The midst of the hockey summer is upon us as the second week of July begins, which typically means most NHL teams are set to go dark for the next two months. Sure, there could be a couple of restricted free agent signings, arbitration hearings, and some minor league depth news, but for the most part the big names are done moving around.
The Islanders left the hectic first part of the month with just about what they walked in with. The big change was a goaltending switch with the incoming Semyon Varlamov replacing fan favorite Robin Lehner, a move as unpopular on the merits as much as it was emotional. Additionally, Valtteri Filppula headed back to Detroit, a familiar and triumphant home for the veteran.
All is not doom and gloom, however, as Lou Lamoriello did well to re-sign Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee. The three moves might upset “grass is greener” folk, but ultimately saved the Isles from an embarrassing, “egg on your face” type of offseason that could have seen more than 70 goals walk away for nothing after an improbable 103-point season.
The consequences of the above leaves the Islanders with a little over $8 million in cap space with some restricted free agents to sign, most notably Anthony Beauvillier and two clear spots in the roster that need to be filled: a third-line center and a scoring left wing. The reason left wing is specified is due to the nature of the depth chart: Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey are likely to procure the top spots on the right side. Cal Clutterbuck is a mainstay on the fourth line, but has health questions. Josh Ho-Sang, should he remain in the organization, will compete for a spot with Leo Komarov and could lead to the Isles ultimately rolling out an Eberle - Bailey - Ho-Sang - Komarov lineup on that side of the ice for primary points of the season.
(Of course, should the Islanders go forward and actually acquire Mitch Marner from Toronto, that would blow up this entire piece as Bailey would move back to the left side and there will be no real trades to be made. However, this is the longest of long shots despite the rumor, as Marner and the Maple Leafs control the process far more than the Islanders do.)
Things are a bit more unclear on the left side, with Anders Lee the primary scoring wing and then… questions. Surely, Anthony Beauvillier will be in the conversation. Matt Martin will likely remain in his role on the fourth line. Michael Dal Colle will likely get chances too, especially because Andrew Ladd is out with an ACL injury that is likely to see him start the season on the injured list. All in all, it’s a pretty weak depth chart compared to other teams… especially playoff teams, which means this is a clear area of improvement. Let’s start the discussion here by looking at five options the Islanders could look at to shore up their depth on the left wing.
1. Nikita Gusev (RFA, Vegas Golden Knights)
If you follow me on Twitter, you know all about #TeamGusev. Before we go any further, let’s just start here:
Gusev was signed to a 1-year entry level contract this past April (due to his age) by the Vegas Golden Knights, who were gearing up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately, Gusev did not appear in any games, and immediately has become a restricted free agent. Per reports, he’s currently seeking a $4 million AAV over 2 years, a price that Vegas quite literally cannot pay given their current cap situation.
$2m apart from initial negotiations, would be problematic if they could not get a deal done to sign the best player in KHL hitstory— The Russian Knight (@RksCeo) July 5, 2019
Gusev v Panarin SKA final 2 years
Gusev 17-19 116 Games 39 Gls 105 A 144 Pts 1.24 PPG
Panarin 13-15 105 Games 46 Gls 56 A 102 Pts .97 PPG
There’s no telling if Gusev will even be half as good as Artemi Panarin, but his KHL metrics show some guided optimism. And given that the Islanders have trouble attracting high talent players (we just saw this on July 1), their only options to bring them to Long Island are via the draft and through trade.
There’s certainly some risk as Gusev has not played a game in North America. But at an extremely manageable projected salary ask, the reward is far higher than the risk would be for any team. Additionally, the Islanders could ask for Cody Eakin as part of a deal with Vegas, killing two birds with one stone and acquiring their third line center in the process of obtaining Gusev’s rights. This would shed more salary for Vegas and likely lessen the cost that New York would need to pay for the overall package.
Teams that are opportunistic take advantage of teams with salary cap issues; we saw this five years ago with Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Although this is not necessarily the safest avenue, it has one of the highest rewards for a team in need of a skill injection.
2. Nikolaj Ehlers (6 years, $6 million AAV, Winnipeg Jets)
This one seems like a bit of a long shot, but if the Jets even entertain trading the 23-year old Danish wing, the Islanders should be first in line for negotiations. A look at Winnipeg’s cap situation shows that they have $22.8 million in cap space with big deals likely coming for Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, which could cost them upwards of $15 million. They also need to re-sign newly acquired defenseman Neal Pionk and depth center Andrew Copp, possibly getting them close to the cap ceiling.
Winnipeg spent just $75 million on their 2018-19 cap and $69 million in 2017-18, so it’s hard to say if they will be comfortable getting close to an $81.5 million ceiling. If they aren’t, a long term cap liability like Ehlers could be discussed. With a positive even-strength impact both offensively and defensively, Ehlers would slide right into a flexible top six role in Barry Trotz’s system.
And with 20 goals scored in each of the last three seasons, Ehlers would give the Islanders an additive scoring threat in their lineup that plays the kind of game they would be most interested in. While it seems most likely the Jets would try to move lower tier parts like Mathieu Perreault or Adam Lowry, should the Jets decide to make Ehlers available, the Islanders have plenty to offer including a plethora of highly regarded right-handed defensemen and lower cost wingers to pair with picks and prospects.
3. Mike Hoffman (1 year, $5.187 million AAV, Florida Panthers)
Sometimes the best kind of commitment is a one-year commitment. And given the Islanders cap situation, if the team is not bringing in an elite overall talent (like the two aforementioned players), this is the type of deal they should be looking at. Hoffman, of course, does not come without baggage, but he specifically fits what the Islanders need to a tee.
The Panthers seemingly made Hoffman available at last year’s trade deadline before opting to keep the player through the season. Now, with just $5.4 million left in cap space and only 17 players signed, a cut or two may need to be made before this season gets under way. Trading a player with one year left before hitting UFA status seems like an immediate obvious call, and when compounded with the rumors that already existed last season makes Hoffman a viable target for the Islanders.
Hoffman isn’t a particularly impressive player without the puck, but his shot is far above average for NHL players. He scored 36 goals last year while setting a career high in shooting percentage, so perhaps expecting that again is a bit naive. Still, he’s pretty much a lock for over 200 shots and 25-30 goals, which given the Islanders’ needs make him a pretty ideal short-term option for next season.
The team would obviously see how he fits their lineup and would have the option to re-sign him after the season, but should things not go as planned, Hoffman’s scoring ability would also give the Isles a solid deadline asset to recoup some bargaining chips back as well. All in all, this is a fairly low risk, high reward option for the Isles.
4. Michael Frolik (1 year, $4.3 million AAV, Calgary Flames)
With reports out that Calgary is looking to shed some cap space, attention immediately turns to the the 31 year old left wing, who has just one more year left on his contract. While not exactly a “sexy” name like some of the others, Frolik fits the Isles’ overall style of play better than most on this list. Frolik is more of a 15-20 goal scorer, largely due to his very average shooting prowess and not related to his shot generation, which has been quite good. In fact, only in 2011-12 was Frolik a negative shot attempt relative player to his team throughout his entire career.
In other words, Frolik’s ability to push play forward is a big advantage. And in terms of acquiring a stable force to try and replace Valtteri Filppula’s 17 goals, it’s hard to find someone that fits this bill more than Frolik.
Defensively, Frolik is strong as well playing a fair amount of penalty kill minutes to decent success with Calgary over the past two seasons. With Filppula departed and Cal Clutterbuck’s status unknwon, Frolik could step into this role effectively for the Islanders, who don’t seem to really have an internal replacement at the moment.
Where Frolik does not necessarily help is the power play, especially given his average shooting ability, but given his likely fit in the Trotz system, the short-term commitment and the actual salary cost, it would be wise for the Isles to explore this as a secondary option to shore up the stability of the left wing position.
5. Jason Zucker (4 years, $5.5 million AAV, Minnesota Wild)
When you talk about players who are generally underrated, you almost have to start with Jason Zucker. The 27-year-old has a very team-friendly contract that expires after the 2022-23 season, and with the Wild all but publicly stating “we will trade Zucker,” he becomes a clear target on this list. Zucker’s individual impact are ridiculously positive, driven by a clearly above average shooting impact. He has scored at least 20 goals in four of the last five seasons and like Frolik, is a shot generating machine.
I totally get it. I’m not planning to get rid of him as a husband, but I’m always open to offers if the right thing comes along... https://t.co/kdCSDvvyB3— Carly Zucker (@CarlyAplin) June 22, 2019
Minnesota’s cap situation is in fairly good shape with the team having $11.3 million remaining and only 18 players signed. Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek are their key RFAs remaining, but shouldn’t necessarily bring them close to the limit. So from the Wild’s perspective, trading Zucker is likely to be structured as a hockey trade more than a salary dump.
As a result, the only real downside is the length of term remaining on the contract. As mentioned before, the Islanders cannot really afford such a liability given all of their upcoming restricted free agents (Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews), so any Zucker deal would require both term and dollars going back the other way.
This is potentially where the Islanders could look to move a Nick Leddy type, especially with the supremely underrated Jared Spurgeon up for contract after next season. However, that might be a stretch, which makes a deal between these two teams harder to fathom and thus, why Zucker is at the back of this list.
Still, the player himself fits what the Islanders are looking to and fits the window of which they have to win. Those two things on their own should put them in the conversation of potential suitors.