The New York Islanders have been the surprise package of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
When the NHL regular season ground to a halt, the New York Islanders sat outside the playoffs. In the Metropolitan Division, they sat sixth, one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who held the wildcard spots for the Eastern Conference. To make matters worse, they had lost their last seven games in a row and were 2-4-4 in their previous ten.
At that point, not even the most ardent Islanders fans would have thought they’d make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Just making it to the Playoffs would have been seen as an achievement. Yet here the Islanders are, facing the Tampa Bay Lightning for a chance to continue on their quest to win the Stanley Cup. That’s the beauty of Hockey.
Here lie the problems. The New York Islanders are playing desperate hockey that won’t get you further than this year. They have several pending free agents (both restricted and unrestricted) and are about to hit cap hell. They have just over $8 million to sign those free agents, and unlike their New York neighbors, the Rangers, the Islanders don’t have the number one overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft to boost their roster.
The Islanders don’t have a selection in the first two rounds at all as things currently stand. Add all that together, and suddenly, everything becomes clear. The Islanders are playing desperate hockey because they know this is it for the current group, and it was working until they ran into the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With that $8 million cap space, the Islanders have tough decisions to make.
While the Islanders have been the surprise package, they also have eight players on the NHL roster set to become either Unrestricted or Restricted Free Agents.
Will Matt Barzal accept an $8 million a year deal, and if not. Who does New York trade to get the money Barzal wants? There are no horrendous contracts on the Islanders, just a few that are challenging to move.
Andrew Ladd, Cal Clutterbuck, and Leo Komarov are all the wrong side of thirty and have at least one year left on their contracts. Unfortunately for the Islanders, there is $12 million tied up in those three contracts alone. It’s also a race against the clock as other teams already out of the bubble have had time to assess what they will do. If offering Matt Barzal an offer sheet isn’t one of them (if you have space), then what are those teams doing?
Last year the Montreal Canadiens offered Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes. Aho was a restricted free agent at the time. The Canadiens offering Aho a contract marked the first time in six years a restricted free agent earned an offer from an opposing team.
Attempting to sign restricted free agents via offer sheet is not something that is used as frequently now as it was during the 1990s, but if there was ever a time, it’s now. Barzal could easily command north of the $8 million that the Rangers have available, especially if it’s tied to a long term deal. If you are a rival, let’s say the Carolina Hurricanes, who have north of $30 million in cap space, why wouldn’t you offer Barzal a six-year deal worth $10 million AAV? Adding a player of that caliber to a team already in the playoffs would propel you to a different level. At the very least, you make a rival scramble to match the offer.
If the Islanders are forced to out-bid opponents for Barzal, that could mean defenseman Ryan Pulock, who is also a restricted free agent, becomes available if the Islanders don’t have enough cap to tender a deal.
Goaltender Thomas Greiss and forwards Derick Brassard and Matt Martin are unrestricted free agents. Yes, Barzal is the most significant piece of the puzzle and, at 23-years-old, is the future of the organization. But That doesn’t mean he is the only player contributing to the Islanders success. All the players mentioned have played a part in some way, knowing this is it for the group’s chance to win together.
Sure, the Islanders have been the surprise package of the playoffs. There is no denying that. However, down two games to none in a series against the Lightning, New York is more desperate than ever before, but rule them out at your peril. Because this desperate team knows this is their only chance.
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