This is the final piece of a three-part series that breaks down the Islanders’ short and long term outlook by position. You can check out the previous deep dives on the goalies and the defense where linked.
The 2019-20 Islanders are a pretty familiar bunch.
This is true throughout the lineup but especially up front where 11 of Friday’s 12 forwards appeared in at least one game for New York last year. The only change to speak of is a swap at the third-line center position: free agent Derick Brassard was signed to a one-year deal replacing the departed Valtteri Filppula (who signed a two-year deal to rejoin the Red Wings).
The lack of roster churn is a bit surprising given the Isles’ pronounced understanding that scoring goals was a bit of an issue last season. The team did actively try to acquire a “big fish” at last year’s trading deadline (Mark Stone) and in free agency (Artemi Panarin), but neither worked out.
As such, there’s not much to speak of in terms of changes as this season begins. GM Lou Lamoriello was able to re-sign the prominent trio of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle to long-term extensions (more on that below), which created a pattern of retention that the Isles don’t usually see.
Similar to last week, the structure for this piece will be to look at the Isles’ projected lines and how they stack up in both the near-term and beyond. All of the isolated impact charts you see below are from the invaluable Micah Blake McCurdy and HockeyViz.com.
The Starting Lineup
Anders Lee – Mathew Barzal – Jordan Eberle
The Islanders’ top line is built with a mix of speed, playmaking, and goal-scoring ability. It’s a nice mesh of styles, which combined with their collective skill should keep expectations pretty high.
Let’s start with the (electrifying) Mathew Barzal, who is entering his third full season and final year of his entry level contract. Barzal, now 22 years old, did see a production drop during Barry Trotz’s inaugural season with the team, while improving his defensive impact by miles. The general thinking is that his development is ready for that offensive resurgence, which means makes his entry level contract extremely valuable to this year’s team.
In general, there’s nothing more valuable than entry level contracts – a thought that’s compounded when the franchise becomes reliant on such a player to be a top scorer. That’s the case with Barzal, which means the Isles’ best chances to maximize his presence on the team is… now.
He’ll be flanked to start by Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, two players who just signed long-term extensions with the team. Lee, the team’s captain, was re-signed on July 1 to a 7-year, $49 million deal keeping him with the club through his age 36 season. It’s a long time for a player who makes his living at the front of the net, but he is elite at what he does. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Lee has scored the 13th most goals (102) in the league. If nothing else, this is a tried and true example of a team paying for production and when tied with everything else Lee does for the team makes this a worthwhile signing (especially in the short-term).
Jordan Eberle is one of the more underrated players in the league in terms of his offensive impact. After a disappointing regular season, Eberle’s production regressed upwards in the playoffs where he had 9 points in 8 games, continuing a symbiotic relationship with Barzal on the team’s first line that started in 2017-18. His five-year extension came in at a reasonable $5.5 million AAV, which should produce a reasonable ROI unless his game totally drops off in his early 30s.
Between all three players, the Islanders have a formidable first line that should be a real pain to defend.
Michael Dal Colle - Brock Nelson - Josh Bailey
The Islanders look to be going with an all homegrown second line to start the season, with the extended Brock Nelson centering Josh Bailey and Michael Dal Colle.
After being written off as a bust, Michael Dal Colle pretty much came out of nowhere as a viable NHL player. He appeared in 28 games, scoring just 3 goals but made a huge impact on the defensive side of the ice from both a rates and impact perspective.
Dal Colle signed a two year contract over the summer with an AAV of $700K, which will keep him as a restricted free agent when it’s done. The deal is cost efficient relative to his production expectation, and allows for other higher priced deals to fit into the cap hierarchy. While it is tough to say specifically where Dal Colle’s offensive ceiling will land, the team will be able use this contract to better pinpoint that potential.
His centerman, Brock Nelson, signed a considerably more lucrative extension early in the summer: a six year, $36 million ($6 million AAV) contract with a full no-trade clause this year and next (it’s modified thereafter). Nelson looked like a reformed player last year, as he scored 25 goals for the second time in his career.
Nelson’s best work was on the defensive side of the puck, where he showed positive impacts to coincide with his plus-shooting ability. There’s a little long term concern with his deal — aging curves as combined with his skating. But he’s both intelligent and durable meaning there is every chance he will provide tangible stability down the middle in the long-term.
On the right wing of this line is Josh Bailey, who remains… pretty underrated. Bailey has five years remaining on a long-term extension he signed during the 2017-18 season, but at just a $5 million AAV it’s become a real value for the Islanders. Bailey capped off his third consecutive 50 point season with an overtime goal in Game 1 of the Isles’ series against Pittsburgh, and showed to be a legitimate (isolated) offensive play driver throughout the season. It’s true he’s been around a while and that he was drafted under weird-ish circumstances, but that’s no reason to sleep on the type of player he has developed into.
This line will ultimately contribute offensively as Bailey goes, whereas Dal Colle and Nelson will drive more of the defensive play. On paper, this line looks to be solid but there are legitimate questions of if they will offensively be able to handle “second line production” as a group, which could hamstring the Isles over time due to their bottom two lines having less offensive talent to speak of.
Anthony Beauvillier - Derick Brassard - Leo Komarov
This year’s projected third line starts to show their forward depth flaws. Anthony Beauvillier is the highlight of this line, recently the beneficiary of a two year extension that will earn him $2.1 million AAV per year. Beauvillier is a pretty good offensive player, with offensive impacts tangibly presentable in his game. He’s mostly a good shooter, which is obviously a reason why he has 39 goals over the last two years. What remains somewhat unclear is his ability to drive a line without Mathew Barzal, which is something he will need to develop on the line he’s currently penciled with.
Derick Brassard will center this line after signing a 1-year, $1.2 million contract in free agency. He struggled a lot last season and does not appear to be the player that he was with the New York Rangers for the majority of this decade. The good news? The Isles are not wedded to his deal — he’ll need to produce or else the team could move to one of their younger centers, notably Finnish prospect Otto Koivula who had a standout season in Bridgeport last year. In terms of signing reclamation projects, it’s harder to get better value than the deal Brassard agreed to.
Finally, Leo Komarov will take the same spot he was in last season on the right wing. Komarov is an interesting player — he’s really not bad from an overall impact perspective (and is pretty good defensively), but he struggles in some critical areas that bring his overall value down. For example, he appears to have very low shooting ability, evidenced by 13 goals in his last 156 games. He also takes a lot more penalties than he draws, anecdotally occurring at really bad times. These issues rightfully overshadow what he does do capably (defense), and when combined with his massive contract (three years left at $3 million AAV) creates a gap between his perceived value and his actual value.
This line generally feels like it’s “there,” which is not to say that it will be a tangible detriment. But it doesn’t feel like they will necessarily be helpful either, which could be a big problem given how important a strong third line has become league-wide in recent years.
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
For as weird as the Isles’ third line is, their fourth line remains pretty much as good as advertised… on the ice.
Off the ice, there’s the financial reality that these three players cost an astronomical-for-their-roles $9.35 million on the cap this year. And that’s the type of factor that needs to be weighed when looking at the overall efficacy of the line. It’s not especially fair because as a line they are really good for their roles, but it begs the question of whether it’s worth paying this much money for a line that can reasonably be counted on for ~30 goals a year. Probably not.
Where the line truly shines is defensively, as all three players are objectively strong at that end of the rink. Barry Trotz has frequently trusted them in defensive-minded, high-leverage situations, which makes sense given their collective ability to suppress opposing chances.
There’s a big juxtaposition with the idea of defense, as it remains a pretty big area of opportunity in the hockey analytics world. How that then compounds itself with how much you should pay players who specialize in defense is where there creates relative ambiguity. In other words, does the Cizikas line actually provide ~$10 million in value annually because of their defensive play? That’s probably unlikely, but it’s a valid question and one that needs to be asked when discussing things like cap allocation.
That’s not to disparage their on-ice achievements, which are legitimate. All of that creates something along the lines of weirdness when evaluating them. We know they are good at defense, but we don’t know the true value of what defense means... we just know that it probably is of some value.
In The Mix
Tom Kuhnhackl, Ross Johnston
There were a lot of questions when the Islanders kept Tom Kuhnhackl and Ross Johnston on their roster heading into the season, but it should not have come as a major surprise. Both players fit the “lunchpail” role: they work hard in practice and are considered overall “team guys.”
Their presence on the roster fell right into the big story early in the week — “why the Islanders would keep these guys over Josh Ho-Sang?” (more on this below)
While this is a fair question, the Islanders’ roster construction strategy has been to keep these types of players as their short-term extras. And truth be told, there is some validity to it. Tom Kuhnhackl will never be confused as an offensive producer, but he does hold defensive value especially in 1-2 game samples. Where he gets exposed is when he is doing things like playing in a top-6 role for eight playoff games, but that can’t be the general expectation in terms of what will happen this year.
Ross Johnston is surprisingly strong offensively and is adequate enough defensively to have real value, and could be groomed this season to take over for Matt Martin should the latter depart in free agency after the season. Johnston still has three years left at a $1 million AAV, which probably made him “waivable,” but if the team does see him as a regular fixture in the future, it does hold value for them to not potentially sacrifice him for nothing. It should be noted that Johnston’s play comes with a limited amount of minutes, so there could be some volatility in his impacts over time — still the early returns are encouraging and filling a fourth line spot with a $1 million player is right in line with a strong cap hierarchy.
Tanner Fritz, Josh Ho-Sang
Of course, the above roster decisions spelled the end of Josh Ho-Sang on the Isles’ NHL roster… for now. Ho-Sang, basically the Isles’ version of “Yanny or Laurel” at this point, cleared waivers and was sent to the AHL on Tuesday. He’s a difficult player to analyze. While his impacts look incredible, he’s a very reluctant shooter who has just 50 shots on goal in 53 career NHL games. That type of hesitance is unlikely to create him any coaching allies and it also makes his offensive efficacy tougher to understand.
He’s an extremely thoughtful person with an edge of nonconformity, which goes against most “hockey culture” rules, and adds to the complicated nature of his situation. Regardless, he’s analytically strong — especially in transition, which is something the Islanders need pretty badly. Their decision to waive him was a sign that the team feels whatever benefits he tangibly does provide do not necessarily outweigh any off-ice “things” or any more microstat insight that only a system like the commissioned ICEBERG could really quantify. There’s simply a lot unknown here.
NOTE: Soon after this was posted, it became clear Ho-Sang had not reported to Bridgeport...on instructions from Lou Lamoriello...because Ho-Sang’s rep had asked for a trade.
Tanner Fritz also cleared waivers and was sent to Bridgeport, where he will be one of the team’s top two centers (alongside Otto Koivula). He’s a versatile guy who has been very playable throughout his career. The Isles still have little center depth, so it seems likely he will find his way back to the main squad at some point. He’s also on a two year contract, which at least creates something of “tweener continuity,” potentially a helpful element year-over-year as he is acclimated to the Trotz system with the ability to pitch in when needed.
Oliver Wahlstrom, Otto Koivula, Simon Holmstrom, Kieffer Bellows
The Islanders have a few key prospects that will be in Bridgeport this year, which gives them more upside at the AHL level than they’ve had in some time. One of the main things Lou Lamoriello has stressed is a commitment to winning across the entire organization, something that started to tangibly present itself with Bridgeport’s playoff appearance last season. Now, the Sound Tigers will have both Oliver Wahlstrom for a full season and 2019 first rounder Simon Holmstrom as well, which will set the Isles up with four of their main prospects in the system this season.
But perhaps the closest player to the NHL level is center Otto Koivula, who basically came out of nowhere last season to produce 20 goals. He’s certainly on the radar in terms of making an impact, especially if one of the Isles’ centers falls to injury.
Lamoriello: Wahlstrom showed a lot in his last preseason game at MSG last week. "He's close." Will start in BPT.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) September 30, 2019
Oliver Wahlstrom is next up on that list. Considered “close” by Lou Lamoriello, Wahlstrom had a rough go at Boston College before ultimately signing with the Islanders at the end of the season. He contributed 7 points in 10 games at Bridgeport (combining regular season and playoff games), and looked much improved in this training camp. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him with the Islanders this season, especially if there is a slot in the top-6 at some point.
As mentioned above, the Islanders delivered some good news regarding Simon Holmstrom on Wednesday. The decision to stay with the Sound Tigers seems mutually beneficial, with the Islanders getting Holmstrom in a winning environment and on their internal development plan while Holmstrom is able to adjust to the North American game at the AHL level with many of the resources that the Islanders have to offer. It’s too early to tell if Holmstrom will be remotely ready to play with the Islanders this year (unlikely), but his full-time arrival to the continent is certainly a step in the right direction.
Kieffer Bellows had a tough time adjusting to the professional game last season, scoring just 19 points in 73 games. After a promising 2018-19 pre-season, the Islanders sent him down and it never really seemed like he recovered from there. Bellows does have two years left on his entry level deal and there is plenty of time and room for improvement, but if he has another disappointing year he will fall of the radar very fast.
The rest of the Isles’ depth chart can generally be divided into three parts:
The Other Prospects
Mason Jobst, Bobo Carpenter, Arnaud Durandeau
Mason Jobst and Grant Hutton also impressed during their camp stay. Interested to see how they're deployed in BPT.— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) September 25, 2019
Of the three, Jobst certainly was the most impressive during camp, but he is already 25 so his time to really make an impact is now. At the very least, he looked at home in an energizing type of role, which fits into the type of spot that could be open in the future either at center or wing.
Carpenter missed all of camp, so it’s hard to get a true gauge of where he sits. He’ll start in Bridgeport and does add some center depth to a pretty thin group. Durandeau is an interesting wild-card, as he was a 7th round pick that basically turned himself into a viable professional option over the years. He’ll be one to key in on with the Sound Tigers to see how he adjusts and if there is a possible NHL future for him.
Colin McDonald, Matt Lorito, Travis St. Denis, Cole Bardreau
This selection is the stability of the group. For the large amount of prospects the Isles will have in Bridgeport this year, these guys will be the ones to help them along. Colin McDonald is the obvious highlight of the group, as he returns for his second stint with the Isles’ organization. McDonald has always been a solid player and better teammate, so it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if he gets another game or two with the big club. He’ll need to outplay his younger competition, but that culture can breed success throughout the organization.
A Listing of Other Players Not Yet Signed
Logan Cockerill, Reese Newkirk, Blade Jenkins, Cole Coskey, Felix Bibeau
Of note, Logan Cockerill is one to watch as he enters his junior season at Boston University. He played for the United States World Junior team last year, scoring just 1 point in 7 games but even being named to that team is an achievement in itself. He hasn’t been a big scorer at BU, which leaves some doubt as to what he’ll be in the long term, but it should be enough to get on the Isles’ radar.
Blake Jenkins is coming off a real solid year with Saginaw of the OHL, attaining 59 points in 67 games. He played with Isles prospect Bode Wilde on that team, and is a likely candidate to be signed after this season.
The other three players were all 2019 draft picks and are back in juniors. The Isles will need to look closely at Felix Bibeau, who is the captain of the Quebec Ramparts, as he is entering his fifth and final junior season.
Short Term Outlook - C-
The hard truth is that the Islanders needed more scoring pop after last year, an issue they admitted but could not solve during this year’s off-season period. There is some high end talent on the team, highlighted prominently by Mathew Barzal. Anders Lee is right behind him as an elite net front presence, but after that there’s a mix of a few good players (Nelson, Bailey, Eberle) and then a lot of defensive minded forwards. That makes it tough to pronounce the Isles as anything more than a below average offensive team as a result, which puts more pressure on their defense and goaltending to be just as good as last year to achieve similar results.
Surely, the forwards can help in the defensive end and that can help to mitigate offensive woes, but because this is still hockey, there is inherent randomness that occurs. That randomness helped the Isles to success last year, but is a great unknown as to how it will help or hurt the team this year. The best way to mitigate such randomness is offensive skill, and that’s where the Islanders fall short relative to their competitors. For all of the positives of the team’s goalies and defense, it’s not a stretch to say offense is the team’s biggest deficiency.
As a result, their grade is must fall below the average. There are certainly scenarios where the offense does perform better than expected, but that can’t be relied upon and ultimately could break their season.
Long Term Outlook - D
Long term the outlook is a bit… bleak. The Islanders made a commitment to keeping their core from last year together, which required them to hand out a trio of long-term deals to players who will be under contract well into their 30s. Combine those deals with existing long-term contracts to Andrew Ladd, Cal Clutterbuck, Josh Bailey, and Leo Komarov and their situation becomes a bit dicey. That’s not to say the team is in peril, but it does mean they will need to be creative moving forward — especially with Mathew Barzal likely due a large raise and especially if any of their younger prospects become NHL players.
As mentioned in earlier pieces, roster churn is good. But because the team is locked into a lot of long term deals, that churn becomes a lot harder to achieve. The result of that is pretty straightforward: they will be locked in to much of this same core going forward. So in a vacuum, these deals are all pretty solid but overall, it presents a pretty interesting situation where the team is beholden to aging players whose play will likely see a production drop over time.
So, it’s a tough spot. On one hand, it’s a really good thing the Islanders were able to retain their core. They are clearly in win-now mode (as they should be with Barzal still on his entry-level deal), but there are valid questions related if they have done enough to actually win now. If they can’t, it is quite possible they will be stuck with a lot of bad contracts. Bad contracts take time to maneuver (either through trade, buyouts, or time), which if all of these players age in congruence could impact the Isles’ on-ice success over time.
That is a negative way to look at things, but it’s also the result of the team having a lot of liability on the books in the long term. Put another way, the Islanders will owe over $23.5 million to four forwards over 30 years old in 2023-24. And while it’s true the cap has the potential to increase with a new CBA and a new television deal, it’s also wrong to assume that it will increase in such a manner that renders this concern moot.
Cap space — especially long-term cap space — is one of the most valuable assets a team can have. The Isles fall short there… which means their time to win has to be now.