The New York Islanders are still looking to make a splash during what has been an otherwise quiet offseason. After missing out on Johnny Gaudreau early on and recently coming up short in the Nazem Kadri sweepstakes, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the team. However, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello can still make a move, notably trading for a star who is entering the last year of his contract, like Patrick Kane or J.T. Miller.
If the Islanders end up making a move, they will have to open up salary cap space, and that will likely happen via trade. However, a handful of players should be considered untouchable, including Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Ilya Sorokin. Then there are a few players on the trade block who can reasonably be moved, while others rumored to be on the market should be considered untouchable. The Islanders have a deep roster, but here are three players who will be pivotal to the team’s success next season.
The middle-six center seems like the ideal player to move. The team already has four starting centers, and there’s the possibility that another center, Aatu Raty, the organization’s top prospect, will join the roster next season. The surplus at the position makes Jean-Gabriel Pageau the most expendable of the group, with Barzal and Nelson leading the top two lines, while Casey Cizikas, who leads the checking line, is on a team-friendly six-year deal.
The problem is that Pageau brings a unique skill set to the Islanders. Granted, he plays a middle-six role, but he is also arguably the best two-way center on the roster, helping the defense with his strong play from the middle. On offense, he is a reliable puck-handler and also opens up the ice for his wingers, providing open shots on the net. Keeping him as a depth center gives the Islanders one of the most well-rounded forward units in the NHL and an edge on a nightly basis, especially against opponents that are weak up the middle.
Keeping Pageau might force first-year head coach Lane Lambert to move one of his best skaters off their natural position to the wing. However, the team is better off bumping one of them, whether it’s Nelson or Barzal, to the wing instead of moving Pageau, who won’t be easy to replace.
Many teams hoped to acquire Semyon Varlamov this offseason. As a free agent at the end of next season, the veteran goaltender would be a valuable addition to any team looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. The Vegas Golden Knights have a roster built for a deep playoff run, but following the news that starting goaltender Robin Lehner will likely miss next season following surgery, they could be hoping to land Varlamov.
Despite the speculation, the Islanders need a strong goaltending duo to be successful next season. In 2021-22, Varlamov’s absence at the beginning of the season notably set the team back, and with a slow 5-10-5 start in their first 20 games, the team didn’t recover and ultimately failed to make the playoffs. The importance of a strong tandem in net has also been emphasized by Lamoriello this offseason.
Sorokin is a star and arguably one of the best goalies in the league, at 27 years old nonetheless. However, he needs a partner who can reliably start 20 games minimum or take on the starting role if Sorokin gets injured, and Varlamov is a backup who can assume that role if need be.
Scott Mayfield, like Varlamov, is entering the final year of his five-year contract. There hasn’t been much speculation about him this offseason, especially since he’s on a team-friendly deal. However, the talented defenseman could be moved if the Islanders want assets, particularly younger players and draft picks. While he’s a valuable player and would bring a strong return, the team shouldn’t move a key part of their defense.
Mayfield is a reliable right-side skater. On the second pairing, he provides stability and strong play in the defensive zone, while his skating helps limit opponents in the neutral zone. Likewise, Mayfield has emerged as one of the veteran leaders of the unit, and next season should help the young players who will likely play alongside him, like Robin Salo and/or offseason addition Alexander Romanov.
Other Players the Islanders Must Avoid Trading
While he’s not on the NHL roster, Raty is the Islanders’ top prospect, and with a strong showing at the World Juniors, he looks like a star in the making. Therefore, Lamoriello likely considers him untouchable even for a star player who might be on the trade block. The Islanders must also avoid breaking up their fourth line, which has been one of the best checking lines in the league. Cizikas with Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin has been vital to the team’s success, as they remove opposing skaters from the puck with a strong forecheck and provide a different look to the forward unit.
Inevitably, the Islanders will have to make a move this offseason, and there are a handful of players who could be part of a deal to open up the needed cap space for next season. However, these three are integral to the roster and have to be viewed as such. The Islanders have a strong roster, one that can compete for the Stanley Cup, but to do so, they have to retain their biggest assets.
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.