The New York Islanders Surprised Everyone This Year. But Change Is Coming, And With It Likely A Step Backwards
Nobody seen this coming.
After the loss of former captain John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs through free agency last July, experts and pundits all unanimously agreed that the New York Islanders were destined to finish in the bottom third of the overall National Hockey League standings for the 2018-19 campaign.
Even with the addition of general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, both Stanley Cup winners, one look at the roster showed that it was simply going to take some time and patience to get the Islander ship pointed in the right direction again.
But the Islanders fan base was beyond hungry. It had been years since they really had anything to get excited about with this team. So Lamoriello and Trotz got in the kitchen, put the aprons on and went to work.
It started with an ounce of structure. They added a dash of overachievement. Of course a pinch of luck was needed, and then with it a heapin’ helping of pride and suddenly by January of this year the Islanders had baked a cake that all of New York wanted a piece of.
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A 23-point improvement over the previous season brought renewed hope to the Islander faithful. And they gobbled it up. Anyone associated with the royal blue, orange and white rallied around the loss of Tavares and proved to the entire league that hockey is the ultimate team sport, and the loss of a franchise player can be tackled.
Long Layoff Didn’t Payoff
After a succesful first-round sweep of the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins to start the NHL playoffs, the Islanders were forced to wait 10 days between games before starting their second round against the Carolina Hurricanes.
For some teams, a break of this length does wonders. It can help heal some busted bodies, and give the players a chance to mentally reset for the next series. But for other teams, including the Islanders in this case, the long layoff proves to be costly. Some will argue that as professionals this shouldn’t be the case. But it’s the most logical explanation for a team that looked so dominant in the first round, only to look like a team that was simply behind a step while being swept by the Hurricanes.
But after a few days to mourn, both the Islanders and their fans will look back on the 2018-19 season as beyond successful. Amassing 103 points in the regular season, the most for the Islanders since 1984, was about 30 more points than anyone was pegging them for in pre-season predictions. No question that Trotz will win the Jack Adams Trophy as coach-of-the-year in the NHL after pulling this team out of his hat.
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So, what now? What can this franchise do for an encore?
Now The Hard Work Begins
The Islanders are in good shape when it comes to the salary cap. Going into the summer, the Islanders have just under $48M committed to 16 players next season. With the cap expected to rise to approximately $83M before puck drop next year, it leaves the Islanders roughly $35M under the cap.
But the Islanders do have a bundle of free agents to deal with this off-season, both restricted and unrestricted. The biggest of all likely being goaltender Robin Lehner, who is free to hit the open market as of July 1st, the first day of the NHL free agent period.
Lehner had a terrific season, posting 25 wins while fashioning a .930 save percentage and (rightfully so) being one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. The sense is that Lehner would love to stick around, as he seems to have final found some comfort, both personally and professionally, on Long Island.
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And the Islanders should do whatever they can to keep him on board. Only 27-years-old, Lehner is young enough to help this Islanders team grow into its next pair of contending shoes, and along with Thomas Greiss has solidified the goaltending situation in New York. Those words have not been uttered in quite some time.
Some Key Free Agents Need To Return
While it looks as though signing Lehner should not be an issue, there are a couple of other free agents the Islanders must really focus on and try to get back in the fold.
Brock Nelson was a big part of the Islanders resurgence this season, putting up a career-high 53 points while averaging almost three minutes per game more ice-time over the year before. He seem to thrive in Trotz’s system and at only 26-years-old, more of the same should be expected from him for the next few seasons. There may even be a bit more upside in him yet. An unrestricted free agent, numerous teams likely will be kicking tires on Nelson should the Islanders allow him to see the light of day on July 1st.
Anthony Beauvillier is a restricted free agent this season, and the Islanders need to make his signing a priority. While taking a bit of a step back this past season offensively, there is no denying the speedy winger still has some untapped potential going forward.
Playing under 15 minutes a night, Beauvillier still managed 18 goals while totaling more takeaways than giveaways for the second straight season. The left side is a bit of a weak spot for the Islanders, and his signing would help create some stability in a potentially altered islander line-up.
So long, Long Island
One player that could very well be on the move is unrestricted winger Jordan Eberle. As streaky as they come, Eberle has always left fans breathless with his tantalizing soft hands and relentless drive. But as he did in his days with the Edmonton Oilers, Eberle also leaves those same fans with a feeling of wanting more, and for large stretches throughout the season, he simply doesn’t provide it.
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Eberle turns 29 next week, and will certainly be seeking a long-term deal at no less than the $6M per year he was making previously. And he will likely get it, but realistically it won’t be from the Islanders. Eberle has proven that he can’t produce with Mat Barzal over a full season with first-line minutes, he’s simply too inconsistent. Expect the Islanders to keep that money and look for a bigger fish somewhere else to flank Barzal.
Anders Lee is another unrestricted free agent that will be looking for a significant raise before the start of next season. Though his numbers were down slightly this year, Lee still produced 28 goals after notching 40 and 34 respectively the previous two seasons.
Like Eberle, Lee will also be 29-years-old by time training camp rolls around next year. With over 100 goals scored combined over the last three seasons, Lee will be seeking to nearly double his annual salary from last year of $3.75M, as well as something long-term. And it’s very unlikely the Islanders will go for that.
If Lee does re-sign, expect to be closer to the start of training camp after no other team has agreed to his salary demands, and the Islanders can get him at a more team-friendly rate, in the range of 3-4 years.
Michael Dal Colle is the only other restricted free agent under the Islanders umbrella this off-season, and he will likely re-up with the team.
Other free agents that likely won’t return next year are Valtteri Flippula, Tom Kuhnhackl, Luca Sbisa and Dennis Seidenberg.
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Statistics provided by hockey-reference and TheScore
Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals