No matter how you spin it, Lou Lamoriello failed at the only real goal for this offseason: sign all 3 RFAs to maintain the core of this Islanders team.
He traded Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche for two second round picks, in 2021 and 2022, after Toews filed for arbitration. That decision opened up the possibility that a contract award would be too high and would walk Toews right to UFA status, and that played a big part in trading a player that Lou didn’t want to trade. However, it never gets to that point with better salary cap management.
Lou didn’t create the majority of the cap problems the Islanders have. Garth Snow gifted him lovely contracts with Andrew Ladd ($5.5m for the next 3 years), Cal Clutterbuck ($3.5m for the next 2 years), Johnny Boychuk ($6m for the next 2 years), and Nick Leddy ($5.5m for the next 2 years). But knowing that $20.5m in overpayments were on the cap, Lou went out and signed Leo Komarov ($3m for the next 2 years) and later Semyon Varlamov ($5m for the next 3 years).
None of this was really a surprise, either, aside from the cap being somewhat lower than anticipated. When Lou signed all three of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle to new contracts for a combined $18.5m, we knew that committing that kind of money to guys in their 30s would create issues that made it harder for the Isles to improve externally. All of those players are key for the Islanders, and guys I wouldn’t want to move. But the issue of signing all 3 of Mat Barzal, Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews was not a sudden development.
The Islanders still need to subtract another big contract from the roster, too, because as it stands now the team has under $9m in cap space to sign both Barzal and Pulock. It’s very possible the return for Toews becomes a way to clear out a bad contract, so that we can have just enough money to re-sign the two.
A big part of the reason to have a GM of Lou’s caliber is to have someone who knows how to get out of these messy situations. But it seems like the COVID flat cap and a handful of bad contracts gave Lou too much of a challenge, and he took one of the more painful ways out. That leaves the Islanders stuck in a cycle of just trying to get back to square one.
We go through this again next season with RFAs Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech, Ilya Sorokin, and to a lesser extent Michael Dal Colle, and with UFA Casey Cizikas, too. Expansion may take a contract off our hands, and it would be easier to buyout or move contracts with just a year remaining, but we’ll be making room most certainly to sign Beauvillier, Pelech, and Sorokin with very little cap space scheduled to open up. So are we going to have to trade Beauvillier so that we can sign Pelech and Sorokin?
If Toews’ departure means Noah Dobson gets regular playing time and is excellent, that’s great news - but opening up his ice time at the expense of one of the Islanders’ only other puck moving defensemen doesn’t create strong improvement. It’s also not a guarantee. We thought Ryan Pulock, after promising play in 2014-15 and 2015-16 in Bridgeport and a solid playoff outing, would certainly have a spot on the roster for the 2016-17 season. He played in 1 game. That season, we expected players like Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome to take big steps, and they didn’t. Dobson’s solid first 30ish NHL games are promising, but they’re not a guarantee that he’s ready to play 20 minutes a night, or that he’ll be trusted to do so. And it’s not a plus to say that moving Toews opens the door for Dobson, since Trotz didn’t rate him highly enough to get regular playing time over Johnny Boychuk, who we will probably have to pay another team to take on.
No matter what, it is not a good sign that a team that’s trying to win now has to trade a top 4 defenseman in his prime for futures. That’s what a team in a rebuild does, and that’s not what we are. And it’ll especially sting if those futures aren’t used to enhance the current roster in any way, which is pretty likely since there is probably not enough cap space as it stands right now to sign both Barzal and Pulock. Lou failed to reach his own goal to re-sign all three of the Islanders’ talented RFAs, and he’ll have to do it all over again next season. He’ll have to find a way to improve on the margins and get full value for the remaining good years out of Lee, Bailey, Eberle, and Nelson as they get into their 30s. It’s a tough position, no doubt. And it’s made tougher knowing that the cap crunch means good players and assets will have to be moved in order to keep treading water.
We made an ECF and got beat by the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that was better than us. They’re in a similar cap crunch now, but they got a Stanley Cup, a separate trip to SCF, several ECF appearances, and one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. The Islanders aren’t there yet. This move doesn’t get them any closer - it doesn’t mean a step back necessarily, Toews isn’t so great that parting with him is imminent disaster. But instead of using a highly valued asset to deal from a position of strength to fill a different roster weakness, this move still means it’s unlikely that the Islanders have the room to make any improvement that gets the team closer to a Stanley Cup. And that’s a failure by Lou and the Islanders’ front office.