The New York Islanders were among the few teams that looked poised to sign Johnny Gaudreau on Wednesday. Landing the top player in free agency would have not only turned the offense into one of the best in the NHL but also would have made them one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season. Instead, the Columbus Blue Jackets swooped in late and signed him to a seven-year $68.2 million deal.
The Gaudreau signing sent shockwaves through the NHL but particularly was tough for the Islanders. Entering the first day of free agency, they appeared to be one of the frontrunners to sign him and land an elite forward that could provide 30 goals to the offense.
Instead, the Islanders were left empty-handed. More importantly, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello has to turn to his other options to help out the forward unit in an offseason that otherwise looked promising for a team looking to bounce back.
Gaudreau Leaves the Flames
As the offseason started, the Islanders looked like an outside team with a difficult path to signing Gaudreau. The Calgary Flames were the franchise he played his entire career with and they offered him an eight-year deal for over $10 million per year. Granted, the Flames were going to have to work around the salary cap if they signed Gaudreau but GM Brad Treliving made it a priority to keep him on the roster.
However, once Gaudreau decided to test free agency, it became clear that it wasn’t about the money but rather, multiple factors that played into his choice to leave. In Treliving’s press conference following the news, he hinted that it was a family decision for Gaudreau. While his family wasn’t the only factor, it carried a lot of weight for the veteran forward, so much so, that he ended up turning down the best offer that was on the table.
The Islanders suddenly looked like they were in the driver’s seat to acquire Gaudreau. Aside from the brand new UBS Arena, a strong roster, and the salary cap space, their city was on the shortlist of places near his hometown of Carney’s Point, New Jersey.
Devils & Islanders Appeared Frontrunners for Gaudreau
Considering Gaudreau wanted to play close to home, the pursuit quickly became a two-team race between the Islanders and the New Jersey Devils. While Gaudreau grew up in southern New Jersey, which is closest to the Philadelphia Flyers, the rebuilding team didn’t open up the cap space to pursue the star forward and as a result, never made an offer. The Devils were an intriguing destination and had more salary cap space to make the move for him and notably add a speed threat to play alongside Jack Hughes and subsequently kickstart the rebuild. Furthermore, the team made a handful of moves to open up more salary cap space, including buying out Janne Kuokkanen’s contract and trading Pavel Zacha to the Boston Bruins.
However, the Islanders had all the pieces in place to acquire Gaudreau. They also had a strong roster that got even stronger after the NHL Entry Draft with the addition of defenseman Alexander Romanov. He was seen as the missing piece in the forward unit that would complete the ideal offseason for Lamoriello.
The only problem was the final offer never swayed Gaudreau with Lamoriello providing a seven-year deal, but under $10 million per year. It’s possible that he would have signed with the Islanders if they gave him a deal in the $10 million or higher range but the team never reached an agreement, leaving the star player on the market. With Gaudreau remaining on the market as the first day of free agency progressed, it left an opportunity for another team to slide in and acquire the top free agent and, ultimately, leave Lamoriello in the dust.
Islanders Lose Out to the Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets didn’t seem like a team that was in the mix for Gaudreau, especially considering the hometown factor. However, as the day went on, the signs started pointing toward the fact that not only were they interested, they were one of the dark horse teams to acquire the star forward.
The Blue Jackets didn’t put more money into their contract than the Devils and not a significant number higher than the Islanders but they ended up pouncing on the opportunity to land Gaudreau, giving him a seven-year $68.25 million contract. The family decision certainly played a strong role in the veteran forward deciding to play for the Blue Jackets but the team on the ice also became intriguing for him as well.
Patrik Laine had a breakout year, scoring 28 goals and 30 assists and the team has plenty of young talented players across the roster including Cole Sillinger, Adam Boqvist, and Zach Werenski. Gaudreau’s speed in particular complements Laine’s play and makes an already good offense exceptional. Yes, the Islanders have the defense and goaltending but they couldn’t offer the same offense, scoring only 2.79 goals per game last season in comparison to the 3.15 goals per game their Metropolitan Division rival averaged.
In the 2019 offseason, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen lost a handful of his star players including forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene along with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Then, in the 2021 offseason, he traded a top-pairing defenseman in Seth Jones to the Chicago Blackhawks, another strong indication that the team was in a rebuild and looking to build with a young core of players. One year later, he has rebuilt the roster and the prospect pool but more importantly, made the Blue Jackets one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
What’s Next For the Islanders?
Missing out on Gaudreau is the ultimate gut punch for the Islanders who eagerly anticipated adding that missing piece to their offense. A few years ago, they missed out on Panarin, who signed with the rival New York Rangers on a seven-year $11.6 million deal. Lamoriello entered this offseason hoping to avoid a similar defeat in free agency, where they come close but just miss out on a top player. This year, they missed out on a great forward that is also a well-rounded goal scorer, who both finds open skaters in the offensive zone and creates scoring chances by himself.
The Islanders suddenly turn to their secondary options to upgrade the forward unit. Nazem Kadri is available and would control the center of the ice as a great two-way forward. However, he could also take a team-friendly deal to stay with the Colorado Avalanche, a team he is comfortable with and won the Stanley Cup with this past season. Otherwise, the options are limited, making Evan Rodrigues one of the best forwards remaining on the board. Rodrigues isn’t a household name but might be the player the team has to pursue to upgrade the forward unit, provide a strong shot for Barzal in the offensive zone.
In addition to the free agent acquisitions, Lamoriello will likely look to make a trade to upgrade the offense. Patrick Kane will be the most intriguing player to acquire both this offseason and next season but the Islanders will have to be patient with the Blackhawks, a team that will reluctantly move on from the face of their franchise. Similarly, the Bruins will hope to keep David Pastrnak to start the upcoming season but if the team struggles, the Islanders could look to make a move for the elite forward to boost the offense.
The offseason has been a busy one for the Islanders. After head coach Barry Trotz was fired and replaced by assistant coach Lane Lambert, the pressure shifted to Lamoriello to turn the team around. The draft was a good start, but the team faced another setback in free agency coming up short in the Gaudreau sweepstakes. However, Lamoriello is betting on himself and his past reputation to help the Islanders’ future. We will just have to wait and see what else he has up his sleeve for the rest of the offseason.
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.