The New York Islanders had their 2022-23 season end in disappointment. While they made the playoffs as a wild-card team in the Eastern Conference, they lost in the First Round to the Carolina Hurricanes in a six-game series. The Islanders won two games in the series but were outmatched, and the First Round showed the gap between a good team and a great one.
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It makes this offseason a pivotal one for the Islanders. They have a veteran-heavy roster that is again but a young core highlighted by goaltender Ilya Sorokin who had a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. They also have the pieces in place to make the playoffs next year but need to make one or two moves to put them in Stanley Cup contention.
A team the Islanders can look to make a deal with this offseason is the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets reached the playoffs this season but are looking at a difficult summer ahead of them, especially since they might have to retool their aging veteran-heavy roster. The two teams can make a move that can benefit both sides, with both the Jets and Islanders helping out with the needs of the team.
Islanders Can Target Ehlers
Nikolaj Ehlers has been a talented forward on the wing for the Jets in recent years. He’s battled through injuries, missing 20 games in the 2021-22 season and 37 games this season with an early-season surgery, but when he’s on the ice, his ability is unquestioned. In six of his eight seasons in the NHL, Ehlers has scored 20 goals or more, and with 176 goals and 220 assists in his career, he’s proved that he can both create scoring chances and find the back of the net himself.
The Islanders need a well-rounded forward in their top six that add versatility to the offense. The forward unit doesn’t have the players that can adapt in a game and beat an opponent in a variety of ways and it cost them in the playoffs. Ehlers could set up scoring chances for Bo Horvat and Anders Lee while also finding open shots from Mathew Barzal on the wing. The Islanders would be making a risky decision to add a player with an injury history but considering what Ehlers can add to the offense, the move would pay off, especially in the playoffs.
The question is what the Islanders would have to give up to acquire Ehlers, a player the Jets can still build around. He’s 27 years old and has two years left on his contract, making him a valuable player but also someone the team can keep for a retool. As a result, the Islanders would have to send back a young skater or a few prospects to make the deal work. A trade like that would signal the Jets are retooling, but with the right return, they can be competitive sooner than expected.
Jets Can Add Youth to an Aging Roster
The Jets enter an offseason filled with uncertainty and a lot of trade rumors. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele have been leaders of the team for years but are linked to multiple trades as they are both aging in the twilight of their careers. A handful of skaters are on the trade block, and even Connor Hellebuyck, a Vezina Trophy finalist and one of the league’s elite goaltenders, can be traded with the Jets retooling.
If they move on from a handful of veterans, it’s likely general manager (GM) Kevin Cheveldayoff will look to add either young NHL-ready talent to the team or prospects on the doorstep of reaching the NHL level. The Jets even with multiple trades have a good core in place to contend with, highlighted by Kyle Connor on the forward unit and defenseman Josh Morrissey on the defense. The Jets, with youth added to their lineup, can remain Western Conference contenders and possibly Stanley Cup contenders.
While the Islanders have one of the worst prospect pools in the league, they have a handful of young players on the roster and in the American Hockey League (AHL) that could help out the Jets. Robin Salo and Samuel Bolduc are two young and promising defensemen, while William Dufour, one of the team’s top prospects, has a great shot and can become a reliable scorer in a few years. The Jets, with the addition of a few younger players, will kickstart a retool and remain competitive next year as well.
Islanders Can Add a Two-Way Defenseman
The Jets’ defensive unit is headlined by Morrissey, but the player on the unit that the Islanders would target is Neal Pionk. He’s coming off a breakout year offensively, where he scored 10 goals and 23 assists but also continued to play at a high level defensively with 3.8 defensive point shares, 129 blocked shots, and 169 hits. The Islanders have a great defense but Pionk would provide them with the two-way presence they desperately need.
In the playoffs, the Islanders saw the gap between a good and an elite defense. The Hurricanes had an elite unit that not only eliminated scoring chances but set up the offense and made a strong impact at the point. The Islanders stepped up in the defensive zone but lacked a scoring presence at the point, and ultimately it made the difference in the six-game series. Adding Pionk would put the defense over the top and ultimately allow the team to compete for the Cup.
A trade would also bring Pionk back to the same arena where he started his career. He spent his first two years in the NHL with the New York Rangers but never found a role on the defense. In the 2019 offseason, he was traded to the Jets in a deal that sent Jacob Trouba to the Rangers while he continued to develop into an NHL-level defenseman. If he joins the Islanders, he would be a perfect fit on the defense and face his former team at least three times every season. The Islanders would need to give up a young player to acquire him, but the move would round out the roster and prepare them for a deep playoff run.
Other Moves the Islanders & Jets Can Make
The Islanders can target Wheeler in a trade to improve their top six. Wheeler would not only fill the void on the right wing, but as a pass-first player, he can be complementary to Lee, Horvat, and Brock Nelson’s skill sets. The question is if the Islanders want to add a skater that will be 37 years old next year to a forward unit that has nine skaters over the age of 30 on it.
The Islanders can also move Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the Jets in a blockbuster trade that could involve Ehlers or Pionk. Pageau is a depth center that can play on the second line. The Islanders could move him to open up salary cap space, and the Jets, who need help at the center position, could acquire him to keep themselves competitive next year.
The Jets and the Islanders might be heading in opposite directions this offseason. However, a move between the two teams can become a win-win deal and set up both teams for long-term success.