The New York Islanders entered this offseason with high hopes. Granted, the team missed the playoffs last season, but with a talented, veteran-heavy roster and salary cap space available, this summer was a prime chance for general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello to sign a star forward and put a good team over the top.
Instead, Johnny Gaudreau, the top player on the market, shocked the hockey world when he signed a seven-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Islanders lost out on the top forward but still had a chance to make a splash in free agency by signing Nazem Kadri, the star, two-way center who can lead a top line. On Thursday, the news broke that Kadri will be signing a seven-year deal with the Calgary Flames, keeping him in the Western Conference and leaving the Islanders empty-handed.
Suddenly, this offseason looks bleak, to say the least. The roster is a good one, but it didn’t improve enough from last season and still has a void up front that might propel them to a deep playoff run.
Furthermore, the inability to make a big move has not only put pressure on Lamoriello, who already fired established head coach Barry Trotz this offseason but has also put him in the hot seat. It makes the next few weeks crucial to see what the veteran executive can do to save his job.
A Blockbuster Trade
Entering the offseason, a big move felt like a luxury, something Lamoriello could do to make a good team a frontrunner to win the Stanley Cup. But after a quiet offseason, a trade suddenly seems necessary as the team lacks the forward talent to compete with their Eastern Conference and division opponents. The team averaged 2.79 goals per game last season, and with a new system that first-year head coach Lane Lambert is sure to implement, another elite top-six forward seemed integral to a more successful campaign.
A trade is one of the few remaining options left for Lamoriello, and he’ll now have to look at players on expiring contracts, specifically Patrick Kane, David Pastrnak, and J.T. Miller. All three would put the team’s offense over the top, and even as a midseason addition, would help erase the memory of coming up short in free agency. Unfortunately, all three players come with obstacles, unlike the free agents Gaudreau and Kadri.
Kane has a no-trade clause that essentially allows him to choose his destination, while the Chicago Blackhawks will be reluctant to move the face of their franchise and enter next season with an underwhelming roster. Meanwhile, Pastrnak is part of a Boston Bruins team that can compete for the Cup and is in the Eastern Conference, making them unlikely to move their best forward to a rival roster.
Similar to the Bruins, the Vancouver Canucks will enter next season with high hopes, especially after last season’s turnaround under interim head coach Bruce Boudreau, who will coach the team full-time next season. Miller will likely only be moved if the Canucks are having an awful season and want assets before losing him to free agency.
Aside from the unwillingness to move their star players, all three teams will have a high asking price. If the Islanders want to add a player like Kane, they will have to send over three if not more pieces, one of which could be Aatu Raty, the top prospect in the farm system. However, New York is in a win-now mode, which makes the recent offseason all the more difficult and a possible move all the more urgent. If the team fails to add an elite talent, it’s hard to see how they will make the playoffs, especially considering the options left in free agency.
Rodrigues & Under-The-Radar Signings
The remaining players available for the Islanders to sign are limited in availability and talent. Yet, as Lamoriello has not made a signing of any variety this offseason, the sense of urgency to add a player who can provide a spark to the top-six must be setting in.
The first under-the-radar player who comes to mind is Evan Rodrigues, who had a breakout season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2021-22, scoring 19 goals and 24 assists. While his numbers weren’t overwhelming, his shot helped open up the offense, and he created scoring chances in the slot. Rodrigues, particularly, would be a reliable forward to play alongside Mathew Barzal, who would open up the ice and create open shots on the net.
Ultimately, Lamoriello’s only real option is to find an under-the-radar player who can exceed expectations. Sonny Milano is still unsigned and could return home and join the Islanders’ middle six. Likewise, Tyler Motte added depth to the Canucks and rounded out the New York Rangers forward unit after being traded to the team midseason and helped them reach the Eastern Conference Final. The options are limited and won’t put the team over the top, but they could help keep the Islanders competitive in what looks to be a difficult Eastern Conference.
Lamoriello Gets Housekeeping Done
After missing out on Gaudreau and Kadri, the Islanders’ offseason is widely considered a failure. However, they still have the ability to re-sign their core players, especially the young ones. In the next few weeks, with a surplus of salary cap space, Lamoriello can and likely will:
- Re-sign restricted free-agent defenseman Noah Dobson.
- Sign restricted free-agent defenseman Alexander Romanov, who has been the prime addition of the offseason thus far.
- Bring back Kieffer Bellows on a team-friendly deal.
- Offer Barzal an extension to keep him on Long Island for the rest of his career
The Dobson and Romanov extensions are particularly significant as Lamoriello can use cap space to give them more favorable contracts. At first, a “bridge deal” seemed like the only option for the two young defensemen, but suddenly a long-term contract is in play. Keeping them both will help ensure that the team’s defense remains one of the best in the league for years to come. Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are both already under long-term contracts, and securing four talented blueliners would keep the team steady and competitive for multiple seasons.
These in-house deals may seem like a letdown after what looked like a promising offseason. However, locking down these players would be a positive note after these frustrating summer months.
Where Islanders’ Ownership Might Step In
The ownership group has been patient with Lamoriello and, more importantly, put their trust in him to turn the Islanders into one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Lamoriello fired Trotz – a sign that he was betting on himself and perhaps a hint that the offseason would be different from previous ones. However, again, the organization was quiet and came up short in the sweepstakes for star players.
In the 2018 offseason, the Islanders wanted to add Artemi Panarin, who instead signed with the rival Rangers on a seven-year deal. Stars are rarely available in free agency, but when they are, Lamoriello has shown his interest and made an offer but continues to come up empty-handed. Gaudreau and Kadri signed elsewhere and left a fanbase stunned and frustrated with the organization.
As a result, this season has a different outlook. The ownership group is excited about the new UBS Arena, which opened in 2021-22, but attendance wasn’t something to be excited about, especially when the team struggled. If the Islanders struggle again this season, it might be the final straw for the owners, who might have to part ways with Lamoriello, despite his previous successes with the organization.
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.