The New York Islanders had an impressive Stanley Cup Playoffs run, putting them in an interesting situation for free agency. They reached the Eastern Conference Final but were clearly inferior to the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and are still a few players away from reaching the promised land. The dilemma the Islanders faced was whether they should buy in this offseason or continue to let the young prospects develop and build the roster from within.
The Islanders appeared to answer that question by trading defenseman Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a 2021 and 2022 second-round pick. The move is understandable when you account for the Islanders’ cap situation, which is already an issue, as they only have $8.9 million in current cap space. The situation is going to become more problematic when they have to inevitably try to retain Mat Barzal, who is a restricted free agent. Barzal will likely drain the remaining cap space, as he can see a contract worth anything from $6-9 million a year.
Trading Toews Appears to Be a Step Back
Losing Toews becomes consequential for multiple reasons. For starters, he was one of the best defensemen the Islanders had and lived in the mold of head coach Barry Trotz. Toews was willing to put his body out there to block a shot. He was a great weapon from the point and, more importantly, gave the Islanders one of the best third pairs in the NHL and the depth that was able to propel the team into the conference final. Trading him appears to be a step back from what we witnessed last season. The move looks like a rebuilding action and less of a buying action.
Toews was going to be a restricted free agent and is going to cost the Avalanche anywhere between $4-6 million a year on a long-term deal. He was an integral piece in the Islanders’ top power play last season, and his ability as a two-way player makes him a valuable piece for any team. At 26 years old, he looks to be entering the peak of his career, forcing the Islanders to trade a valuable asset for draft capital that appears to be underselling Toews’s ability.
So Why Trade Toews? How Will It Benefit The Islanders?
The first thing trading Toews does is create space for Noah Dobson. General manager Lou Lamoriello responded to the skepticism of the trade by saying, “We would not have made this move if the ice time that Devon received, we didn’t have the ability to put a player into that. We feel Noah Dobson is ready to take the next step.” The move clearly is intended to have Dobson step in and become the great defender the Islanders need on the lower pairs. But many Islanders fans would feel nervous about the young defenseman being able to fill Toews’ void.
It feels more comforting when you realize that the 20-year-old Dobson is one of the top prospects in the NHL. Last season gave us signs that he is going to need to grow into the role and will need the ice time this season to develop. He is going to slide right onto the third pair and may struggle at the start of the season but will improve and has the ability to become one of the best defensemen in the NHL.
Many fans watched the way Cale Makar went from a young and promising player in the 2018-19 season to one of the best players in the game this season. The Islanders may have their own Makar in Dobson. It may be ludicrous to say that Dobson can reach the same caliber as Makar, but we can see another young defenseman that is a cornerstone in the Islanders’ defense.
Trust in Trotz
Trotz became the Islanders’ coach in 2018. Since they hired him, he has brought a winning culture to New York and hopes to lead the Islanders to a Stanley Cup as he did with the Washington Capitals in 2017-18.
Another element that Islanders fans have to keep in mind is the Trotz effect and the vision of Lamoriello as an executive. This team was going nowhere before Lamoriello and Trotz came to New York. Part of what is being built in New York is a young and promising team. While the Islanders are on the doorstep of winning a Cup (they certainly are competing for one at the moment), they don’t want to end up in a difficult cap situation and tied down by older players.
The Islanders have bought in since they hired Trotz, and it appears that trading Toews is only part of the process. They’re going to be competitive this season, and this move is most beneficial for the overall state of the organization.
Trotz will have to make it a priority this offseason to have Dobson ready for 2020-21. He is known as a defensive-minded coach, which helps Dobson (don’t be afraid to get in front of a slapshot!). Trotz will also have to prepare for the possibility that Dobson isn’t ready. If so, he’ll likely insert Dobson into the third pair to start the season. But if he struggles, he might have to go back to the AHL, and the Islanders will have to hope that the later line void doesn’t hurt the overall defense of the team.
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.