade a proven player in a one-for-one deal like Anthony Beauvillier or goaltender Semyon Varlamov. However, acquiring Barrie would pay off for the Islanders’ defense and roster altogether. The 30-year-old defenseman would help secure the later pairings of the defensive unit for the next two seasons while also making a significant contribution from the point, especially on the power play, something the team lacked last season.
Evander Kane is a pending unrestricted free agent and ideally will re-sign with the Oilers despite the uncertainty surrounding his future. The team helped him find his footing and have a great second half of the season and Stanley Cup Playoff run, where he benefitted from playing alongside Connor McDavid on the wing and scored a team-high 13 goals in the playoffs. While the Oilers would likely want to return Kane to the forward unit, the team is pressed against the salary cap and might struggle to keep the forward who could sign a big contract this offseason.
The Islanders signing Kane would be a high-risk but high-reward acquisition. In his 13-year career, the veteran forward has struggled and often failed to thrive on certain rosters at times, but his ceiling is unquestioned. On the Islanders, Kane would provide a scoring touch on the wing and instincts that could elevate Mathew Barzal’s playmaking and open up the offense. But if the signing backfires, the team could be left with a difficult contract to move and an offense that continues to struggle.
Jesse Puljujarvi is a pending restricted free agent, allowing the Oilers to match any offers from other teams and, in all likelihood, re-sign him. However, in his five years with the Oilers, Puljujarvi has struggled to find a steady role in the forward unit. And with general manager (GM) Ken Holland uncertain about the forward’s future with the team, the front office could look to trade him for a mid-round draft pick, allowing the front office to return value for a player they are potentially looking to move on from (from ‘Ken Holland uncertain on Jesse Puljujarvi’s future with Edmonton Oilers’, Edmonton Journal, June 8th, 2022).
The Islanders wouldn’t be acquiring a top-line forward, but the 24-year-old skater has shown the upside to play in the top-six of any forward unit. Puljujarvi would add depth to the offense and, at a minimum, provide stability to the later forward lines, notably benefitting from a puck handling center like Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Moreover, after contributing 1.9 defensive point shares last season, Puljujarvi has proven he can impact both ends of the ice and, in a different role, could emerge as one of the Islanders’ best skaters.
Like Beauvillier on the Islanders, Puljujarvi has shown flashes of brilliance and instances where he could be a great forward. However, both 24-year-old skaters have had their struggles and might play best in a new role or on a different team altogether.
Brett Kulak was acquired by the Oilers at the trade deadline from the Montreal Canadiens to help secure the later pairings on defense. After helping the Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2021, the veteran defenseman helped add depth to the Oilers’ defense to help them defeat the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames in the first two rounds. As an unrestricted free agent, the team will likely prioritize re-signing him, but Kulak could look for a big offer in free agency, especially with his notable defensive value. While the Islanders will look to add a two-way defenseman this offseason, a left-side defenseman that can play the second or third pairing will likewise help turn the team’s defensive unit into one of the best in the league.
Other Oilers the Islanders Could Target
If the Islanders trade Varlamov, they might look to acquire a backup goaltender, one that can start 20 or 30 games behind Ilya Sorokin, who has emerged as one of the elite young goaltenders in the NHL. It’s unlikely that the team will acquire the Oilers’ Mike Smith, who at 40-years-old might have played his last season in the NHL but the team will look for a backup that can help out their young goaltender that also takes up little salary-cap space in the process. The Islanders could also look to acquire Zach Kassian if the Oilers are willing to trade him this offseason, adding a reliable forward to play on one of the top two forward lines.
In all likelihood, the Islanders wouldn’t make a blockbuster deal with the Oilers. However, the Oilers possess multiple players that can add value to the Islanders’ roster and depth that will help the team not only rebound next season but emerge as one of the league’s better teams.