The New York Islanders are having a rocky season. They are currently in playoff position in the Eastern Conference but are fighting off multiple teams for a wild-card spot. They have a 29-24-7 record and have been hovering around the .500 mark for the past few months, making the season an underwhelming one for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
To make it more difficult, they will be without star forward Mathew Barzal for the next few weeks. While he won’t miss the rest of the season, as many initially thought, he is considered week-to-week with a lower-body injury. The Islanders haven’t felt his absence so far, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in the first game without him in the lineup, but ultimately, losing a top-line player could set them back, heading into a tight playoff race.
Related: Islanders Acquiring Horvat Reflective of Lamoriello’s Trade History
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Losing Barzal might signal that the Islanders can hit the reset button. With a few players on expiring contracts, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello could trade away some veterans and enter next season with a stronger roster. However, the Islanders’ path to a retool is more complicated. It might be the best thing for the team, but their recent win and Lamoriello’s history suggest that it’s unlikely, putting the Islanders in a difficult situation ahead of the trade deadline.
Lamoriello’s Unwillingness to Retool
Lamoriello doesn’t rebuild or hit the reset button. In his decades as an executive, he’s built teams around star players, drafted and developed young players to become a new core, and, occasionally, makes an aggressive move to keep a contending window open. However, he won’t tear down a roster or move everyday players.
The argument can be made that it was his undoing as GM of the New Jersey Devils, a team he won three Stanley Cups with but resigned in 2015 to join the Toronto Maple Leafs. His tenure with the Devils was successful, but, in the end, the team was one of the oldest in the NHL and needed to rebuild, and he wasn’t the person who was going to do it. Instead, the next front office was forced to clean up the mess he made, a possible preview of what might happen with the Islanders if the team falls apart in the coming years.
Last season at the trade deadline, Lamoriello kept the Islanders’ roster intact, signaling confidence in the veteran-heavy group. Instead of retooling this season after the team won only four games in January, he doubled down. The acquisition and extension handed to All-Star Bo Horvat was a last-ditch effort to save and go all-in this season. Horvat has helped keep the team competitive but hasn’t turned the season around per se, as the Islanders have gone 4-2-2 with him in the lineup. This leaves them in a position to retool, but Lamoriello is more likely to move in the opposite direction.
A retool should be within reason for the Islanders, considering the difficulty of making the playoffs this season. However, Lamoriello sees retooling or trading away talented players as surrendering. He’d prefer to go down with the team he built rather than try to rebuild it into a contender. It’s something that doomed him before and can be Lamoriello’s lasting legacy as a GM.
Islanders Roster Has Minimal Trade Chips
Even if the Islanders want to rebuild, they won’t hold a fire sale. The perception, especially after some losing streaks, is that they should trade the players that aren’t on long-term deals or are integral to the roster. If the team is out of playoff contention at the trade deadline, that won’t happen, and a rebuild isn’t possible, either. Specifically, the Islanders don’t have many players they can trade to upgrade the team for the future.
Scott Mayfield is playing in the final year of his contract and is the most likely Islander to be traded. However, he won’t bring back a strong return, specifically with prospects that can be on an NHL roster by next year. Mayfield is a veteran, playoff-proven defenseman but, as a rental, doesn’t have great value, especially with other defensemen on the market, including Jakob Chychrun, Erik Karlsson, Vladislav Gavrikov, and John Klingberg.
Semyon Varlamov is also a pending free agent and having a great season as a backup goaltender, making him an intriguing addition to a playoff team with questionable goaltending. However, moving a netminder at the deadline is tricky and rarely happens. Last season, only two playoff teams acquired goaltenders at the deadline; the Minnesota Wild added Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Dallas Stars acquired Scott Wedgewood. In 2021, David Rittich was the only goaltender moved to a playoff team.
The bottom line is that the position is rarely sought after at the trade deadline. Goaltenders have to acclimate themselves to a new setting and prepare for a playoff run in a few weeks, a difficult task for them. Moreover, Varlamov has a modified no-movement clause and can decide to which teams he will be traded. The Islanders can try to move him, but it won’t be for a haul that will turn the team around immediately.
Mayfield and Varlamov are the team’s biggest trade chips, and both players can bring back a few good pieces but not a strong haul. Otherwise, the Islanders don’t have a lot of players to trade. Specifically, they don’t have the player that can bring back a return that can keep them competitive, something they’d hope to do in a retool. Josh Bailey and Matt Martin are aging players who won’t intrigue a Stanley Cup contender. Brock Nelson is playing at an elite level and has a few years left on his contract, but he is an essential part of the roster and someone to build a contender around. The Islanders have the players to do a retool but doing so sets them back and won’t make them better moving forward.
Paths for the Islanders
Winning would fix a lot of these problems and put the Islanders on track to do what they aspired to do at the start of the season, win the Stanley Cup. Yes, the season has been underwhelming, with the team barely holding on to a playoff spot, but the teams behind them haven’t fared much better.
The Penguins have a 27-20-9 record and are on a three-game losing streak. More importantly, they have lost all three of their matchups with the Islanders. The Washington Capitals have a 28-25-6 record and have lost five in a row with Alexander Ovechkin out of the lineup, but they have also had a rollercoaster season. The Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres, and Detroit Red Wings all have an elite offense, but their defense has let them down, making all three teams questionable to reach the playoffs.
The Islanders have a well-rounded team that can slide into the playoffs as a wild-card team. That might sound like a disappointment, considering they might have to face the Boston Bruins, who are on pace to win the Presidents’ Trophy and are 3-0 in the season series. However, the Isles are built to upset the Bruins, particularly with Ilya Sorokin having a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. Moreover, the team is built for a deep playoff run, carried by great goaltending and a balanced roster, albeit with an offense that has struggled, even with the addition of Horvat.
The Islanders also have an opportunity to use Barzal’s injury to remain aggressive in the trade market. Their available salary cap space because of his injury and those to Oliver Wahlstrom, Cal Clutterbuck, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau can be used to acquire a forward to add to a win-now roster. The Feb. 20 win against the Penguins reflected the eagerness, urgency, and ability to win this season, and the roster will try to be competitive even without Barzal.
The next few games are suddenly pivotal for Lamoriello and his lasting legacy with the Islanders. The organization will dare him to make a move one way or another and be active at the deadline. He was silent in the offseason, refusing to make a splash signing or a blockbuster trade but silence isn’t an option now. The Islanders have a roster that requires action, one way or another, even if it means a dreaded retool, something the long-tenured executive will try to avoid at all costs.