The New York Islanders are in an interesting position as the 2019 free agency period kicks off: They are coming off a surprising fifth-overall points total from 2018-19, their highest regular season finish since the dynasty era, and yet they know they need significant improvements to their roster after being swept out of the second round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes.
That “we need to improve” mantra is true of any team that fell short, but it’s particularly so for a team that benefited from some outlier performances.
- Robin Lehner with a top-five save percentage (.930) and top-three goals saved above average (26.24 GSAA)
- Casey Cizikas with a 20-goal season, a career high
- UFA Valtteri Filppula with a 17-goal season at age 34 (he last reached that total in 2013-14)
- Very stable health on the blueline, except for Thomas Hickey (which paved the way for Devon Toews, a significant upgrade to the team overall) and Johnny Boychuk (who annually battles injuries yet still played 74 games)
This is not to discredit the seasons by any of the above. Lehner’s rebound after sorting out personal afflictions was real, but to expect him to be that good again is a big ask. (Some solace: Thomas Greiss was also among the league leaders, which you can read as either a double-outlier-luck or the sign of great coaching and goalie staff coaxing a sustainable rebound out of both goalies.)
Cizikas’ offensive ability has long been underrated thanks to tough assignments, regressive roles, and weaker linemates. But still. His 18 percent shooting percentage was nearly double his norm.
Filppula ended up being quite useful and justifying the team’s faith in him on a one-year deal, but that just underlines the need to replace him as he likely walks away. (Tanner Fritz is signed and quietly effective, but in a different way. And if all of this moves Leo Komarov to quasi-center, then this is our concern, Dude.)
So anyway, even beyond what mocking pundits publish, these outliers give good reason to question whether the Islanders can repeat their 2018-19 even if they brought the same roster back. But of course they won’t do that; some roster turnover is inevitable.
Which brings us to the free agent targets. Fortunately, the Islanders have already re-signed Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to what some (in the former) or most (in the latter) would consider cheaper than expected deals. (Nelson affordabiilty is more of a debate, but the Kevin Hayes signing in Philadelphia at least underlines that Nelson was likely to have fetched more at open auction.)
And yet, those may not have been the Islanders’ two most important free agents.
Free Agent Targets: The Obvious
Instead, Robin Lehner and Anders Lee are. And they’re not yet signed. Despite both clearly preferring to be here rather than test the open market.
There are varying theories on why this is so, ranging from wanting too much term (Lee) to too much of both (Lehner) to being too much of a long-term concern when other future contracts are incoming. Just this afternoon, Arthur Staple of the Athletic reported that Lehner and the Isles are still so far apart on an agreement, they appear headed toward parting ways.
All of these concerns have merit. Lehner, despite an impressive recovery and facing his mental health issues, is still a long-term risk, as he acknowledged. And it’s possible the Islanders have a bona fide prospect at prime age waiting in the wings next year in Ilya Sorokin.
Lee, meanwhile, is of the age and profile (physical, takes a beating, is not naturally speedy) that suggests a decline is imminent at least by the midpoint of a long-term contract.
It is easy for us to look at these cases and the Islanders’ projected $20 million in cap space and say, “Come on, Lou, get it done!”
But then there is 2020, and a players association that is suddenly as interested in limiting escrow as it is in growing annual salaries (thus, the cap growth slowed this summer). As far as the cap goes, it’s not so much this coming season the Islanders need to worry about, it’s how their budding young players will fit.
Pending restricted free agents for summer 2020 include star-in-the-making Mathew Barzal, plus their projected two most important defensemen in Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. That could easily approach $20 million in cap commitment, with the only significant UFA money currently scheduled to come off the books in 2020 being a combined $5.83 million for Thomas Greiss and Matt Martin.
So one theory out there right now is that Lehner and Lee aren’t signed yet because the Islanders are saving their dry powder for a bigger target. Artemi Panarin is reportedly considering the Panthers, Islanders and Rangers. But whatever they do, they need to be cognizant of the summer that follows. Anyway, about those targets...
The (Nearly) Impossible Big Fish: Panarin and Bobrovsky
The most absurd idea, to these eyes, is that Columbus Blue Jackets free agents Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are a package deal, so hold Lee and Lehner at arm’s length until you find out if (and what it costs) to land them.
It’s not absurd in a “no way is that possible” sense — we saw a similar maneuver on a smaller scale with Mikhail Grabovsky and Nikolai Kulemin, a move I’d argue would have been worth it if injuries hadn’t derailed both.
But it is absurd in a sense that paying top dollar for this summer’s best forward free agent requires paying top dollar and term for the soon-to-be-31-year-old goalie who may not be better than the one you already have, or at least the one who’s surely willing to stay for less money and less term.
To lay my cards out more clearly: I’m all about taking a risk on a transformative forward like Panarin. But it’s not worth saddling us to a long-term and aging goalie commitment along with it. On that note...
The Impossible Little Fish: Offer sheet to RFA Marner, Aho et al
There is every reason to believe that lifelong Leafs fan Mitch Marner is, along with his hardline agent, simply maximizing his leverage by taking Toronto to the brink. He’s doing a favor to all of us, of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth a RFA offer sheet big enough to keep Toronto from matching.
While I would love for the Islanders to be the team to make the Leafs pay max dollar to retain Marner, it’s not worth the risk of four first-round picks and $11 million-plus in cap space. I could be wrong, but I just wouldn’t do that for a player who may already have had a career year and can’t play center.
Likewise with “the other” Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Good player? Absolutely. Worth making such a giant offer sheet that the Hurricanes don’t match? Highly doubtful.
Every time you hear someone complain that NHL GMs don’t offer sheet RFAs because it’s an old boys’ club and they don’t want to anger each other, you should keep in mind what the actual risk of such an offer sheet entails. The RFA offer sheet protocol itself is designed to discourage it from happening.
Tangent: On Roster Construction and Planning
As they do every year, the league conventional wisdom has been talking about emulating the Stanley Cup champions, which to my great shock, I can now type are the St. Louis Blues. This year, it’s all about “heavy hockey” to imitate the finalist Blues and Boston Bruins (who nonetheless scratched one of their “heavy” veterans David Backes for most of the finals).
But to me, the attribute you want to emulate there is not the style but the roster allocation: The Blues were a four-line team with a deep (and fairly cheap!) defense. They excelled through the fortune of a minimum-wage goalie taking the reins and their two most important forwards only taking up $7.5 million each in cap. One of their few over-lucrative loyalty contracts was Alexander Steen draing $5.75 million at age 35, but who is still a smart hockey player that made their bottom six so much more effective.
I guess what I am saying is this: The Islanders are correct in their conviction that they need to make upgrades, but they also need to be careful about trying to make too big of a splash. The whole “Lou is big-game hunting” thing sounds a little dramatic. They still have a very affordable defense, at least for one more year before Pulock and Toews’ next contracts. They will at some point over the next year likely be able to clear some space with trades of Nick Leddy ($5.5 million) and Thomas Hickey ($2.5 million) as Noah Dobson prepares to step in soon.
To that end — and I’ll sound like I’m contradicting myself here — they do need to be conservative with re-signing Lee and Lehner. But to make true upgrades, those two still need to be a priority, rather than a “if these big fish don’t land, we’ll up our offer to our existing free agents” resort.
External Targets Beyond Panarin
So with all that in mind, and the theory that the key to improving the Islanders under Barry Trotz is by seeking upgrades on all four lines, I want to propose some logical targets to consider even though there have been no reports connecting theirs or the Islanders’ interest.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s any chance of these happening, but they are tires I would kick in the quest for a skilled four-line group rather than just guys with character or experience, etc.
Jason Spezza, C
This probably isn’t remotely realistic (there are rumors of Spezza seeking a discounted return to Dallas or Ottawa), and may indeed be foolish, but I thought I’d start with a name no one has connected with the Isles. Spezza is still incredibly talented despite being on the decline as he turned 36 this month, and his production has really taken a hit the last two years.
But the right-shooting center could feast on power play minutes — for a power play that desperately needs help — while playing a lower role which he’s already had to start adjusting to during his final year in Dallas.
Maybe after hearing defensive preaching from Ken Hitchcock and Jim Mongomery in Dallas, Barry Trotz’s reiteration would sound normal. Spezza does not have defensive responsibility ingrained into his DNA the way Filppula did, but if we are talking about upgrading the bottom six, a skilled and coachable veteran with great hands is worth at least asking.
Corey Perry, RW
The Islanders are thinner at right wing and, admittedly, Perry is a wild unknown coming off knee surgery. The advantage here is that — again, possible power play contributions (especially if Lee departs) — a two-way mentality, and the possibility of a cheap, bonus-laden contract since he was bought out by the Ducks and qualifies for such bonuses despite not yet reaching age 35.
Whereas other players of this profile may be seeking multi-year deals, Perry presents a unique opportunity for both team and player to bet on each other for one year only.
Mats Zuccarello, RW
Again, not someone who has been connected to the Islanders in the first days of the free agency “listening” period, and likely a player who is asking for a little too much salary and/or term for his age. But he at least was at home and happy in New York, and he is a strong all-around player with offensive punch.
Joonas Donskoi, RW
File Donskoi under “quietly effective in multiple roles,” but according to some early reports, he is already drawing significant interest on the market. At age 27, he would be a smart bottom-six upgrade for the Islanders, but if he’s drawing a bidding war then it probably doesn’t make sense to win it.
Micheal Ferland, LW
I don’t actually advocate for Ferland, who sounds like one of those guys who will maximize payday off a non-repeatable season. But he is young (27 entering the summer) and if he came in at a modest number, he’d middle-six-level addition to improve the Islanders’ bottom six. Still, sounds like a bidding war is already underway.
Cam Talbot, G
I’m not enthused about the former Ranger, but of the goalies who had peaks and have fallen on recent hard times, Talbot is the most interesting. Again, it seems Lehner should be extended and the Islanders can prepare for a 2020 post-Greiss world where Sorokin (or Linus Soderstrom? Or someone else cheap) pushes Lehner for starts. But if they let Lehner get away, Talbot maybe the best stopgap.
The Inevitable: PTO Country
Who will be this season’s left-field veteran PTO? Who will take over the tradition of Radek Martinek, Dennis Seidenberg, and Luca Sbisa of yesteryear?
The regime has changed, but the adding of a veteran 7th/8th defenseman is an annual right, which Laoriello turned up to 11 last year by carrying not only Sbisa on a NHL contract but Seidenberg on a PTO all season before signing as rosters expanded.
Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about this one until September. But there are other tendencies that may strike this summer...
No, No, No. Please, No
...such as Wayne Simmonds, who was once very effective and beloved (by some). So was David Backes. In their primes, they are ideal Trotz and Lou guys. Not now. (Backes is still under contract with Boston; I just cite him as a cautionary tale.)
The Islanders really need to stay away from the steep declining “high character” kinds of guys, who already populate and limit Trotz’s bottom six. Trotz made magic with what he had last season, but now it’s time to give him better tools. (I realize that Spezza and Perry are both in significant decline, but the theory here is that their diminished skillset is better than some of these other players.)
On that note...
- Given Marcus Kruger’s fall from being a go-to defensive center on a Cup-winning team, it’s hard to believe he’s only 29. The Joel Quenneville specialty would probably appeal to Lou and Trotz in a Filppula kind of way. Kruger has never been very productive offensively, but his last few seasons have been particularly dry as he was dumped by Carolina and even ended up in the AHL before returning to Chicago. I could see the Lou-led Islanders going for this on a bargain deal, similar to their Filppula move. Which is why I hope they avoid what in the best-case scenario would be a lateral move.
- Patrick Marleau isn’t gonna happen, he didn’t want to play in Carolina (who are buying him out) and he clearly wants to get back West with his family. But you know if he was interested he would be on the radar for Lou, who signed him to that cap-oops contract in Toronto...
- Brian Boyle is a great story and he’s already proven effective beyond expected at his age, but his impact is in demonstrable decline by any measure and he’s now 35. The Islanders would likely be left holding the bag.
- Patrick Maroon had a storybook return to his hometown on the way to a Cup championship. But if you’re offering him the salary and term to lure him away from St. Louis (and his son, who watched the storybook unfold), you’re probably committing too much to the 31-year-old. He seemed spent the first half of the season, and though Craig Berube found a way to deploy him effectively, it’s not a UFA prize proposition.
Mike Smith is...old and not worth the bet. Not the guy you need to push Greiss if Lehner is allowed to flee. Keith Kinkaid is...from Long Island, so there’s that. Al Montoya is...only 34. Antti Niemi is...one of the unlikeliest Stanley Cup winning goalies in history, and now he’s 35.
Escaping What Mistakes May Come
Given his recent track record with both Toronto and New Jersey, I am still in wait-and-see mode about how Lou Lamoriello will do with free agency and the cap. In these two areas his legendary reputation as a Hall of Fame-bound builder mask some rather questionable moves.
But one thing I’m less worried about? If he makes some cap mistakes, he’ll find a way to rectify them in the future. Lou always finds a way out.