Islanders’ Offseason Focus Shifts to Defense

Early yesterday, the New York Islanders announced a slate of long-awaiting signings, officially solidifying their offense, an upgrade in the eyes of some. These deals were all but assured during this unusually short offseason, but the numbers were of some concern as the Islanders still need to fill the hole left by defenseman Nick Leddy who was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. Now, with just under $3 million to work with, a Zach Parise contract all but official, and possible deals for Travis Zajac and Michael Dal Colle, among others, the Islanders must shift to defense.

Significant Barriers

Before we get to the Islanders’ options, either via trade or UFA – the latter of which is slim pickings – there’s a significant barrier for general manager Lou Lamoriello to overcome. With everyone signed, New York has 23 contracts, the maximum allowed. That means in order to bring in a defender, Lamoriello will likely have to move out two contracts.

Isles fans would gladly send veteran (and a head coach Barry Trotz favorite) Leo Komarov and his $3 million contract into the abyss. Thomas Hickey, who hasn’t played a regular role with the team in some time, also eats up a chunk of change at $2.5 million, though the Islanders don’t really have any backups on defense as it is, so perhaps they will keep him as insurance moving forward, along with Sebastian Aho. Richard Panik, acquired this summer in the Leddy trade, only eats up $1.375 million, but that may not be enough to get Parise and Zajac signed and bring in a defender on a cheap deal. This last example also handcuffs Lamoriello, limiting his already shallow pool of potential trade targets to fill a very specific role.

Potential Additions

This is where things get tricky. On the low-hanging fruit side of things, it’s hard to believe a Zdeno Chara reunion occurs. Islander fans may riot with Andy Greene (39 years old) and Chara (44) as regulars on the roster. However, one of the last intriguing names on the list of UFA defenders is Erik Gustafsson. The 29-year-old left-shot journeyman has shown offensive upside, scoring 17 goals with the Chicago Blackhawks just three seasons ago. His last contract was for $3 million, which could be negotiated down for a shot at the Stanley Cup again this spring.

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On the trade front, this is where things get interesting. In theory, it opens a lot of doors. But, as we’ve learned, Trotz and Lamoriello have specific types of players they want to fill particular roles, and it’s hard to tell what that may look like. Lamoriello has made a number of key moves during his time with the Islanders, but the best we can do at this point is make educated guesses on potential trade partners. Additionally, and for simplicity’s sake, I narrowed down the pool to defenders on expiring deals in 2023-24 at $5 million and under. Why? The Islanders will be getting a lot of money off the books at the end of the 2021-22 season, so I suspect they won’t want to make a trade for a player with any serious term to keep their options open next summer unless, of course, they love the player. I also looked exclusively at left-shot defenders to fill Leddy’s role.

One of the names that come to mind is Ian Cole. Though he was just signed to a one-year, $2.9 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, they have eight NHL defensemen on their roster, including Ethan Bear (ᒪᐢᑲ), who they brought in this offseason. Cole won’t bring the same silky-smooth skating Leddy had, but he does get pucks to the net and brings the veteran, Cup-winning presence Islanders management seems to be looking to add. This seems a bit unlikely, but again, he appears to fit what the Islanders are putting together.

Ian Cole Minnesota Wild
Ian Cole, now part of the Carolina Hurricanes, seen here with the Minnesota Wild during the 2020-21 season
(Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Heading to the west coast, Hampus Lindholm could prompt Lamoriello to have a conversation with the Anaheim Ducks. The price is a little steep at $5.025 million, but it’s an expiring deal and, if the Ducks retain a bit of money or take one of the Islanders’ depth forward contracts the other way with a pick or mid-level prospect, it could work.

Leddy and Lindholm’s point totals are pretty close over the last few seasons, the 2020-21 season notwithstanding for Lindholm due to a wrist injury. Leddy had more time on ice compared to Lindholm, but not by much, and that could be due to special teams. Their advanced stats, according to Natural Stat Trick, are also similar though Leddy has an advantage in some categories, most likely due to the Islanders’ overall defensive numbers. What makes this unlikely and would make Isles fans scratch their heads is that their salaries are almost identical heading into the season.

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If they can make Lindholm work by sending a contract like Komarov’s out the door, why couldn’t they keep Leddy? One reason could be that they received assets for Leddy instead of losing him at the end of the season for nothing, especially if they didn’t plan on re-signing him. If they have the depth they want in Panik and they can get Lindholm on a cheaper deal (if they retain salary), in addition to sending a contract out, it may be a win.

Mattias Ekholm, who carries a $3.75 million contract, seems like an obvious choice, especially if you speak with my Nassaumen Hockey Podcast co-host and fellow contributor to The Hockey Writers, James Nichols. What makes this complicated is what it would take to get him. According to The Athletic’s Arthur Staple on many occasions, but most recently in an article about the recent signings, he mentioned that the Islanders need a decent-sized offer to get Ekholm out of Nashville even though he’s on expiring deal (from “How the Islanders’ wave of official signings — and the players not yet announced — fit into Lou Lamoriello’s plan,” The Athletic, 9/1/2021).

Mattias Ekholm Nashville Predators
Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Could that be worth it? It probably depends on who you ask. To some, Josh Bailey is an Islander for life. To others, he’s expendable. Would Nashville even be interested in Bailey? Who else could make up a deal? Would Kieffer Bellows and a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft make it happen? It’s worth keeping an eye on. Ekholm would make the Islanders even more of a contender, adding a lot of ammo to an anemic power play and give their five-on-five play a huge boost.

Though we were sure of the recent forward signings save for the details, filling this hole on defense is truly a mystery. Lamoriello has his hands full with training came inching closer, though that may be part of his strategy as teams feel the pressure to become cap compliant. Who do you think the Islanders will trade for or sign on defense?

Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers authors James Nichols and Jon Zella. Follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts!

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