After Missing Out on Another Free Agent, What is Next for the Islanders?

It happened again. The New York Islanders were heavily rumored to be in on a top free agent and will come home empty handed. Nazem Kadri will join the group of John Tavares, Artemi Panarin, and Johnny Gaudreau. At least this time, an Eastern Conference rival didn’t end up with the player, as Kadri agreed to a seven-year contract with the Calgary Flames. That also does not count the many players missed out on via the trade market.

In all four cases, the Islanders were reported by insiders to be close runner-ups. If they were all 50/50 chances like suggested, the chance that the Islanders missed out on all four would be 6.25 percent. Of course, that is not entirely true. If, say, Panarin, never wanted to be an Islander, it would tilt the scales. Also, signing Gaudreau would have ruled them out in the Kadri discussion. Still, General Manager Lou Lamoriello has struck out big time. Tavares and Panarin went to big market teams, which is a built-in excuse for the Islanders. But this year? Gaudreau went to Columbus, a team that is notorious for losing stars like Panarin. The Flames saw Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk not want to stay in Calgary this offseason. They still landed Kadri. The Islanders have a brand new rink with a GM who players supposedly would want to line up to play for. They also have gone to the Conference Finals in two of the past three seasons. Long Island shouldn’t be the thing scaring away players.

What Is There To Look Forward To?

The offseason is not over for the Isles. Lamoriello has more things to announce by default. Noah Dobson is a restricted free agent after a breakout season, as is young depth forward Kieffer Bellows. The only acquisition of the offseason, Alex Romanov, also needs a new contract. Bridge deals will be required for Romanov, who hasn’t established himself as an impact player yet, and Dobson, who the Islanders don’t have the cap space for to extend long term.

The cap situation is a perfect example of death by a million paper cuts. No player on the team has a cap hit over $7 million in a league where 76 different players have eclipsed that mark. However, nine different players on the team earn at least $5 million. Of those, how many are worth it? Defensemen Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech certainly are. Forwards Mat Barzal and Brock Nelson are, too. Captain Anders Lee may not be worth $7 million because of his style of play, but to say that he shouldn’t be in the $5-7 million range would be a lie.

Where does that leave everyone else? The only player of the nine who Lamoriello did not sign himself is Josh Bailey, a Garth Snow product that is the most detrimental to the team right now. Bailey has played in 993 regular season games, all for the Islanders. But his age-32 season showed tremendous signs of decline. Bailey’s 45% xGF percentage was the second-worst among regular forwards on the team to just Casey Cizikas. The difference between the two is that Cizikas was still a shut down forward while not contributing much offensively, which is his job as a fourth-line center. Of the team’s regular top-nine forwards, Bailey’s xGF/60 was the worst, and his xGA/60 was the fifth worst among all regular forwards. Of the 150 forwards with at least 950 minutes of ice time last season, Bailey’s xGF% was the 14th worst. He still has two years left with a $5 million cap hit. If the team wants to move him, they likely will have to attach a draft pick. With their farm system already incredibly thin, trading more futures is not ideal.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Kyle Palmieri, and Semyon Varlamov are the other three players, all making exactly $5 million. Palmieri is entering the second year of his contract. The first started off with a terrible half, but he got hot in the second half. It’s best to leave that situation alone right now. Pageau also had a rough start to the season, but regained form later on. He is a third-line center, and no third-liner needs to be making that much. But for what Pageau brings, the criticism is mostly unfair. Then there is Varlamov. With one year remaining on his deal, he is still a good goalie. But with Ilya Sorokin surpassing him last season, Varlamov is just a luxury at a high cost for the team. There are still teams needing a goalie, with the Golden Knights being the clearest example. Holding onto Varlamov when he could recoup a solid asset and clear cap space seems like a very fixable mistake. The Islanders’ goalie coaches received a ton of good press when they helped not only Varlamov, but also Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss get their careers back on track. The team should let them try to work their magic with someone else.

Who is Still Available?

There is not much on the free agent market. Middle-six forwards Sonny Milano and Evan Rodrigues are the best names there. Milano is a Long Island native who had a great season playing alongside Trevor Zegras in Anaheim last year. He was second on the team in xGF% and xGA/60 among regulars, showing that he can play defense as well. Milano seems like a possible young version of Bailey. He excelled at passing with some defensive capabilities. The problem would be unloading Bailey if you brought Milano aboard. What if last year was just a blip for either player? Milano doesn’t have a great track record before 2021-22. If the Islanders can’t trade Bailey, would they try to deal Anthony Beauvillier instead? Beauvillier has a $4.15 million cap hit, so it would be less money cleared. While they would get something good in return, the Islanders would have some repetitiveness in Bailey and Milano in this hypothetical scenario.

It also hasn’t been mentioned that the Islanders still have a hole on their defense. They entered the offseason with two gaping issues on left defense. Romanov solves one, as the team hopes that he can develop well after a rough season with Montreal. But as of now, Robin Salo and Sebastian Aho are slated to split a starting role. Both players struggled in limited time last year. Salo has potential to be an NHL player, so he should get the role. Aho has always looked outmatched, which is easy for an undersized guy like him. The trade market could open up, either for a forward or a defenseman. But the Islanders lack both the cap space and assets to make a good deal work. Lamoriello should have a big rest of the offseason planned. But looking at his track record with the Isles, it is hard to not expect disappointment.

Published by carterhud SI Kids Kid Reporter, Prime Time Sports Talk writer

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