The New York Islanders have made several bold moves over the last 12 months, first trading a first-round pick to add defenseman Alexander Romanov from Montreal before trading another first-rounder along with Anthony Beauvillier and Aatu Raty to acquire center Bo Horvat from Vancouver. They wasted little time extending Horvat to a new deal with a cap hit of $8.5M just months after extending Mathew Barzal on a max-term agreement worth $9.15M per season. Despite the aggressiveness from GM Lou Lamoriello, the end result was a quick exit from the playoffs. While this summer shouldn’t feature much in the way of bold activity, the Isles still have some things to accomplish.
Sign a backup goalie
For the past four seasons, Semyon Varlamov has been an important netminder for the Islanders. He has been quite consistent as well with his save percentage in three of those seasons ranging from .911 to .914; the outlier was his career-best performance in 2020-21 (.929), which saw him crack the top five in Vezina voting. In the last two years, he has ceded playing time to Ilya Sorokin which made his $5M AAV a bit on the high side but New York was able to play an above-average netminder in every game this season. Not too many teams could say that.However, the 35-year-old is set to hit the open market in July and with Sorokin entrenched as the starter, it’s reasonable to think that Varlamov will look to head elsewhere in the hopes of a bigger role. Although, regardless of where he lands, it’s quite likely that he’ll be facing a cut in pay as well. Lamoriello will need to find a replacement. It would be surprising to see that replacement coming from inside the organization as veteran Cory Schneider is also set to hit the open market while AHL starter Jakub Skarek has yet to see NHL action.
With a projection of around $5.3M in cap space, per CapFriendly, with other spots to fill (more on those later) and the fact that Sorokin is one of the better starters in the NHL, it would seem that this is a spot that Lamoriello can try to shop closer to the lower end of the market and target a second-stringer closer to the $1.5M range. Of course, there’s a risk in doing so if Sorokin gets hurt, but many teams with a top goalie adopt this approach to allow them to spend more on other spots. So it would be quite reasonable for New York to follow suit.
Clear Bailey’s contract
Josh Bailey has been with the Islanders for quite a long time. Very quietly, he ranks third in franchise history in games played, just three behind Denis Potvin for second. He’s seventh in Islanders history in points, and a decent showing next season could get him into the top five. The 33-year-old has been with the team for 15 seasons now after making the jump to the NHL just months after being drafted in the first round back in 2008. All things considered, he has been a pretty good ninth overall selection.
And yet, in spite of all of this, one of the biggest keys to their offseason is the Islanders finding a way to offload the final year of Bailey’s contract, one that carries a $5M AAV. After more than 1,000 games played, he has started to slow down and his point production (25) this season was the second-lowest of his career. The only time it was lower was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Bailey is being paid like a top-six forward, but it’s fair to wonder if he can be that type of player anymore.
Let’s look back at their cap figure from earlier, around $5.3M in cap space. If they can find a way to move Bailey elsewhere, that comes close to doubling, and all of a sudden, Lamoriello has some options to try to add to his roster. If he’s unable to move him, though, then they are going to be very limited in what they can do.
Of course, moving Bailey’s contract outright is going to be a challenge. Yes, there are some teams who will be able to take on a bad deal for a season, but they’re not going to do so without being properly incentivized. With several teams needing to offload salary, the price to do it is going to be steep. New York’s prospect pool has taken a hit lately, and again, they don’t have a first-rounder in the upcoming draft. If it costs a first-rounder to move that contract, are they going to be willing to do it? Yes, they have all their upcoming second-round selections, but two of those might not be enough if there are a high number of motivated teams that want or need to clear money.
There is another option to consider: the buyout. It would save some money this season — $2.33M — but when you factor in that another player (making at least $775K) has to fill his spot, the net savings aren’t enough to really give them many more spending options this summer. Add that to the fact he’d carry a dead-cap charge of $1.167M in 2024-25, and it’s not a route they’re going to want to pursue.
For a decade-and-a-half, Bailey has basically been a fixture in the lineup for the Islanders. It’s a tough way to leave, but expect them to be quite active in trying to prevent him from suiting up for a 16th season with the franchise.
Re-sign or replace Mayfield
One reason Lamoriello needs more cap space is so he can re-sign defenseman Scott Mayfield. When former GM Garth Snow signed Mayfield to a five-year contract when he barely had 100 career NHL games under his belt, eyebrows were raised. However, the AAV of that agreement — $1.45M — was low enough to mitigate the risk, while giving the blueliner a guaranteed payday after spending a lot of time in the minors.Let’s just say that the contract worked out splendidly for the Isles. Mayfield has been a steady regular throughout the life of the agreement, averaging just shy of 20 minutes a night over those five seasons. Basically, he has been a top-four defenseman at a cost that is less than what a lot of teams pay their sixth option.
Now that Mayfield is set to hit the open market for the first time, he won’t be a bargain any longer. The 30-year-old has a chance to triple that AAV (or at least come close to doing so), taking him closer to the $4M mark, a number that would take up the majority of their limited cap room. A right-shot defender, Mayfield will be one of the top options on that side of the ice in free agency.
Mayfield has made it clear that his desire is to remain with the Islanders, but if his market price gets too high, they will need to pivot elsewhere. One way or another, they’ll need to spend on a defender in the coming weeks. But if they can create some extra cap flexibility sooner than later, there’s a good chance that Mayfield will get his wish and stay with the team that drafted him in the second round back in 2011.
Add scoring help
While the Islanders added Horvat midseason to try to help their offense, his production dipped upon being acquired as he had just seven goals in 30 regular-season games after the swap while only tallying once in six playoff games. The team finished 23rd in scoring despite Brock Nelson having a career year, while Anders Lee matched his 28-goal showing from 2021-22; Zach Parise passed the 20-goal mark as well.The problem is that those were the only players to have at least 20 goals on the season. If the threshold is lowered to 15, only Kyle Palmieri clears that plateau and only sparingly. Yes, injuries to him and Barzal didn’t help but full seasons from those two wouldn’t have moved them into being an above-average team offensively.
This is where freeing up Bailey’s salary could go a long way, assuming the space they have now is earmarked for the back end. If they could use that on a more productive forward (one who would score more than the eight goals that Bailey potted), that would give them at least a small boost. They wouldn’t be able to add a top liner for that money, but any upgrade would help. Oliver Wahlstrom — who also battled injury trouble this season — is young enough to still improve, and becoming a 20-goal player would also help.
There are enough pieces here to at least get to becoming a mid-pack team offensively; doing so would likely get them a few more wins, which could be enough to push for a top-three seed in the division if all goes well next season.