Islanders Extend Horvat & Start Building Core: Is It the Right Move?

The New York Islanders extended All-Star center Bo Horvat just days after acquiring him for a large haul that included Anthony Beauvillier and top prospect Aatu Raty to make him the second-highest-paid player on the team. With an $8.5 average annual value (AAV) that starts next season, only Mathew Barzal, whose AAV will be $9.1 Million, will earn more than Horvat.

Bo Horvat Vancouver Canucks
Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The extension notably makes Horvat one of the building blocks of the Islanders’ roster for the foreseeable future. The Islanders have four players under contract, with Barzal, Adam Pelech, and Ryan Pulock all signed to extensions. Presumably, All-Star goaltender Ilya Sorokin will join that group shortly to round out the core of players that the franchise will build around.

Related: Islanders Acquiring Horvat Reflective of Lamoriello’s Trade History

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The Islanders have elite players entering the prime of their careers locked into long-term deals, with Horvat being the recent addition as a 27-year-old center. The question is if this benefits the team or ultimately hurts their overall makeup. They are building around a few elite players, but will they be key in helping them win a Stanley Cup?

Islanders Lock Up Essential Players

The four players under contract for the next seven seasons all play vital positions for the Islanders. Barzal and Horvat are top-six forwards who also predominantly play the center position. Pelech and Pulock, meanwhile, form the Islanders’ top defensive pairing, which is one of the best in the league.

Moreover, the four players have the essential skill set needed for any team looking to contend for a Stanley Cup. Barzal is a pass-first player who creates scoring chances for others. Horvat is a goal scorer who can both finish his chances near the net and find the back of the net with a quick shot. On defense, Pelech and Pulock are two of the best in the league at creating turnovers and limiting shooting lanes, allowing them to limit the best forwards from creating scoring chances.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders not only have four players they can build a contending roster around, but they fit into the essential roles for success; Cup contenders have elite players in their forward unit, defense, and goaltending. With the core locked into long-term deals, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello and the front office have been saved the headache of finding players that fit those roles.

Islanders Add Flexibility to Contending Window

With the core locked up, the Islanders can make a push to win now. They have a veteran-heavy roster and can make a few minor additions at the trade deadline to put them over the top. Granted, they are out of playoff position at the moment, with a 25-22-5 record, but the Horvat addition should help them improve in the upcoming weeks. If they get back in playoff position and play great across the board, Lamoriello can add another depth forward to make the team an Eastern Conference juggernaut.

Bo Horvat Vancouver Canucks
Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Also, the strong core should make the Islanders a more attractive destination for free agents. Lamoriello hasn’t made a splash signing in the offseason in his Islanders tenure as GM but instead has noticeably held back and avoided such a signing. However, it should now be easier for him to lure a forward who wants to play alongside a playmaker like Barzal or a scorer like Horvat. With the essential players in place, the offseason additions would be complementary pieces.

Additionally, if the Islanders struggle and need to rebuild or re-tool, they have elite players to build around. Horvat, Pelech, and Pulock are in the prime of their careers, while Barzal, who is 25 years old, is entering his prime. The Islanders can tear down the roster and trade away many of the aging players, and start over with their core group.

Are the Islanders’ Stars Truly Stars-Caliber?

Horvat is having a breakout season, with 31 goals and 23 assists, putting him on pace for a 50-goal campaign. However, he has one 30-goal season before this one and only one 60-point season in his nine-year career. The question is if his recent success will become the norm or will is it be an outlier – specifically, a player taking advantage of a contract year. Horvat hasn’t played a game for the Islanders but has already signed an extension, making the move a risky one. His skill set, particularly his ability to find open shots and score, ages well, and the Islanders hope that the last two seasons are signs that he is just beginning to hit his stride as an elite player.

Barzal remains a mystery. He signed an eight-year extension this offseason, an indication that Lamoriello is confident he will become an elite player, but the Islanders have seen his limitations, especially in recent years. He struggled last season without a sharpshooter on his wing, with 15 goals and 44 assists. This season, he has become an elite passer but is struggling to find the back of the net, scoring only 12 goals with 31 assists. He’s one of the best skaters in the league and makes his linemates better, but questions about his ceiling remain.

Defensively, Pelech and Pulock are both limited; they aren’t playmakers in the offensive zone and aren’t elite two-way players. Pelech is a great passer, and Pulock has a great shot, but neither one is a great puck-handler, and they don’t open up the offense from the blue line. Ironically, Noah Dobson is the best two-way defenseman on the team but isn’t signed to a long-term deal. Instead, he signed a three-year contract this offseason, meaning it will be difficult to fit his next contract under the salary cap.

Ryan Pulock New York Islanders
Ryan Pulock, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Islanders are paying their best players to perform like stars. However, if they aren’t elite – just good – they will limit the team’s chances for success.

What Happens When the Islanders Lose Their Depth?

The real question is can these players carry the Islanders? The team is built on its depth, with four potent forward lines, multiple great defensive pairings, and a goaltending duo that is among the best in the NHL. However, eventually, the club will have to part with some of its depth players – some will retire, and others will be moved for salary cap space. When that happens, the players under contract for the next seven seasons will need to carry the team. Yes, all four skaters and Sorokin, if he indeed receives an extension, are great, but it’s unclear if they can carry a roster without the depth players around them.

It’s possible that the team’s elite players can keep them competitive. However, if they fall apart, this strategy could spell doom for the team and, more importantly, cost Lamoriello his job. After firing head coach Barry Trotz in the offseason, Lamoriello bet on himself and his ability to acquire talented players as well as assemble a Cup-contending team. He’s now betting on four skaters to carry them, not just this season but for years to come.

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