The height of free agency has come and gone, and every team has made a significant move except the New York Islanders. Led by Lou Lamoriello, known to keep his plans a secret, the Isles have yet to make a splash in the market. They have been linked to several free-agent forwards, several of whom were on the team last year, but have yet to address the hole in their defense. The team was forced to trade away a key defender for a second consecutive offseason, this time moving Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings for Richard Panik and a second-round pick.
New York has promising left-handed defense prospects in Samuel Bolduc and Robin Salo, but it is unclear whether either is ready to step into Leddy’s role. Sebastian Aho and Thomas Hickey are also still around, both of whom have NHL experience with the Islanders, but they have played a combined eight NHL games over the past two seasons. Now that nearly 250 contracts have been signed since the start of free agency, the odds that the Islanders make a significant outside addition are slimmer than they once were. There is a better chance that New York fills the void internally, but if they decide to employ outside assistance, there are still a few players that fit the bill.
Gustafsson is the player on the market who most closely matches the game Leddy played for the Islanders. A smooth-skating defenseman who likes to carry the puck in transition, Gustafsson makes a lot of sense for New York if they decide to pursue him. He played a limited role for the Montreal Canadiens during their run to the Stanley Cup Final and could be interested in joining New York for another opportunity to make a deep playoff run.
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Gustafsson was criticized for his defensive play at times last season but could be the next player to see tremendous defensive improvement under Barry Trotz. The former Jack Adams Award winner’s structure had drastic effects on Leddy’s all-around game and could vault Gustafsson into a new tier of two-way defenders.
He signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers last offseason before being traded to Montreal at the trade deadline. His prior contract with the Chicago Blackhawks was worth $1.2 million per season, and he could be willing to sign a contract in that pay range to join the Islanders. With New York trying to fit multiple restricted free agents and new signees under the cap ceiling, a cheap deal for Gustafsson could work out for all involved.
Vatanen is a right-shot defenseman but could be worth a look for New York as they try to fill Leddy’s spot on the left side. Although he would be playing on his off-side, Vatanen has a similar playing style to Leddy, especially in terms of joining the rush while staying responsible defensively. He isn’t as likely to carry the puck through the neutral zone as Gustafsson is, but Vatanen is still a viable option to produce offensively and could quarterback the power-play the way Leddy has over the past few seasons.
Vatanen has 200 points in his nine-year NHL career and has produced at over a 0.5 point-per-game pace in his 51 career playoff games. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Devils prior to last season after his four-year, $19.5 million contract expired the year prior. If Vatanen is willing to sign for around the $2 million he earned on his last deal, he could be a good option to fill the void on New York’s blue line.
Without another prominent free-agent defenseman who fits Leddy’s style, the Islanders could opt to turn to the trade market. One defenseman who reportedly could be moved is Dunn, who was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the Expansion Draft from the St. Louis Blues. He is currently a restricted free agent and filed for arbitration to work out a new deal with the Kraken. Seattle could decide to move Dunn before his hearing rather than pay him what he is deemed worthy of. They might have a steep asking price, but New York’s depth at forward could be used to help the Kraken, who are weaker up front; the Isles would be taking care of their biggest hole, which looks to be Leddy’s role.
Dunn is a great two-way defenseman and produced solid results recently despite being stuck in a bottom-pair role frequently in St. Louis. He had a 35-point scoring pace in two of the last three seasons and could assume a power-play role with the Islanders if acquired. He specializes in driving offense and could thrive as Leddy’s replacement in a top-four role with limited power-play responsibilities. He also hasn’t given up much in his own end recently, so there wouldn’t be much hesitation throwing him into Trotz’s system. If the Islanders can negotiate with him for close to the $1.875 million he earned on his last deal, getting the 24-year-old could be a major win.
What’s the Plan?
New York’s priority seems to be in locking up its forwards based on recent rumblings from Elliotte Friedman on his podcast. When the unrestricted free agent forwards from last season are secured, management can turn its attention to getting restricted free agents brought back, including top defenseman Adam Pelech. Whatever cap space is available after all these moves can be used to look for outside help in replacing Leddy. There is no guarantee that there will be substantial money available without another move, and the team may instead decide to promote from within. However, if there is money to spend, these three players give the Islanders hope despite most of the market having already signed elsewhere.
Covering the New York Islanders and Seattle Kraken for The Hockey Writers. MBA Sports & Entertainment Management Candidate at Hofstra University. Formerly Marketing Intern with the American Flag Football League & Operations Intern for the Long Island Nets, G-League Affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets.