Islanders Offseason Will Have Unique Obstacles

The 2023 offseason will be an interesting one for the New York Islanders. The team doesn’t enter the offseason with a sense of urgency as they did last offseason but they still have a handful of obstacles ahead of them. Last season, the Islanders missed the playoffs and needed to make a big move, but general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello stayed quiet, signaling confidence in his roster.

Related: Islanders Need to Make Changes This Offseason

Despite the quiet offseason, the Islanders bounced back and clinched a wild-card spot in the playoffs, making Lamoriello’s decision pay off. After a First Round exit, the team is staring at a handful of ways to approach the offseason and notably build a Stanley Cup contender with their current roster.

On one hand, the Islanders have a great core. The defense is led by Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, two of the best defensemen in the league in the prime of their careers, while Noah Dobson and Alexander Romanov are both young promising players who continue to improve. Ilya Sorokin is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and he gives the Islanders a high floor as a reliable starter for 60 games in the regular season.

The top six is also set with Mathew Barzal, Bo Horvat, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Kyle Palmieri all under contract and playing big roles. Additionally, Oliver Wahlstrom, who is a restricted free agent, will be back in the lineup after missing most of this season with an injury, and he provides a much-needed scoring presence on the wing.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At the same time, the Islanders’ roster is riddled with issues, including an aging core, and a veteran-heavy roster. The average age this season was 29.3, and 10 skaters were 30 or older. There’s also the problem with the structure of the roster, specifically, with too many niche players who are great at a few skills but lack versatility. Both issues were exploited in the First Round as the Carolina Hurricanes controlled the series and won it in six games.

Lamoreillo’s Moves So Far

Shortly after the Islanders were eliminated, Lamoriello, who typically waits until the final weeks of the offseason to make his moves, re-signed Hudson Fasching to a two-year contract. Fasching was a pleasant surprise from the moment he was called up from the American Hockey League (AHL) roster for the Dec. 4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only did he prove he belongs on the roster, but he showed that he can make a significant impact for years to come.

At 27 years old, he is entering his prime and will look to build off his breakout season. He scored 10 goals and nine assists and made his greatest impact defensively with 1.1 defensive point shares and a strong forecheck in the offensive zone. His defensive skills also make Fasching a reliable fourth-line forward, and perhaps a reliable replacement for one of the aging skaters on the wing down the road.

Hudson Fasching New York Islanders
Hudson Fasching, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Lamoriello also signed Matthew Maggio to an entry-level contract. Maggio was the Islanders’ fifth-round selection in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and is coming off a big year with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). In 66 games, he scored 54 goals and 67 assists, thanks to his quick release and shooting ability. At 20 years old, he’s still far from joining the NHL roster, but he will be a prospect to watch moving forward.

The Islanders’ farm system is one of the worst in the NHL, and many prospects look poised to make an impact in the NHL next season. However, Maggio can become the much-needed goal scorer the team needs. Like William Dufour, who was also drafted in the fifth round, he could become a draft steal who can be on the NHL roster in a few seasons and add youth to an aging roster. 

Islanders Have to Address Expiring Contracts & Aging Core

Zach Parise, Pierre Engvall, Scott Mayfield, and Semyon Varlamov are all pending unrestricted free agents. Parise is 38 years old, but oddly enough, the Islanders need him back in their lineup after he scored 21 goals and 13 assists this season. His future is uncertain, but he’s proven he can still play at a high level, making him a player that Lamoriello will try to sign to a team-friendly deal. Engvall, meanwhile, was acquired at the trade deadline and formed a strong connection with Palmieri, complementing his skill set. He made an argument for a raise and to become an integral part of the top six, but can the Islanders fit him under the salary cap?

Zach Parise New York Islanders
Zach Parise, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While both Parise and Engvall have made their case to be re-signed, Mayfield’s status is less certain. He’s 30 years old and still playing at a high level, but the Islanders’ defensive unit needs more youth in the lineup. With Sebastian Aho emerging as a reliable defenseman, five of the six spots in the lineup are filled, and to start next season, the Islanders can move Robin Salo, Samuel Bolduc, or another younger skater into that final spot. Moreover, after Lamoriello drafted two defensemen in 2022, selecting Calle Odelius in the second round and Isaiah George in the fourth round, there’s no urgency to re-sign Mayfield.

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Similarly, there’s no urgency for the team to re-sign Varlamov. Lamoriello favors a goaltending tandem that can split starts, but Sorokin proved that he can and will take on most of the workload after starting 60 of the 82 regular season games. Additionally, Varlamov is 34 years old and, at this point in his career, is a reliable backup. The Islanders might bring him back on a team-friendly contract, but more likely, they’ll look for an alternative backup option for Sorokin.

Then there’s Josh Bailey’s contract, which will likely be bought out this offseason. He’s under contract for one more season but is coming off a disappointing year. Bailey struggled offensively and became a liability before he was made a healthy scratch at the end of the season, and he never saw the ice in the playoffs. He’s the longest-tenured Islanders skater but the team needs salary cap space, so a buyout seems probable.

Josh Bailey New York Islanders
Josh Bailey, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The other issue that Lamoriello needs to address is the fourth line. Known as the “Identity Line”, the trio of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin has started to decline. They’ve been the best defensive and checking line on the team but have struggled in the offensive zone, and at times, their physical play cost the Islanders. In the First Round, Martin took multiple penalties, including one at the end of the first period of Game 4 that resulted in a Hurricanes goal, which helped them win the game 5-2. Fasching is primed for the fourth line, and Lamoriello needs to start thinking of which aging skater he can replace this offseason.

Islanders Missing Pieces

The Islanders need to add versatility to their forward unit and playmakers to their defense. They lacked both all season, and it cost them in the playoffs against the Hurricanes, who possessed versatility upfront and playmakers on the blue line. Adding defensive reinforcements will be a difficult task since five of the six starting positions are already taken, and the sixth will likely be given to a prospect. However, if Lamoreillo creates enough cap space to make a move, he needs to add a versatile skater to the middle of the forward unit.

The big problem is that it will be hard to find that type of player. The Islanders won’t have enough cap space to make a big signing, and there aren’t a lot of players who can be valuable additions while putting the offense over the top. Lamoriello has avoided free agency in recent offseasons and generally puts confidence in the team that is in place. That said, the Islanders need to add that missing piece. While they can return the same roster, this season showed that it is good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to compete in the Eastern Conference.

Among the top free agents available, the Islanders can realistically acquire Max Domi and Ivan Barbashev. Both forwards aren’t elite, but are versatile and can open up the offense. If the Islanders sign either one, their forward lines would look more or less like this:

Anders LeeBo Horvat Mathew Barzal
Pierre EngvallBrock NelsonKyle Palmieri
Domi/BarbashevJean-Gabriel PageauOliver Wahlstrom
Matt MartinCasey CizikasCal Clutterbuck

Other Notes for the Islanders’ Offseason Ahead

As mentioned, the team’s prospect pool is one of the worst in the league, and it only got worse after the Horvat trade. They traded away one of their top prospects, Aatu Raty, in the deal and their first-round selection in the upcoming draft. Despite minimal draft capital, Lamoriello must use his picks wisely to help improve the team’s farm system. After selecting two defensemen with his first three picks last year, he needs to target forwards who can join the NHL roster in a few years.

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Last year, Lamoriello used the Islanders’ first-round selection to acquire Romanov, giving the team a proven starter who became an integral part of the defense. He will always look to upgrade the roster with proven talent, but without a first-round pick in 2023, it’s unlikely he’ll make another splash.

The Islanders are in a unique situation this offseason. However, with the right moves, they can build off a strong season and become contenders for the Stanley Cup. Lamoriello’s tenure has been a rocky one, but overall, he’s kept the team competitive. Now, he needs to make the final moves to put them over the top.