New York Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello finally broke his silence on Monday. With a frustrated fanbase looking for answers, specifically, why the Islanders failed to sign anyone this offseason, at a recent press conference, Lamoriello outlined how the team entered the offseason and his plan for next season. The conference came following deals for Noah Dobson, Alexander Romanov, and the rest of the restricted free agents on the roster, but it hinted more at the direction his team is heading and the plan in place.
Among the many topics discussed, Lamoriello emphasized that the Islanders will not give up defense, a statement he followed up by mentioning that a good hockey team is built from the goaltender out. This reflects the Islanders’ offseason so far, but more importantly, it explains Lamoriello’s strategy for building the roster.
It didn’t seem so at the time, but the trade for Romanov during the NHL Entry Draft became the prize addition of the offseason, for better or worse. While not the splash fans expected, he is exactly what Lamoriello is looking for in a defenseman and for the team altogether. The Islanders will play a faster game next season, but having reliable defensemen is still a top priority. They have been carried by their defensive unit in recent seasons, and adding Romanov has strengthened and reinforced the importance of the blue line.
Romanov already has strong defensive instincts and is a great skater, making him the ideal pairing for Dobson next season. He is also a hard hitter who can remove opponents from the puck with a strong check, something the Islanders could use. While he isn’t a playmaker offensively, at 22 years old, he still has room to improve, particularly on his shot in the offensive zone and his puck handling in the neutral zone. The Islanders will likely have five well-rounded, talented defensemen next season, and if Robin Salo, one of their best prospects, is ready for the NHL, the team will arguably have the best defense in the league.
The Islanders were quiet this offseason, but Romanov was an upgrade they needed. Now that he and Dobson are signed, Lamoriello addressed the most important part of his roster. It’s a cliche that defense wins championships, but for Lamoriello, it’s a blueprint for building a successful roster. During his tenure with the New Jersey Devils, he emphasized having a good or even great unit that can carry the team with the help of a great goaltender.
Sorokin & Varlamov Being Key for Success
Lamoriello’s success with the Devils can be largely credited to having Martin Brodeur in net. The Hall of Fame goaltender was pivotal in providing stability and propelling the team to three Stanley Cup titles.
Since then, Lamoriello has made it a priority to find reliable goaltenders and keep them on the roster, and the Islanders have had a strong goaltending duo since he took over as GM. From Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss in 2018-19 to Greiss and Semyon Varlamov in 2019-20 to Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, the team has always had two goalies who could assume the starting role when needed.
Lamoriello has prioritized goaltending not just since taking over the team but also for a bounce-back season. At the trade deadline last season, Varlamov could’ve been traded for a large return or moved in the offseason to open up salary cap space, especially since the Vegas Golden Knights are searching for a starter with Lehner out for the season. However, for Lamoriello, Varlamov and Sorokin are pivotal to the Islanders’ success.
Islanders Continue to Avoid Signing Prized Free Agents
An area for concern and criticism has been the GM’s unwillingness to make a big signing. When the Islanders missed out on Artemi Panarin in the 2019 offseason- who signed a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers – it was considered a rare situation that the team couldn’t attract a star player. However, this offseason, they failed to sign Johnny Gaudreau, Ondrej Palat, and Nazem Kadri, leaving the team empty-handed. Lamoriello sent the message that he doesn’t like to pay for star scorers. He mentioned in his press conference that the position can be overpaid, which can set a team back.
While the strategy has worked for Lamoriello so far, the problems are two-fold, considering the Islanders’ roster. For starters, there isn’t a lot of excitement surrounding the team entering this season with a lineup that didn’t improve other than the addition of Romanov and a head coaching change. Moreover, the coaching change can understandably be seen as a downgrade after the Islanders fired Barry Trotz, who helped lead them to the Stanley Cup semifinals in back-to-back seasons.
The other underlying issue with Lamoriello’s plan is the shift to a faster and more offensive-minded game. Last season, the Islanders were consistently the slower team and got beat to the puck or were overwhelmed by the speed of their opponents. In a league that is prioritizing offense with increased scoring and skaters being more skilled than ever, the team lacked a potent attack, averaging only 2.79 goals per game. This is where the front office, specifically Lamoriello, can be seen as stubborn and living in the past as the game passes them by. That is a major concern for a fanbase hoping to see a talented roster take that next step.
Where Lamoriello’s Plan May Backfire
Last season can be viewed from two perspectives. It could be considered an outlier where everything that could go wrong did. The team started the season on the road, a COVID-19 outbreak affected the entire roster, and injuries to key players kept them from rebounding from a slow start, causing them to miss the playoffs. With this in mind, it’s easy to see the team poised to bounce back and make a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run.
However, there’s also the negative or cynical view of last season, which makes the offseason more of a concern. It’s possible that it was a preview of what’s to come, with an aging roster struggling to keep up with the rest of the NHL, especially offensively. Furthermore, the Metropolitan Division has improved and will enter next season as arguably the toughest in the league. It makes for an uphill battle for the Islanders to remain one of the best in the division and reach the playoffs altogether.
Lamoriello is sticking to his plan and remains confident in his roster. However, in a summer that he bet on himself, he remained quiet, which is a risky decision since his job is on the line if the Islanders struggle again in 2022-23.