Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello is hoping he can keep his roster mostly intact while knowing he still must re-sign star forward Mathew Barzal, despite having limited room under the NHL’s flat salary cap.
In saying he’s exploring every possible option, Lamoriello on Tuesday wouldn’t completely rule out what he called “a last resort” of having to part ways with a core player or two.
Without going into detail, he added: “But I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ll be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish and have the team that we want to put on the ice once the season starts.”
It might take some juggling for the NHL’s GM of the year.
The Islanders, coming off their first conference final appearance in 27 years, are projected to be about $10 million under the $81.5 million cap, which remains unchanged from last season.
Barzal, meantime, is a restricted free agent and expected to command a hefty raise after recording 19 goals and 41 assists in 68 games to reach the 60-point mark for a third consecutive season. The 23-year-old then put on a dazzling display with five goals and 12 assists in the playoffs.
Aside from Barzal, defensemen Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock are also unsigned restricted free agents. The Islanders also stand to lose other contributors with forwards Matt Martin and Derick Brassard, goalie Thomas Greiss and late-season addition, defenseman Andy Greene, eligible to become unrestricted free agents on Oct. 9.
Lamoriello said he’s had discussions with his restricted free agents since New York was eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final on Sept. 17.
“I feel we’ll get all of our players signed in due time,” he said.
The Islanders took a major step forward in their second season under Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz. New York advanced past the first round for just the third time since 1993, and did so in consecutive years for the first time since a seven-year run spanning 1979 to ’85.
In finishing seventh in the East when the regular season was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, the Islanders were the only team to compete in the best-of-five preliminary round to reach the conference finals. New York eliminated Florida (3-1), Washington (4-1) and Philadelphia (4-3) before running out of gas against the Lightning.
The Islanders featured a balanced scoring attack in which nine players finished with 10 or more points. Though Semyon Varlamov had the bulk of the goaltending duties in finishing 11-7, Greiss contributed with two wins, including a 16-save outing in New York’s 4-0 win over the the Flyers in Game 7.
Lamoriello was impressed by what he saw, and expects the Isles can build upon the experience.
“There’s room for improvement internally,” he said. “If we can get better externally, we’ll certainly try doing that. But right now, we’re going to focus in on trying to keep our team together.”
Lamoriello said forward Casey Cizikas (retina) and Tom Kuhnhackl (upper body) and defenseman Adam Pelech (wrist) all had successful surgeries and are on track to be ready for the start of next season. Kuhnhackl is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent.
WAITING OUT THE DRAFT
Barring a trade, the Islanders will have to wait until the third round, and 90th overall pick, before making their first selection of the draft next week. New York gave up its first- and second-round picks this year, and a conditional third-round selection in 2022, to acquire Jean-Gabriel Pageau in a trade with Ottawa in February.
Lamoriello believes the trade paid off, given the two-way forward had eight goals and 11 points during the playoffs. The Islanders’ deep playoff run also decreased the cost of the trade, with Ottawa getting New York’s 28th and 59th overall selections.
FREE AGENT FRENZY
With the salary cap expected to stay frozen for the next two seasons, Lamoriello anticipates a glut of players hitting the free-agent market, including restricted free agents whose rights aren’t retained because teams have to cut salaries. “I think there’s going to be more players available than people think,” he said.
Lamoriello confirmed the Islanders will play their home games at Nassau Coliseum, before moving into their new home, UBS Arena at Belmont Park, which is scheduled to open for the 2021-22 season.