This season, star center Mathew Barzal is entering the final year of the three-year bridge deal he signed with the New York Islanders before the 2020-21 season. Barzal holds a $7 million cap hit this season and will be a restricted free agent this summer. Despite the success the Islanders have had since John Tavares left for Toronto, the fan base has not forgotten what it feels like to lose a generational talent. Barzal, however, is a restricted free agent and the Islanders will have exclusive negotiating rights with him. However, there will be cause for concern if the contract negotiations drag on, especially considering what happened with Matthew Tkachuk earlier this summer.
Barzal’s Market Value
This offseason, elite forwards have not helped Barzal with the annual average value (AAV) on their contracts. Most recently, J.T. Miller signed a seven-year contract worth $8 million per season, which would only be a $1 million per season raise for Barzal. Comparing the two, the 29-year-old Miller is coming off a 99-point season, a number 25-year-old Barzal has not reached.
A better example is the recent contract extension Tim Stutzle signed, worth eight years at $8.3 million per season. The league is trending toward paying younger players over market value when they come off their entry-level deals and gambling on them reaching their potential. The Islanders should hope that Barzal wants an eight-year deal and sign him no matter the price tag, especially since his bridge deal was worth $7 million, so they will not be taking a massive hit to their cap space. Based on that, his long-term deal should come in between $8 million and $8.5 million.
The Matthew Tkachuk Model
When this deal was reached before the 2020 season, it was seen as a positive that Barzal would still be a restricted free agent (RFA) by the end of it because the team would have exclusive negotiating rights. Now, Matthew Tkachuk has set a precedent that could work in Barzal’s favor. If the cap hit is too high, or he does not want to sign, the Islanders will be able to trade him for a haul wherever he wants to go. This is the main reason fans should be less worried than they were heading into Tavares’ contract year.
The Tkachuk trade from the Calgary Flames to Florida Panthers shows that if Barzal wants to leave, the Islanders will be able to get a solid return for him. The Flames got two All-Star caliber players and a future first-round selection for Tkachuk, which the Islanders might not get for Barzal, but there should still be a good return.
Does Barzal Want to Stay?
The ultimate question in all of this is what Barzal wants to do. From the second Tavares was drafted, there was speculation that one day he might want to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That has not been the case with Barzal and his hometown team in Vancouver. Additionally, the Vancouver Canucks are not in any position to sign that type of contract next season.
By all indications, Barzal wants to stay, even though that kind of speculation is what had everyone fuming at Tavares four years ago. The post-game press conference that is linked above is proof of Barzal’s true desire to win and win in New York. After the brutal Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2021, Barzal and Brock Nelson took questions from the virtually assembled media. Barzal struggled to get a word out. Even the always-positive Bruce Beck couldn’t make it a positive press conference. Seeing how much he cared about winning and his teammates made it seem like Islanders fans had their guy for the next decade.
Regardless of what Tavares said before or what he has said since, he knew he did not want to be an Islander for the remainder of his career. Barzal has not said anything in either direction, but if it comes out this summer that he does not want to stay, management will get something in return, unlike with Tavares. With Tavares being an unrestricted free agent after the 2018 season, the Islanders needed to trade him at the deadline to get something back, which they did not do. If things fall apart with Barzal, management will at least be able to get a return for their star.
Islanders Cap Situation
As mentioned, Barzal will not be getting a major raise (in terms of average annual value), and the Islanders have plenty of money coming off the books to pay him next offseason. Semyon Varlamov will not be with the Islanders past this season. The starting job is now Ilya Sorokin’s, and Varlamov will want another chance to start and win elsewhere. His $5 million coming off the books will allow plenty of breathing room for Lou Lamoriello to give Barzal a raise.
They also have to sign or replace Scott Mayfield, Oliver Wahlstrom, Zach Parise, and Keiffer Bellows next season. With the $2.3 million they have in cap space right now, plus Varlamov coming off the books, they might be able to do all of that without moving someone. However, if they were to move someone out it would probably be Josh Bailey. They would only have to eat the final year of Bailey’s salary if they wanted to buy him out, or they could trade him to the Arizona Coyotes or Montreal Canadiens as a cap dump as they did with Andrew Ladd. The most important contract to be signed after Barzal is Sorokin, who is due after the 2023-24 season, which is something to keep in mind.
Recent Islanders Success
The panic about Barzal is nowhere near the level it was back in the 2017-18 season when Tavares was an unrestricted free agent, not only because of the reasons mentioned above but also because of the team’s recent success. Yes, with the loss of Jordan Eberle, Barzal is now without a goal-scoring winger, the same situation Tavares was in. But, unlike with Tavares, the Islanders have achieved generational playoff success under former head coach Barry Trotz and Lamoriello, and Barzal has been right in the middle of it.
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When Tavares left, people speculated that he was done being a part of a .500 team. While he never said that himself, he left a sputtering team for an ascending one. What has happened since does not support that theory, of course, but when it happened, it was clear which team was better on paper. If the Isles have a good season, there will be very few teams Barzal could go to that will have a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup in the future.
Barzal will be an Islander beyond next season unless there is a Tkachuk-level trade on the way. Given what we have seen from him and his commitment to the franchise, your No. 13 jerseys should be safe for a long, long time.