One of the toughest executives to understand and figure out is New York Islanders general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello. Often quiet, rarely giving out information, and less transparent than a typical GM, he can be frustrating for fans whenever he makes decisions that affect the roster.
This offseason spoke volumes about Lamoriello despite his uncanny, quiet summer. He fired head coach Barry Trotz and failed to make a signing in free agency but also made a handful of internal moves, re-signing and extending a handful of the young core players to the roster. Lamoriello doesn’t say much but his actions, and lack thereof, spoke to how he operates and reflected his style, signaling how he can help or hurt the Islanders in the upcoming season.
Lamoriello Waits for the Best Deal Available
This year, this strategy turned its ugly head and backfired for the Islanders. Lamoriello isn’t going to make a big move that carries significant risk and instead will be patient and wait for the best offer to be available, specifically to help upgrade the team.
Following the 2021-22 season, it became clear that the offense needed a spark. After averaging only 2.79 goals per game, the forward unit needed a top-six skater that could elevate the offense and round out a Stanley Cup-caliber roster.
With Johnny Gaudreau testing the free agency market, it seemed like a prime opportunity for Lamoriello to make a splash. Instead, he refused to budge from his initial offer and allowed Gaudreau to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a seven-year contract. Likewise, the Islanders could have signed center Nazem Kadri to boost the offense but Lamoriello didn’t want to give the 31-year-old skater a seven-year deal. Kadri, who many believed was poised to sign with the Islanders, signed a seven-year contract with the Calgary Flames instead, a team that swooped in to acquire him after seeing that he was still available late in the offseason.
The Islanders’ forward unit was left empty-handed. Instead of upgrading from the previous season, it remained the same, which arguably can result in the offense worsening, considering how the rest of the division improved their forward units. Lamoriello’s patience and ability to pounce on a great offer has often helped the Islanders, notably when he acquired Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the 2020 Trade Deadline and Kyle Palmieri ahead of the 2021 Trade Deadline. However, this year, his patience and inability to take a risk in free agency left the team without a top-six scorer, something Lamoriello is willing to start the season without but still leaves the team with a glaring weakness.
Lamoriello Rewards Loyalty
While the Islanders didn’t acquire anyone in free agency, Lamoriello’s moves reflected his trust in players and coaches that can step up for the team. After firing Trotz, Lamoriello hired Lane Lambert from within. While a big hire could have been made, Lambert proved in his recent seasons with the Islanders that he can not only pick up where Trotz left off, but take a roster he is familiar with to the next level.
Aside from the Lambert hire, Lamoriello’s loyalty extended to the younger players on the roster that were restricted free agents this offseason. Granted, Noah Dobson, who is coming off a breakout year for the defense, and Alexander Romanov, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, both could have received long-term deals, but instead received “bridge deals.” However, Kieffer Bellows was re-signed to a one-year deal when it seemed like there wasn’t a place for him on the roster, but Lamoriello sees this season as a big year for him to prove he belongs.
The ultimate case of Lamoriello rewarding loyalty was when he extended Mathew Barzal to an eight-year deal. In his first six seasons with the team, Barzal showed flashes of brilliance and signs that he could become an elite player but had yet to tap into that potential. In fact, last season saw his limitations as he only scored 15 goals and 44 assists and the absence of a shooter on his wing prevented him from creating scoring chances. Yet, Lamoriello saw his top-line center’s commitment and effort to becoming the team’s best player and often proved that he can carry the team even if his scoring is down. As a result, the deal was not only a long-term one, but the highest average annual value on the Islanders at $9.15 million per year.
Islanders Roster Build Reflected in Lamoriello’s Vision
After the Islanders re-signed their restricted free agents, Lamoriello addressed the media. Among the many things he discussed — specifically, why the team failed to sign both Gaudreau and Kadri — he outlined the importance of defense and great goaltending. Essentially, he talked about how a great team is built from the goaltending position, then the defensive unit, and finally, the offense.
Since 2018, the team has reflected Lamoriello’s vision as the Islanders have not only had one reliable starting goaltender but often two viable goaltenders. From Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss to Greiss and Semyon Varlamov to Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders have consistently relied on two goaltenders to help them have successful seasons. Furthermore, the defense has continued to be the strength of the roster, and the contracts of both Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, also reflect that, with both players under eight-year deals.
The Islanders in Lamoriello’s tenure haven’t paid for a top scorer. While at first it was perceived as the team coming up short in free agency to their rivals, after the recent offseason, it’s clear that Lamoriello doesn’t want to pay for the position. The philosophy is frustrating at times, especially when the offense struggles, but ultimately, it’s how the Islanders are structured and how they will have a successful season ahead, with great defense leading the way.
Where the Islanders Can Struggle Under Lamoriello’s Plan This Season
Lamoriello has rewarded loyalty and has kept the majority of the roster intact. A lot of the players on the Islanders were part of the Stanley Cup Semifinal rosters in 2020 and 2021, but this team is one of the more veteran-heavy ones in the NHL. Experience is a valuable virtue for a team eyeing the Cup but the Islanders are an older roster and the age can catch up to them, as it did last year when they missed the playoffs. This team looked slower than the competition and an aging roster ultimately can be overwhelmed by the rest of the league.
This offseason, Lamoriello bet on himself and in a lot of ways, showed how he intends to build a Cup-contending roster. The Islanders have a talented roster but if the team struggles, he could be out of a job. This is a team built in his vision and the ownership group is expecting success but another disappointing year can see a desire to change the philosophy of how the team is structured.
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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.