How Can the Islanders Add Scoring Depth?

For New York Islanders fans, the quiet summer their team is having is difficult to ignore. After striking out on Artemi Panarin on July 1, it’s been radio silence from the Islanders’ brass with the exception of signing center Derick Brassard to a one-year deal and goalie Semyon Varlamov to a five-year deal. What’s worse for Islander fans? Cross-river-rivals New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers have gotten better, adding to an already competitive Metropolitan Division and overall Eastern Conference.

Their success last season hinged on solid defense and goaltending, but it was clear all season long that they needed help scoring goals. To find it, it’s come down to two options: a trade or find players within the organization who can take the next step.

The Trade Market

In early Oct. 2014, just days before the Islanders first game of the 2014-15 season, then-general manager Garth Snow traded for two defensemen: Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. It’s been a few years, a couple of coaches, and a new GM — Lou Lamoriello — since the Islanders were involved in a trade that significant. In that time, the roster has changed dramatically, but they’re still looking for the offensive depth they’ve been missing since the early-1990s.

To fill that depth, the Islanders have the pieces to make a deal for a top-six forward — namely an abundance of defensemen. The Islanders have just a hair over $6.7 million in cap space, but keep in mind that Andrew Ladd’s future with the Islanders is still questionable and Anthony Beauvillier (RFA) still doesn’t have a new contract. Ladd will more than likely start the season on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), but the Islanders can’t use that saved space unless he’s out the entire year. (LTIR is complicated, so I’ll direct you to fellow Hockey Writers contributor Jim Parsons’ article on the David Clarkson trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs to give you a better idea of the Islanders’ situation with Ladd.)

Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin New York Islanders Nick Leddy
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin skates with the puck against New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Islanders defensive depth includes proven NHL players Leddy, Boychuk, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Pulock, Thomas Hickey, and Devon Toews. That’s just who’s on the roster right now. Don’t forget that Sebastian Aho and Mitchell Vande Sompel are knocking on the door. Additionally, the Islanders need to make a decision on Noah Dobson, the 12th-overall pick in the 2018 draft who won back-to-back Canadian Hockey League Memorial Cups. If he doesn’t make the Islanders roster, he has to go back to juniors, which some think may hinder his growth

Whoever the Islanders decide to part with from their defensive group or otherwise, there are a few available players they could take a look at from TSN’s Trade Bait list.

The Minnesota Wild’s Jason Zucker was the subject of a potential trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in June, but it was vetoed by Phil Kessel, who has a modified no-trade clause. Eventually, Kessel found his way to the Arizona Coyotes. However, Zucker is still a member of the Wild and a potential target for the Islanders. His three straight seasons of 20 or more goals, including 33 during the 2017-18 season, would add much-needed support upfront in the top-six. The Wild may not be interested in Leddy or another defender, so if Zucker was the target, Lamoriello would need to find another way to entice former Islander captain and newly named Wild GM, Bill Guerin. The 27-year-old Zucker has four years left on his contract that pays him $5.5 million per season and a modified no-trade clause, which could also add some complexity to the situation.

Minnesota Wild Jason Zucker Washington Capitals John Carlson
Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker shoots against Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Nikolaj Ehlers trade rumors have been swirling around for a few months to the confusion of many. But, if you’re the New York Islanders, adding a 23-year-old, proven 20-goal scorer to your team at $6 million for six years is a no brainer. My Hockey Writers colleague Rob Mahon mentions in his article that the Winnipeg Jets’ missing piece on defense shouldn’t be added by trading Ehlers.

“The Jets are facing a cap crunch and a sudden lack of depth on the right side on defense. Both are problems that deserve solutions, but trading Ehlers is the wrong answer to the right question.”

Rob Mahon, The Hockey Writers

Nothing has connected Ehlers with the Islanders, but it’s clear the Islanders have some pieces that would help the Jets solve their problem on the back end and Ehlers would be a welcome addition to the Islanders top-six.

Nick Ritchie Nikolaj Ehlers
Anaheim Ducks left wing Nick Ritchie chases down Winnipeg Jets left wing Nikolaj Ehlers (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Hoffman, 29, is entering the last year of a four-year deal making just over $5 million. Coming off of a 36 goal season, he is a scoring threat that would look great next to Mathew Barzal. There are a couple of obstacles for the Islanders, though. The first is that he also has a modified no-trade clause. In February, just before the trade deadline, the Panthers asked Hoffman to submit a 10-team trade list, but they didn’t find a trade partner.

The second obstacle is that the Panthers went out and made big splashes this offseason, including landing head coach Joel Quenneville and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, which may make Hoffman want to stay in south Florida. Additionally, they signed free-agent Anton Stralman and have some decisions to make on the back end, so trading Hoffman for Leddy, for example, may not be in the Panthers’ interest. Rumors linked the Islanders to Hoffman at the trade deadline, but nothing came of it. Could they make a deal now?

Florida Panthers Mike Hoffman
Florida Panthers Mike Hoffman (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Why they should make a trade: Dependability goes a long way and on a team desperate for more goals, it’ll be difficult to turn down a player that knows how to find the back of the net season after season. It also gives some of the Islanders’ younger players another year or two to develop in the AHL, much to their chagrin.

Why they shouldn’t: A proven track record is great, but finding a player that fills a gap for your team on paper doesn’t mean it’ll work out on the ice. It may also put the team in a cap situation next season when they need to find the money for a new Barzal contract.

Looking Within

If you take a look at the Islanders back end, it’s filled with homegrown talent. Mayfield, Pelech, Pulock, and Toews aren’t just placeholders as the team waits for prospects to develop; they’re the foundation of the Islanders defense core. The Islanders can find players within their system to fill the scoring gap the same way they’ve built a solid defensive group while keeping up with the league-wide trend to go younger.

Michael Dal Colle got his first real crack at the NHL during the 2018-19 season after a total of 34 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers where he averaged a point per game. While his point totals over his 28 NHL games weren’t impressive — three goals and seven points over that span — he molded his game to fit the NHL and earned the trust of coach Trotz and Lou Lamoriello. While he quickly became one of the Islanders’ better defensive forwards, he could benefit offensively playing with Brassard on the third line.

Michael Dal Colle - Islanders
Michael Dal Colle, New York Islanders, September 17, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Joshua Ho-Sang just signed a one-year deal with the Islanders, presumably to give the 23-year-old another shot at making it with this team before they use him as trade bait. He was a controversial pick back in 2014, but his raw talent, which Islander fans have only seen glimpses of, was difficult to pass up. His speed and playmaking ability would add a serious punch up front for the Islanders. A knock against him has been his pass-first mentality, though the larger issue continues to be his attitude and immaturity. It’s clear Islanders management hasn’t given up on him, but can he be a difference-maker this season?

Josh Ho-Sang - Islanders
Josh Ho-Sang, New York Islanders, September 17, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Otto Koivula made a name for himself within the Islanders organization during the 2018-19 season. He was second on the Sound Tigers in goals scored with 21 and collected 46 points in 69 games, proving he could translate his skill to North American ice. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound winger would add some size and skill to the Islanders third line with Brassard and another to-be-determined winger. It’s likely he won’t get a shot right out of camp, but he could be an early call up if he continues his solid play in the AHL.

Why they should look within: With cap flexibility a rarity in today’s NHL, it may be wise to look within the organization for players who are aching for their chance to prove themselves, especially if they’re on entry-level deals. Additionally, a lot of other teams have found success in utilizing their younger players, and if there’s any coach who can mold a rookie into a difference-maker, it’s Barry Trotz.

Why they shouldn’t: Unproven players are difficult to depend on, particularly when you have a team like the Islanders who, as of last season, are on the cusp of significant growth as a franchise. Adding a proven 20- or 30-goal scorer and a known playmaker could add confidence to a team ready to take the next step. Though too much time in the AHL isn’t good for player development, giving a player full-time NHL responsibilities could also hinder growth. Can any of the aforementioned players, or even those not mentioned in this article, help the Islanders now? It’s a gamble.

Despite these possibilities, it’s possible that Lamoriello uses what’s at his disposal, which includes Tanner Fritz, Tom Kunhackl, and Ross Johnston. This wouldn’t surprise anyone considering his track record as a GM often choosing veterans over rookies. With the season quickly approaching, a decision on the Islanders roster should be coming soon.