The New York Islanders had a rough season and will miss the playoffs after reaching the Conference Finals two seasons in a row; they had also qualified for the postseason and won at least one round for three consecutive seasons. This will also be the first time they’ve missed the playoffs in the Barry Trotz era.
You can blame injuries, the schedule, competition in the Eastern Conference, or anything else, but most teams go through similar struggles each season. The Islanders are not set up to stay competitive with the types of contracts that have been handed out to veterans; they have too many players in their 30s with years remaining on their contracts. Here’s a look.
Lamoriello Relied on Trotz to Make the Roster Work
Before Trotz was hired, you could argue that the Islanders were better than the roster that won them five playoff series in three seasons. They still had John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, and Nick Leddy, who were all 26 or 27 years old. Tavares is the x-factor there, as Eberle and Leddy were in their final seasons with the team last season. Management simply replaced Tavares with Jean-Gabriel Pageau. No knock against Pageau, but he isn’t Tavares – not even the Tavares four years after leaving New York.
The team was able to get rid of one contract through the expansion draft, but they lucked out considering Eberle is also in his 30s with two years remaining on his deal.
The Islanders also haven’t had elite goaltenders – they did have some very good and some average. The final season before Trotz became head coach, the goaltending duo was Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, not a pairing that was great by any means. Greiss went from a .892 save percentage (SV%) to a .927 and .913 the following two seasons. The .927 SV% is the highest of his career, and that was under Trotz’s defensive system.
In 2018-19, the first under Trotz, Robin Lehner was brought in to play alongside Greiss. Lehner went from a .908 SV% in his final season with the Buffalo Sabres to a .930. He was a Vezina Trophy finalist, and the tandem won the William M. Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed in the NHL that season.
The following season, another new goaltender joined the club and raised his SV% as well. Semyon Varlamov went from a .908 SV% in his final season with the Colorado Avalanche to a .914 SV%, .929 SV%, and still a .915 SV% this season despite the lack of offense. Once again, a goaltender came into Trotz’s system and had a career year.
Compared to the seasons they had for the Islanders, Lehner has posted a .908 SV% this season, Greiss has a .894 SV%, and Halak has a .903 SV%. The Islanders went from the most goals against in the NHL in 2017-18 to first, eighth, second, and sixth these last four seasons. This is the main reason why they’ve been competitive, as their offense has ranked 21st, 23rd, 20th, and 25th. The team sacrifices offense for defense, but they also lack the overall offensive talent of other teams (from “Islanders lament near-misses as offensive woes keep mounting,” New York Post, 1/27/22). They have one game-breaker, but he is held back – I’ll go into more detail on the Matthew Barzal later on.
Islanders Have Put Too Much Confidence in Veterans
Sure, it’s about the money given to these 30-year-old players, but it’s also about their term and what age they will be when their contracts expire. Here’s a list of 14 players the Islanders have signed until they are at least 32 years old:
- Zach Parise (age 37), one year remaining at $750,000 AAV (average annual value).
- Cal Clutterbuck (age 34), two years remaining at $1.75 million AAV.
- Casey Cizikas (age 31), five years remaining at $2.5 million AAV.
- Anders Lee (age 31), four years remaining at $7 million AAV.
- Ryan Pulock (age 27), eight years remaining at $6.15 million AAV.
- Matt Martin (age 32), two years remaining at $1.5 million AAV.
- Josh Bailey (age 32), two years remaining at $5 million AAV.
- Kyle Palmieri (age 31), three years remaining at $5 million AAV.
- Adam Pelech (age 27), seven years remaining at $5.75 million AAV.
- Semyon Varlamov (age 33), one year remaining at $5 million AAV.
- Brock Nelson (age 30), three years remaining at $6 million AAV.
- Pageau (age 29), four years remaining at $5 million AAV.
- Ross Johnston (age 28), four years remaining at $1.1 million AAV.
- Richard Panik (age 31), one year remaining at $1.375 million AAV.
First, there is $35.875 million tied up in players aged 31 or older next season. I don’t have a problem with the Pulock or Pelech contracts as they are the key pieces to the back end, but contracts with term are being given to players already in their 30s. You can trust veterans, but this is excessive and a reason for their downfall this season. Speed tends to diminish with age, and the game is getting a lot faster. The lack of youth being given a chance doesn’t help the future and, as you can see, didn’t help this season.
Lou Lamoriello hands out contracts you’re unlikely to see on other teams, with low AAV over four or more years, which may seem good for role players, but makes it difficult to integrate new blood into the lineup. Take Johnston and Cizikas, for example. Johnston’s $1.1 million contract kicks in next season, but for a player who was scratched at times, that’s a long commitment with others like him on the open market every summer.
Cizikas’ best years are behind him. He had one season in 2018-19 when he popped off and scored 20 goals, but since then, he has failed to reach 15 points in the three seasons. His six-year deal started this season, which means Lamoriello watched two seasons of his decline and then decided to keep him around for six more seasons.
The fourth line brings back memories of when the Islanders were a dominant force, and they started games to set the tone. Lamoriello has held on to that for too long, having all three of Martin, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck signed for two more seasons after this one. This allows no room for any young talent to jump in on the fourth line here and there, especially at a time when the team is simply playing out their remaining games.
Once the Islanders were eliminated from the playoffs, management could have called up players who may make the jump to the NHL next season, but with all these aging veterans, there has been no movement. Players like Robin Salo, Simon Holmstrom, Otto Koivula, Michael Dal Colle, and Aatu Raty could have seen some NHL action before they compete for a spot on the team in training camp. But wait, 13 of their 14 forwards are signed through next season with Kieffer Bellows, a likely signee, the 14th on the roster.
As for the defense, the Islanders are still playing Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene, two defencemen whose combined age is 84. The assumption is that there will be more opportunity on defense next season than at forward, but at this point, who knows if Chara or Greene won’t be brought back for another season.
What the Immediate Future Holds for the Islanders
Taking into consideration a number of factors, the Islanders have maybe one last chance to turn things around next season, and then I would tear things down. From there they should try and find a way to trade some of the veterans who can still contribute. They wouldn’t be able to or willing to trade all of them, but players with a year or two remaining may garner some interest.
If New York doesn’t at least qualify for the playoffs next season, moving on from Trotz and rebuilding would be the best option. Trotz has taken a mediocre team (at best) and made them highly competitive with his defensive style of coaching these past seasons, and they are still a tough team to play against. Certain players fit perfectly into that system, too, like Pageau, but others have been noticeably hurt by it, like Barzal.
We all saw what Barzal accomplished in his rookie season, putting up 85 points to lead the team. He even had more points than Tavares in his prime. But then Trotz was hired, and Barzal hasn’t come close to that. His highest was the following season with 62 points. He hasn’t been given the reins to be the high-flying player who takes offensive risks, and it is affecting his production, and it looks worse when the team isn’t winning. I would also attribute the offensive struggles and inconsistency of Oliver Wahlstrom to Trotz’s system, as he would already be a 20-goal scorer if he didn’t have to fall in line with the defense-first mindset. Even a player like Anthony Beauvillier has had a tough time this season despite his potential.
Related: NHL Stat Corner: Flames, Islanders, Avalanche, Jets, Oilers, Red Wings
With most of the team expected to return next season, the Islanders should have one last chance to make a run. Their future should depend on it. But more than just parting ways with Trotz, Lamoriello has to go too if the team decides to head into a rebuild. You can’t continue to sign veterans to long-term deals in hopes of staying afloat when the writing’s on the wall.