The New York Islanders are preparing for a big 2022-23 season with the hope of bouncing back after missing the playoffs last season. All the focus is understandably on the upcoming season and not the offseason but a few players are restricted and unrestricted free agents at the end of the year.
Related: Islanders Season Preview
While general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello isn’t looking ahead to the 2023 offseason, some of the players entering the final years of their contracts have massive implications on the roster for this season. Specifically, the Islanders will have to make decisions on some integral players to the roster either at the trade deadline or before they head into free agency including Mathew Barzal and Oliver Wahlstrom.
Once the season begins, it’s unlikely Lamoriello will re-sign anyone and instead direct all of his focus on the campaign itself. However, last year shortly after the trade deadline, he extended both Cal Clutterbuck and Zach Parise, indicating that if the opportunity presents itself, he will secure some of the star players on the roster. For the Islanders, this will put a lot of focus on arguably their best player who is an RFA at the end of the season.
Ahead of the 2020-21 season, the Islanders signed Barzal, their young star center to a three-year contract worth $7 million per year. Three seasons later, they will enter a similar saga with their top-line center entering the offseason as an RFA but this time in the prime of his career rather than entering it. Last season, he took a step back scoring only 15 goals and 44 assists but with the forward lines fluctuating throughout the year, he failed to find reliable linemates to optimize his skill set.
This year, Barzal has a lot to prove not just that he is an elite forward but that he deserves to be paid as such. In fact, it’s possible and even likely that he has a career year, bouncing back from his disappointing 2021-22 season. In a more offensive-minded system with Lane Lambert behind the bench, reliable scorers on his wings, and a willingness to shoot the puck more often, Barzal can prove that he is a well-rounded forward. A season where he scores over 30 goals and distributes over 50 assists while helping the Islanders finish near the top of the Metropolitan Division would force Lamoriello’s hand in the offseason.
However, if the Islanders struggle and Barzal continue to underperform, there will be a different type of pressure for the front office to sign him, keeping one of the best players on the roster. The Islanders don’t want to lose another elite player and still have control over him, considering he is an RFA. However, this offseason has shown that if a player is frustrated with an organization, he can force a trade the same way Matthew Tkachuk managed to depart from the Calgary Flames.
Ultimately, Barzal will likely stay on Long Island and reach an agreement with the Islanders. He expressed interest in not only finishing his career with the team that drafted and developed him but also hopes to remain a key player for them. The Barzal situation isn’t a repeat of the John Tavares one, something fans have expressed concern about. Taveras left the team in the 2018 offseason to sign with his hometown team the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team he wanted to play for his entire career. Instead, he is one of the faces of the franchise that wants to be remembered that way by the end of his career.
Wahlstrom’s entry-level contract expires at the end of the season, making this year arguably the last one the Islanders will receive his offensive production at a bargain. Granted, he hasn’t been the elite forward that some anticipated he would be, scoring only 25 goals and 20 assists in 126 games while averaging only 12:03 of ice time. However, the 22-year-old has displayed a great shot from the wing and skating ability that will allow him to be a top-six forward and possibly one of the team’s top goal scorers this season.
A lot of his success will be determined by which line he plays on but Wahlstrom is entering a pivotal season in his career with the Islanders. A larger role in the offense and a breakout season will dictate the type of contact he receives this offseason whether it’s a bridge deal or a long-term contract. He is looking to prove that he is a crucial forward in the team’s success and this season, make his mark as one of the best goal scorers on the team.
Scott Mayfield is entering the final year of his contract and will be a UFA at the end of the year. He’s a pivotal player on the unit, especially in the defensive zone, and will be integral to a successful year for the Islanders. However, if the team struggles, he will field a strong offer at the trade deadline as a proven defenseman that can help a contending team win the Stanley Cup. Furthermore, his status with the team is unclear even if he plays well, making a deal in the offseason questionable both in terms of years and cap hit.
Mayfield is 29 years old and will be 30 years old by the second game of the season. Aside from being at the twilight of his prime, he is one of the older defensemen on the Islanders, with the rest of the starters 28 years old or younger. He still has a lot left in the tank and plays at a high level making a short-term deal after the season a viable option.
However, there is a strong emphasis on developing players at the blue line. Lamoriello acquired Alexander Romanov during the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, adding a young but proven defenseman to the roster. Furthermore, the Islanders selected two defensemen in the draft with their first three selections and the younger presence might indicate a shift in the unit and an unlikely return for Mayfield.
Semyon Varlamov remains pivotal to the Islanders’ success. While Ilya Sorokin is emerging as the starter, and one of the best young goaltenders in the league, they still need a backup goaltender that can split starts to give them a great duo in the net. If the Islanders struggle, Varlamov could field a strong offer but it’s unlikely that he will be moved, even at the trade deadline. There are plenty of teams that could hope to acquire a playoff-caliber goaltender but adding one midseason is more complicated, especially for the goaltender who has to acclimate himself to a new roster and setting.
This leaves the question about whether Varlamov, who will be a UFA, will return to the Islanders after this season and on what terms. He is 34 years old and at the end of his career but plenty of teams will eagerly add him to their roster. The Islanders would likely re-sign him as a backup and give him a deal that aligns with that role, but if another team sees him as a starter and gives him a better deal, he’ll likely sign elsewhere.
Other Islanders Entering Expiring Contracts
Zach Parise is playing the upcoming season on a one-year contract and will be a free agent at the end of the year. At 38 years old, the question is whether he has enough in the tank for another NHL season or if he will retire making him an afterthought for the Islanders at the end of the season.
Parise is one of the older players on the roster but Kieffer Bellows is one of the younger players on the team and is playing on a one-year contract as well. The Islanders re-signed Bellows this offseason and will be an RFA at the end of the year but with him, this season is about proving he can be a reliable forward on a nightly basis and be a regular on the team.
The Islanders’ focus is on the upcoming season and the hope is that the team bounces back after missing the playoffs. However, throughout the season there will be an underlying concern about the free agents, especially depending on how they play and contribute to the roster.
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.