You have to at least say this for the New York Islanders offseason: It has not been quiet, and it has definitely been interesting.
They continued making moves on Monday when they first announced a one-year contract for free agent center Jan Kovar after a successful career in the KHL. Kovar was an intriguing player that a lot of teams had interest in given his production in Russia, and he should get an opportunity to play a decent role in New York following the departure of John Tavares in free agency.
Is it a guarantee to work out? Not at all. But it is not a bad gamble for the Islanders to take on a one-year deal.
The move on Monday that raised some eyebrows was the announcement of a four-year — four years! — contract for restricted free agent Ross Johnston.
According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the contract will pay him $1 million per season.
He has played in 25 NHL games (24 of them coming this past season) and has scored three goals and six total points. He has spent the past three years mostly playing for the Islanders’ American Hockey League team Bridgeport where he has totaled 14 goals and 30 total points in 139 games. He has also accumulated 327 penalty minutes in those games and is a regular when it comes to dropping the gloves.
So the question that needs to be asked here is this: Why the need for a four-year contract — a contract that at Johnston’s age will buy out two years of unrestricted free agency — for a player with that resume?
Also worth asking: Why do the Islanders keep giving long-term contracts to depth players like Ross Johnston?
With Johnston re-signed, and combined with the free agent addition of Leo Komarov, the Islanders now have 10 players signed for at least the next three seasons (some of them for longer).
That list includes…
- Andrew Ladd (signed through 2023)
- Josh Bailey (signed through 2024)
- Cal Clutterbuck (signed through 2022)
- Casey Cizikas (signed through 2021)
- Leo Komarov (signed through 2022)
- Ross Johnston (signed through 2022)
- Johnny Boychuk (signed through 2022)
- Nick Leddy (signed through 2022)
- Thomas Hickey (signed through 2022)
- Adam Pelech (signed through 2021)
- Scott Mayfield (Signed through 2023)
That is an interesting list to make long-term commitments to.
It does not even include Matt Martin, re-acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs a week ago, who is signed for the next two seasons.
Bailey is coming off a huge season and even if he does not duplicate it will at least be counted no to be a top-line forward. No problem there.
Ladd’s first two years in New York have been rough but he, too, was at least signed with the intention to be a top-six winger, while Leddy and Boychuk (who is already 34) were signed to be top-four defensemen. Boychuck and Ladd may not have worked out as planned long-term, and they may not have been great risks given the ages at the time of their signings, but they were at least hoping for top-of-the-lineup players. To be fair, Boychuck did give them a couple of years of that sort of play.
The rest of that group, though, is mostly depth players. Players the Islanders have acquired or signed with the intention of being bottom-six or bottom-pairing players. Just about all of them cost between $1.5 and $3.5 million against the salary cap, meaning they are not just significant investments due to their term, but also financially.
This is a bizarre strategy in the sense that almost no other team in the NHL has constructed their roster in this manner. This is not a statement of opinion, either. This is a statement of fact.
Look at it from a numbers perspective.
During the 2017-18 NHL season there were 154 forwards that played in at least 20 games and averaged under 0.30 points per game. Only four of those players logged more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game, and none of them played more than 16 minutes per game. They are all, for all intents and purposes, bottom-six forwards.
Your third and fourth lines have value. A lot of it. The NHL today is about being able to balance four lines that can score, contribute, and impact the game in all situations. As a group, they are important. They are not, however, players that tend to get significant long-term contracts from teams, or players that carry a ton of value individually. Their value is in the sum of their parts. Recent Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago have built their bottom lines with some combination of young players on entry-level contracts, or veterans signed to short-term deals. The latter group of players are usually the first ones to be let go when salary cap space gets tight at the top of the roster. The former group usually plays its way into a bigger role with the team.
Out of that group of 154 forwards mentioned above, only 10 of them are currently signed for at least the next three seasons.
That list, in order of how long their current contracts run: Antoine Roussel, Leo Komarov, Cal Clutterbuck, Jay Beagle, Ross Johnston, Ryan Callahan, Casey Cizikas, Marcus Foligno, Zack Smith, Carter Rowney, Brandon Dubinsky.
Four of those players (Komarov, Clutterbuck, Cizikas, Johnston) are under contract with the New York Islanders.
Two other players on that list (Roussel and Beagle) were signed this offseason by the Vancouver Canucks. Harsh as it may sound, if you are building your team in the same image as the Jim Benning Canucks … that is probably bad.
There are a handful of players on that list that are at the end of longer term contracts. Martin Hanzal, for example, has two years remaining on a three-year contract that he signed with Dallas. Matt Martin has two years remaining on a four-year contract he signed with Toronto (and as noted above, he, too, now plays for the New York Islanders).
This, again, is only looking at forwards and does not even take into account the five-year contract they gave a defenseman like Scott Mayfield.
And it’s not like this is just one general manager doing all of this.
Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Mayfield were all signed on Garth Snow’s watch.
Komarov, Martin, and Johnston were all signed/acquired this offseason following the hiring of Lou Lamoriello.
This is very obviously an organizational approach.
What makes this potentially damaging to the Islanders is they are not really saving any salary cap space or putting the team in a better situation by doing this. Objectively speaking, players like Cizikas, Clutterbuck, Martin, Komarov, and Johnston are not adding much — if any — offense to this team this year or in the future. Out of that group Komarov is the only player that for his career averages more than 0.30 points per game — he is at 0.37. In a league and era where four lines that can score is a necessity, they have five roster spots and nearly $14 million in salary cap space going to plays that are not providing any meaningful offense (and again, that does not include the salaries going to Ladd, Boychuk, etc.) for this season and beyond.
They could almost certainly get the same level of production — if not more — for less against the salary cap by just rotating in different free agents on short-term deals and entry-level players every season. Even if you generously say that each of those players is *only* overpaid by $500,000 or $1 million per season and on their own they are just little mistakes, but as I pointed out following the addition of Martin those little mistakes add up to a few million dollars when you combine them all together.
When you are a team that just lost your franchise player in free agency, has two of your best remaining players (Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle) up for unrestricted free agency after this season, and will have to sign your new cornerstone player (Mat Barzal) to a new contract in two years when his entry-level deal is finished, that can add up to a big problem.