With all of the problems the New York Islanders had on defense the past season, it was the offense that drew the most ire from fans and criticism from the media (stop me if you’ve heard this before). General manager Lou Lamoriello made it clear on a number of occasions that he didn’t simply want to add players and instead, make deliberate hockey trades that will make his team better, specifically on offense.
This isn’t as clean-cut of an affair as it may seem. Not only are the Islanders dealing with just a hair over $12 million in cap space this offseason, each decision seemingly has its own subsequent consequences and reactions. This is especially true when you consider that Lamoriello also needs to address one or two holes on defense as well, which further complicates what assets and how much cap room is available to bring in a forward or two. Finally, there’s the matter of re-signing Noah Dobson and leaving some meat on the bone for a Mathew Barzal extension next summer. Lamoriello has his hands full no matter what moves he makes this summer. Let’s look at who the Islanders may target on offense and why certain decisions make sense – or not – as they look to improve the forward group.
Islanders’ Internal Candidates
Right off the bat, players like Otto Koivula – and likely any player in this section – aren’t going to move the needle much for where the Islanders really need it, which is on the first line. Couple that with the fact that Koivula has played just 20 games with the Islanders with declining numbers while in Bridgeport, and the 23-year-old restricted free agent (RFA) center is likely punching his ticket for the American Hockey League (AHL) next season barring an injury in New York.
Keiffer Bellows is in a different sort of limbo. The 23-year-old winger played the most NHL games in a season in 2021-22, and at times looked great. But a lot of the time, he looked out of place, and who could blame him? He was in and out of the lineup for two seasons, getting time in Bridgeport, but not really having a chance to jump in and get comfortable. He’s shown flashes of what he can do, though he’s been unable to find that spark on a regular basis. It’s likely he’ll be back as an extra forward, but with Zach Parise back and destined for the third line, Bellows will find himself on the outside looking in.
Simon Holmström’ (21) is just beginning to find his game at the professional level in North America. He had his best season so far in Bridgeport in 2021-22, scoring 12 goals and 43 points in 68 games. At such a young age, there’s little doubt that Lamoriello will allow him to marinate in the AHL for another two seasons (at least) before trying to see what he can do at the NHL level.
Aatu Raty (19) is highly coveted by Islander fans. Considered a first-round draft pick heading into the 2021 NHL Draft, Raty fell to 52nd overall and was snagged by the Islanders. He had a down year heading into the draft but seems to have turned that around considerably, especially after he was traded from Karpat to Jukurit in late October 2021. After the trade, he collected 40 points in 41 before joining Bridgeport for their last two regular-season games and the playoffs. He didn’t score his first point until the playoffs, then began to show why the Islanders may have found a diamond of a pick in the second round of the draft.
Raty scored four points in six games, which isn’t breaking any records, but showed how quickly he could adapt in North America. Knowing how Lamoriello operates, preferring veterans over younger players, it’s likely Raty gets at least a full season in Bridgeport before being called up unless he lights up the AHL and the Islanders need an additional scoring punch.
There’s not a good chance the Islanders will be able to truly upgrade their offense by adding from within. This isn’t a knock on what a player like Raty could come in and do, but the Islanders need a bonafide scorer to play with Barzal, and it’s likely going to need to come from outside the organization through free agency or trade.
Islanders’ Free Agent Targets
This is where things get interesting. The unrestricted free agent (UFA) market has a few players at the very top that are game-changers, plain and simple. Their addition to the team would make an immediate difference. A bit of the problem is the age of some of these players. They’re in their late 20s to early 30s and are likely looking for a six-year contract or more. The Islanders’ roster is full of these contracts, and adding another might open the window a bit more in the short-term, but could hurt them down the line. Is that a sacrifice worth making? It depends on who you ask.
Filip Forsberg (27) is coming off of his best offensive season yet. 42 goals and 84 points in 69 games is just what the doctor ordered for the Islanders, especially alongside Barzal. Despite those amazing numbers, there are two ways to go about considering Forsberg as a potential fit for the Islanders. The first considers the fact that he’d be playing with Barzal and likely to recreate his best NHL season fairly easily. The other isn’t as positive and questions his ability to put up that many goals and points again considering he’s played with some talented players with the Nashville Predators and he hasn’t scored more than 30 goals in over four seasons and never cracked 65 points until this past season.
While Forsberg is a gem this offseason, Johnny Gaudreau is the true prize of this year’s UFA class. 115 points in 82 games – with 40 goals to boot – should be giving Islander fans goosebumps just thinking about what he could do next to Barzal. The 28-year-old winger made $6.75 million during his last deal with the Calgary Flames and is likely expecting a significant upgrade. Outside of the two shortened NHL seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21), Gaudreau has only gotten better with age with no signs of slowing down. What could he demand in his next contract, and can the Islanders fit him in under the cap? It wouldn’t take a lot of gymnastics for Lamoriello to find a way to make this work financially, but that doesn’t mean it’s a piece of cake either.
Barzal needs a deal after this summer, and the two players could make within a million dollars or so of each other. $9 million isn’t out of the question for either player, putting some pressure on Lamoriello to lock up defender Noah Dobson on a team-friendly deal while leaving some funds for future deals for goalie Ilya Sorokin and at least one defender to upgrade the defense.
Islanders’ Trade Targets
The trade market might be where Lamoriello can ensure he gets the player he wants. Not to say there isn’t going to be competition, but it’s a little different than teams competing and throwing money at UFAs. There are some big names said to be available on the trade market, with varying levels of speculation attached to them. Lamoriello would prefer someone with at least two years left on a current deal, but there’s a nice middle ground here with an RFA that could make some sense.
David Pastrnak’s name has been bandied about over the last week, but that situation is far from settled with the Boston Bruins. Even if he’s available, it’s unlikely the Islanders can afford the asking price from the Bruins in terms of assets and would require Lamoriello to find the right price to re-sign him once his contract is up after the 2022-23 season. While both teams are in a time of transition, it would be difficult to make this trade happen. In any event, this deal would at least push the cap problems down the road a year, but trying to sign two-star players in Pastrnak and Barzal in one offseason may prove too much even for a veteran general manager like Lamoriello.
Alex DeBrincat (24) is a money-in-the-bank forward who is still young enough to continue to grow. He has one year left at $6.4 million, but he’s an RFA at the end of his deal. Now, that doesn’t mean his next deal won’t be a significant raise, but it could mean there’s a bit more power shifted over to the signing team, especially when that team is managed by Lamoriello. A player like DeBrincat opens the window wider in the short-term, and may even keep it open longer given his age. Because Lamoriello needs to add a second-pair defender next to Dobson as well, the assets he gives up here need to be carefully considered if he plans on going the trade route for that position as well. The Islanders don’t have a ton of assets, so it will take some serious planning to get it right while not selling too much of the farm, though for many DeBrincat would be worth it.
Kevin Fiala (25) is the best option on this list not named Gaudreau for a couple of reasons. The first – is he’s an RFA coming off of a $5.1 million deal. Not chump change, but even a new deal won’t call for what Gaudreau or DeBrincat will be asking for even if it’s a raise. The second, and perhaps more important – the Minnesota Wild are in terrible cap trouble heading into next season and can’t take roster players back the other way. Why is that good? It means Lamoriello has the option to trade a player like Anthony Beauvillier in a deal for a defender. Better yet, if Lamoriello signs a UFA defender and keeps Beauvillier while adding Fiala, you’re looking at one of the deepest Islander forward groups we’ve seen in years.
Beauvillier – Barzal – Fiala
Anders Lee – Brock Nelson – Oliver Wahlstrom
Zach Parise – J.G. Pageau – Kyle Palmieri
Matt Martin – Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck
It’s hard to look at that roster and not think this team would be in good shape. Now, it would be fair to say you’re putting an awful lot of faith in players like Beauvillier, Wahlstrom, and Palmieri who got off to terrible starts last season. But if they can’t make it happen playing with these lines, it’s truly time to think about how to move on from them. Fiala would add a considerable punch to that top unit and may even exceed his career-best 85 points skating next to Barzal and Beauvillier. Not to mention that line would be playing with a motivated Barzal in a contract year, so the sky is truly the limit on what they could do together.
Whether Lamoriello goes the UFA or trade route, he absolutely has to upgrade the Islanders’ offense this offseason. The Islanders’ offense gave it everything they could during their two long playoff runs, but it was clear during the 2021-22 season that the team needed to add a player or two in order to truly compete. We’re all waiting with bated breath, as many have been for over a decade, for a top winger to play with a star center. Can Lamoriello make it happen?
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.