The New York Islanders’ offseason has been a quiet one thus far, especially in free agency. After missing out on Johnny Gaudreau and Ondrej Palat, the team is left with limited options to improve in the remainder of the offseason. However, one of the big moves that general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello made was for the defensive unit when he acquired Alexander Romanov from the Montreal Canadiens.
The addition of Romanov has suddenly given the Islanders a younger and faster defense, particularly, if he plays alongside Noah Dobson to form one of the best young pairings in the league. Moreover, the defense is a more complete unit with veteran Scott Mayfield being the only defenseman who still needs a partner.
With free agency winding down, there’s still the slight possibility that the Islanders can add another defenseman to the roster. However, the team has a handful of young blueliners both on the roster and on their American Hockey League (AHL) team, the Bridgeport Islanders, that in all likelihood, could play alongside Mayfield next season.
The most likely defenseman to make the NHL roster by opening night is Sebastian Aho. In his three seasons with the team, highlighted by 36 games last season, he has proven that he is a great skater but struggles on the defensive end of the ice and allows opponents to find shots on the net. At 26 years old, there isn’t a lot of room for improvement or development but he would still provide stability to the Islanders’ defense as a bottom pairing option.
Aho also would be the best option for the Islanders from an offensive standpoint, as he scored two goals and 10 assists in a limited role last season (averaging only 16:27 ice time) and as a great skater, can help the team best in transition. After signing a two-year contract this offseason, it looks like he will be part of the Islanders roster in some form, and playing alongside Mayfield, will have the ability to improve as the season progresses.
Robin Salo is the wild card in the prospect pool for the Islanders. Arguably the best defensive prospect in the system and one with the highest ceiling, especially on the offensive end of the ice, if he is ready at the NHL level, he would be the ideal starter for the team.
The question will be if he is ready. The 23-year-old Salo had brief stints with the Islanders last season, playing in 21 games but failed to become a regular on the roster and spent the majority of the season in the AHL. He can become a great two-way defenseman, but his struggles defensively have held him back. For the youngster, it might be an issue of NHL experience and he needs to just acclimate himself to the game. If that’s the case, it’s something the Islanders can allow him to work on if he plays alongside Mayfield, one of the more experienced defensemen on the team.
Salo has the highest ceiling of the Islanders’ defensive prospects and can impact the left side of the unit more so than the other options. However, his struggles, especially early on in the season could set the Islanders’ defense back and possibly turn the unit into a liability. In the 2020-21 season, Dobson struggled early on in the year but playing alongside veteran Andy Greene, mastered the position. Similarly, if Salo is on the opening night roster, the best option for him and the team would likely be to have him play alongside a veteran who can mentor him, especially in the early part of the season.
Like Aho, Grant Hutton spent time in a limited role with the Islanders last season, playing in 16 games and averaging 14:11 of ice time. Among the defensive prospects, he proved that he could best keep up with the opposing forwards and prevent them from getting scoring chances. While he’s not the greatest skater or the best stat-wise, he proved in his time with the Islanders that he has a great shot from the point and can generate shots on goal from the blue line. The 27-year-old playing alongside Mayfield wouldn’t be the ideal pairing for first-year head coach Lane Lambert but it might be his best option defensively.
Other Internal Options for the Islanders
Samuel Bolduc could become one of the more intriguing prospects for the Islanders this season. The team’s second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, he will start next season in the AHL but if he proves to be ready for the NHL, could be on the roster midway through the season. Furthermore, the 21-year-old defenseman is playing in the final year of his entry-level contract that he signed in 2020. For Lamoriello and the front office, next season could be a pivotal one in determining where he fits into the future of the team.
Aside from the prospects, there’s also a strong possibility that Romanov is paired with Mayfield while Lambert searches for someone to play alongside Dobson. Romanov can impact the team on the defensive end of the ice as well as in the neutral zone and alongside Mayfield, would form a strong pairing defensively. Ideally, the Islanders will want their two young defensemen playing alongside each other but will likely embrace playing two of their best hard-hitting defense-first blueliners on the same pair as well.
External Options for the Islanders
Veteran left-side defenseman Brenden Dillon would be a viable target in a trade from the Winnipeg Jets. They are in a unique situation and might be staring at a difficult rebuild, which would make a move involving the 31-year-old an intriguing one despite acquiring him in the 2021 offseason. Dillon has played on four teams in his 13-year career but has provided defensive discipline for every team he’s played for, making him a great fit for the Islanders and a reliable partner for Mayfield.
Aside from a possible trade, the Islanders’ options are otherwise limited. However, Ryan Murray could be a good fit as a reliable bottom-pairing defenseman, despite struggling on the offensive end of the ice last season with the Colorado Avalanche. Meanwhile, P.K. Subban could be an interesting option with a high risk but high reward and if used correctly, could add a spark to the offense, particularly with his shot from the point. There’s also a slight possibility that Lamoriello signs the 40-year-old veteran Greene, who would return on a short-term contract and in a limited role but help secure the left side of the defense.
The Islanders’ defense is one of the best in the NHL, led by Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech while displaying little to no weaknesses. However, until they address that missing piece, a defenseman on the left side of the unit, they will remain a step behind the contenders in the Eastern Conference.