Islanders’ Options to Upgrade Defense

Barring any moves, the New York Islanders will start the offseason with a shade over $12 million in cap space, enough to make something happen, but general manager Lou Lamoriello will need to shed some money to make an impact this summer. The Islanders’ back end was buoyed by the excellent play of star goaltender Ilya Sorokin, but if the team plans on getting back into the playoffs, they’ll need to add a defenseman or two, which will put Lamoriello on the hot seat going into 2022-23. Following a breakout year, Noah Dobson needs a partner on the second pair, and so does veteran Scott Mayfield. They both need a left-shot defender and it’s anyone’s guess where he will find these upgrades.

Islanders’ Internal Candidates

There aren’t many options on the table internally for the Islanders, as they would all likely be destined for the third pair. Grant Hutton (26) got a bit of a look this past season and was generally fine. His play didn’t stand out one way or another, which may be just as much of a reflection on the team’s style as it is on his ability. A right-shot defender, the Islanders are locked up at that position, especially if Mayfield anchors the third pair. Hutton knows the system well having been around the team for some time, so he may be a good option as the seventh defender if they have the room. He is also one of a few Group 6 Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), so this all hinges on if the Islanders bring him back at all.

Parker Wotherspoon (24) led all Bridgeport Islanders defenders in scoring last season with 24 points in 57 games. He’s a veteran American Hockey League (AHL) player at this point, playing 266 games over the last seven seasons. Still a bit of a youngster as far as defenders go, so unless he impresses at camp, he might find it difficult to crack the roster. Strategic call-ups this past season saw Hutton and Paul LaDue get some time with the big club, so that’s not a knock on his game and more about where the holes were in the lineup at the time. Either way, it seems more likely the organization allows Wotherspoon, a restricted free agent (RFA) this summer, some time to see if he can maintain his play in the upcoming season and evaluate from there.

Related: Islanders’ Player Grades 2021-22: Defense & Goalies

Robin Salo (23) is the cream of the Islanders’ crop and gets a bit more real estate here given that designation. He played 21 games with the Islanders this past season as defenders dropped like flies due to injuries and COVID-19. In those games, he collected five points and, frankly, played pretty well. There were definitely moments that produced some “he’s learning the North American game” comments, but nothing egregious. He was a half a point-per-game player with Bridgeport, scoring 20 points in 40 games, and, at 23, is at a similar pace to Islander star defensemen Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, who made the jump around the same time, though after much more seasoning in the AHL. The difference here is that Salo played a number of years in some of the top European leagues, so he may be more seasoned than his 60-plus games in North America let on.

As a left shot, he’s likely to play with Mayfield on the third pair. It’s possible he impresses the team at camp to play alongside Dobson, but that doesn’t seem very likely considering the emphasis Lamoriello puts on veterans. With that being said, he may split time with a veteran on the third pair. If I had to guess, if Andy Greene returns, he could split time – to what degree is anyone’s guess – with Salo next to Mayfield to ease him into the lineup, in what some have called the “Dobson treatment.” This would take a bit of pressure off of him but give him a chance to really prove himself on a somewhat regular basis.

Sebastian Aho (26) is another option that has spent time with the big club and is now a veteran with Bridgeport. Another Group 6 UFA, in 36 games, he produced 12 points last season and could be a decent, cheap option to plug up that hole next to Mayfield. He may even be the best option to split time with Salo, keeping the cap hit to a minimum and limiting his ice time and gameplay next to the up-and-coming Finnish defender. He’s far from flashy, but he’s generally played ok. The question is – will that be enough for the Islanders to re-sign him this offseason?

Islanders’ Free Agent Targets

If internal candidates can’t fill the holes on the second and third pair, Lamoriello may look to the free-agent market this summer. The UFA market for left-handed defenders isn’t great, and at first glance, most of the players would fit better on the third pair than the second. But, with how he likes to construct his rosters, erring towards some veterans, a cheaper, short-term deal on one of the following players may make sense even though the team needs to get younger.

Ben Chiarot (31) won’t blow you away, but he’s a pretty tough customer with decent underlying numbers. This may seem like a small detail to put up front for him, but with how the Islanders struggled in their own end this season, it’s the type of thing fans are hoping Lamoriello is searching for as he looks to improve this team. It’s all about the right fit, and, next to Mayfield, Chiarot could be a nice addition. However, this likely means Salo wouldn’t get much of a look at the NHL level, so take that for what it’s worth.

Ben Chiarot Florida Panthers
Ben Chiarot, Florida Panthers (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Ian Cole (33), like Chiarot, is a true veteran with even more playoff experience. He’s bounced around the last few seasons and has been a bit of a nomad his entire career. He’s played on defensive-minded teams and won back-to-back Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins not too long ago. Far from flashy, his underlying numbers are fairly solid at five-on-five, making him a nice addition next to Mayfield at the right price. Similar to Chiarot, Cole coming to the Islanders would also mean Salo doesn’t get much ice time at the NHL level.

Nick Leddy (31) is an interesting option, though only as a third-pair defender next to Mayfield. He knows the Islanders system and may return on a bit of a deal after being traded to Detroit – and later the St. Louis Blues at the deadline – due to his cap hit. With limited minutes on the third pair, he may be yet another option, and perhaps the best one on this list, to split time with Salo. Who better to teach him the offensive part of the game than one of the best defensive skaters in the NHL? His history with Mayfield is also a plus and, with more sheltered minutes and less responsibility – they previously played as the Islanders’ second pair – this could be a pretty easy choice for Lamoriello.

Islanders’ Trade Targets

Lamoriello has mentioned that players with term are the preferred choice, which gives us a bit of insight into who he may be considering in a possible trade. However, there aren’t always a ton of options that fit that exact mold, so the options may also include some players with as little as one year who are still RFAs.

Vince Dunn (25) was rumored to be a possible target around the league last summer too and could be a nice addition next to Dobson. The left-shot defender has one year left at $4 million and could come with offensive upside, which could jive well with Dobson if he can play the other side of the puck. Dunn’s possession metrics also look pretty good, with a positive Corsi and Fenwick even on a team that struggled this last season in the Seattle Kraken. He’s played 340 NHL games, ticking an important veteran box for Lamoriello.

Vince Dunn, Seattle Kraken
Vince Dunn, Seattle Kraken (Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images)

The star in Islander fans’ eyes is most certainly Jakob Chychrun. The 24-year-old left-shot defender has three more seasons at $4.6 million on the books and would be quite the addition to the Islanders’ top-four next to Dobson. After giving up Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche in what many continue to call a failed trade for Lamoriello, this would certainly right that wrong. With only one playoff appearance in six seasons with the Coyotes, Chychrun has never really had a fair shake in the NHL, yet still managed to put up some decent points from the back end. He had a career-high 41 points in 56 games during the abbreviated 2020-21 campaign, and though he took a bit of a step back in production this past season, who could blame him? Chychrun and Dobson would make quite the second pair and could even overtake Pulock and Pelech at some point down the line.

With a necessary offseason of change looming for Lamoriello and the Islanders, these choices will be put under a microscope. After high hopes for the team were dashed very early in the 2021-22 season, upgrades on defense especially will be necessary for the team to get back into contention next season. However, these decisions get sticky when you consider the team’s available cap space along with the need to upgrade the offense at the same time.

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