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Pageau Injury, Cizikas/Palmieri Free Agency, Depth Connect Islanders Offseason Needs

J-G Pageau’s playoff injury is a reminder of the challenge Lamoriello has in continuing the Islanders’ success.

New York Islanders v Florida Panthers
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Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Everyone kind of knew something was wrong with J-G Pageau when his effectiveness and his numbers dropped off in the New York Islanders’ seven-game conference final loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the post-mortem after the heartbreaking 1-0 loss in Game 7, Barry Trotz mentioned how proud he was of guys who fought through injuries, and Pageau was the first name that came to mind to many.

In his post-season chat with media, GM Lou Lamoriello confirmed that Pageau needed hand surgery — he should be ready for next season — and it’s possible the jack-of-all-trades had other issues bothering him after taking some big hits late in the second round with the Bruins.

Considering Pageau was far from 100%, it’s impressive the Islanders took the defending and potential repeat champions as far as they did. Pageau is huge cog for the Islanders, making seemingly any pair of wingers better when they line up next to him, and helping shut down top line after top line.

In the Lightning series, that dependable shutdown-and-counterattack role suffered, and it’s a safe bet that Pageau’s injury/ies was part of the problem. It’s reminiscent of the loss of Casey Cizikas and Adam Pelech during the 2020 playoffs in the bubble.

And that gets to the overarching challenge Lamoriello faces this offseason, when player losses are inevitable and cap pressures means someone valued will also have to go: The Islanders are even more of a “four-line” team than most, and they depend on all 12 forwards being part of the winning occasion. Strong chemistry and defined roles among their lines means line shakeups are infrequent.

It also means an injury to just about any regular has a major effect unless they have a replacement ready.

Inevitable Playoff Injuries Always Expose Depth

In the 2020 playoffs, one-time heir-apparent Otto Koivula wasn’t turned to when Cizikas went down; Leo Komarov instead played a shifted and less effective role at center instead. (And, memorably, we even saw a rusty and injury-diminished Andrew Ladd re-enter the lineup, and deployed at a pivotal, game-losing moment in the 2020 conference final.)

In 2021 Komarov was again called upon, this time to provide a defensive conscience on the Mathew Barzal-Jordan Eberle line in the absence of injured captain Anders Lee. That choice is much debated, though Barry Trotz’s reasoning there in a tough situation has some merit, but the bottom line is Komarov’s lack of offense makes him a huge dropoff from Lee.

On defense, the Islanders’ trade for Braydon Coburn at the trade deadline was fine insurance, but it was troubling and telling htat the past-prime veteran appeared to be trusted more than Thomas Hickey or Sebastian Aho. Thankfully, the blueline survived the playoffs intact and we never had to find out for certain.

(Hickey and Andrew Ladd, by the way, take up almost 10 percent of the cap.)

This year the Isles were able to replace Lee’s production, eventually, with the trade for Kyle Palmieri, though Palmieri didn’t really find his groove until the playoffs (a fine time to find it, no doubt). The Islanders couldn’t have added Palmieri without the LTIR cap overage afforded by Lee’s injury; but in an ideal, go-for-it scenario they would have added Palmieri for a playoff run in addition to having a health Lee.

Travis Zajac, also acquired in the Palmieri trade, was far less important, but had a few moments that make a veteran-loving coach and GM say “told you so.”

The length of Zajac’s presence reflects the issue, though. When he stepped into the lineup after Oliver Wahlstrom was injured, he remained there because the Isles were generally rolling. In the post-season media session, Trotz hinted that Zajac stayed in the lineup even after Wahlstrom was ready because he does things that Wahlstrom doesn’t do — something we can fairly interpret to be a reference to the injury Pageau was carrying.

Cap Pressure Makes Depth Questions Trickier — and Imperative to Answer

All of this underlines what Lamoriello, and then Trotz, must pull off this offseason and during next season: Acquire and develop enough depth to position them to withstand multiple injuries on a playoff run. We’ve seen other teams win it all with young players many hadn’t heard of a few months prior; the Isles’ preference for replacements tend to be veterans you’ve heard of so much you almost forgot they’re still active.

They will have to be creative to retain Palmieri and unrestricted free agent Casey Cizikas, and that may include getting creative in the expansion draft. If they can’t do that, they’ll need trusted replacements. (And no, Zajac doesn’t provide what Cizikas does, and if Cizikas can’t be kept it may have a multiplying degrading effect on longtime linemates Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin.)

If the expansion draft takes away a pricey cap piece — perhaps the Isles go bold and end up losing Eberle or Nick Leddy ($5.5 million cap hits for each) — that demands yet another replacement. The other major cap concerns are tricky deals due for arbitration-elgible Adam Pelech, Ilya Sorokin and Anthony Beauvillier.

Ultimately, somewhere along the way this demands the Islanders deploying — and Trotz trusting — some cheap replacements as regulars and as depth. Wahlstrom provided that this year on an Entry Level Contract, and defenseman Noah Dobson stepped in as a regular, also on an ELC.

It also may mean spending even more futures on getting rid of a cap problem — the inverse of acquiring a couple of picks last summer when they couldn’t find a way to afford Devon Toews.

It’s not an enviable position for Lamoriello, though it’s one that’s partly the price of going for it and reaching the final four twice, and partly due to the unexpected flat cap caused by the pandemic.

His post-season media session was filled with “it is what it is” and recognition that departures are inevitable. And indeed, they have no choice but to disrupt the 2020-21 roster; rather their choices lie in how and to what degree. But to avoid a similar crunch and injury exposure next spring, he must prioritize flexibility and developing affordable and/or young depth that his coach isn’t reluctant to use at crunch time.