As the NHL trade deadline approaches, the New York Islanders remain atop the tight Metropolitan Division. They own a two-point lead over the Washington Capitals for the division lead, and have one game in-hand.
As a team that was expected to begin rebuilding after losing John Tavares to free agency, the Islanders have been arguably the biggest surprise in the league this season. The key to their success has been their dynamic goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. The Islanders are leading the NHL with just 142 goals allowed this season.
Not only are the Islanders proving to be a dangerous postseason threat, but they also have a very strong group of prospects, including a pair of top-15 picks from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft — Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson.
Islanders Need to Improve Forward Depth
While the Islanders have allowed the fewest goals in the league, the team’s scoring is in the bottom-10. The team’s top two lines are solid, featuring second-year stud Matthew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee.
The return of Andrew Ladd, who’s been out with a lower-body injury since early November, will benefit the forward group but he scored just 12 goals in 73 games last season. The Islanders still need to beef up their bottom-six scoring if they want to make a deep postseason run.
Most players available on the market right now are rentals. The Islanders have plenty of cap space to work with this season, so money won’t be an issue in any deal they look to make. However, many of their skaters are pending free agents, including Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson. At present, the team shouldn’t have an issue retaining most of these players, but may not be able to re-sign whatever players they trade for.
While the Islanders should stock up to compete this season, it’s still a fairly big risk. The Islanders would be depleting their minor-league system and most likely some of their draft capital while adding more pending free agents. Even with the inherent risk, this team can make a deep playoff run and should build their team accordingly, especially in a relatively large open market this season.
Who Should Be the Islanders’ Top Targets?
Until the deadline passes, all eyes will be locked on the Ottawa Senators. The last-place Senators have three big-name forwards with expiring contracts: Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel. According to rumors, Duchene is a near-guarantee to be traded while Stone and Dzingel remain options in case Ottawa is unable to extend their contracts beforehand.
Unfortunately, should any of that trio be moved, it won’t be before a bidding war. Rather than having to overpay, the Islanders would be better off looking elsewhere, such as to their in-state rivals, the New York Rangers. The Rangers reportedly have a couple forwards who are on expiring contracts on the trading block: Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. On top of that, Chris Kreider has another season left on his contract but could likely be had for the right price.
Both Kreider and Hayes are regular 40-point scorers and Zuccarello has averaged roughly 58 points over three seasons from 2015 to 2018. Any of these three forwards would improve the Islanders’ top-nine and immediately increase the team’s scoring. It’s also worth noting that Kreider and Zuccarello were part of the 2013-14 Rangers squad that reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Also within the division are the New Jersey Devils and pending free agent Marcus Johansson. Though he’s been plagued with injuries over the last two seasons, the 28-year-old Swede scored 24 goals and 58 points during the 2016-17 campaign. With the Devils last in the Metropolitan, Johansson is likely to be moved to a team looking for top-six scoring and power-play help.
It’s not easy trading within your division, though, as the Islanders would hate to see their current prospects come back to burn them multiple times per season over the next decade. For this reason, they may look out west to fill out its roster. Teams such as the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings look ready to sell and could make a perfect fit for the Islanders.
After the Wild traded Charlie Coyle on Wednesday, the team might be ready to pack it in for the 2018-19 campaign. One of their top skaters, Eric Staal, is on an expiring contract and could bring back a strong return. Coming off a 42-goal season, Staal would not only bolster the top-six but also provide some veteran leadership as a former Cup winner.
The Kings have a handful of trade options, including Kyle Clifford and Ilya Kovalchuk. Clifford could be a relatively cheap bottom-six acquisition; he’s a physical, grinding player but doesn’t add a ton of offense. Acquiring him would make the most sense if the Islanders make a few other moves as he wouldn’t be enough to tip the scales on his own.
Kovalchuk would have the biggest impact on the Islanders’ offense. He has 13 goals in his first NHL season since 2012-13 but has another two seasons under contract at $6.25 million. Acquiring the 35-year-old winger would put a large dent in the team’s cap space and likely prevent them from retaining some of their pending free agents.
While the team already has a few key players who will need to be re-signed, they have enough cap space where it shouldn’t be an issue. Their deadline moves will come down solely to whether they are willing to part ways with some of their best prospects and draft capital. With just a few days left before the trade deadline, the Islanders have plenty of tough decisions to make. They can make a few acquisitions and have a real shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.