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SportsColumnistsAndrew Gross

Previewing the Islanders' unrestricted free-agent decisions

The Islanders head into this offseason with several of their key players impending unrestricted free agents, including  captain Anders Lee.

Anders Lee says he wants to remain with

Anders Lee says he wants to remain with the Islanders, but no deal was struck during the season.  Photo Credit: James Escher

Free agency didn’t quite hover over the Islanders this season like the dark cloud of uncertainty surrounding John Tavares in 2017-18.

Well, we all know how that turned out for the Islanders, who prospered nonetheless without their former captain.

Still, the Islanders head into this offseason with several of their key players impending unrestricted free agents, including captain Anders Lee.

President and general manager Lou Lamoriello has certainly lost his share of players, particularly with the Devils. Bobby Holik (five years, $45 million) and current Islanders assistant coach Scott Gomez (seven years, $51.5 million) left for the crosstown Rangers. Zach Parise (13 years, $98 million) departed for his hometown Wild. Scott Niedermayer (four years, $27 million) joined his brother Rob with the Ducks.

And Lamoriello has certainly been associated with contracts that didn’t work out well for the Devils, most notably Ilya Kovalchuk (15 years, $100 million) and Ryane Clowe (five years, $24.25 million).

Which is all to say there are no guarantees when it comes to the Islanders’ UFAs.

Here’s a look at who’s headed to free agency and what may — or may not — happen:

Jordan Eberle

Expiring contract: Six years, $36-million

Age: 28

Stats: 19 goals, 18 assists, 78 games

Outlook: Eberle will very likely be two seasons and done with the Islanders. He was the team’s best pure goal scorer this season but didn’t do it nearly consistently enough. But he’s likely to get another contract worth around $6 million annually and Lamoriello will look elsewhere for top-six goal production.

Valtteri Filppula

Expiring contract: One year, $2.75-million

Age: 35

Stats: 17 goals, 14 assists, 72 games

Outlook: The Islanders value Filppula for his experience. Center depth is an issue so it’s very possible he returns on another one-year deal.

Tanner Fritz

Expiring contract: One year, $650,000

Age: 27

Stats: No goals, one assist, eight games

Outlook: Fritz’s hand injury cost him a great opportunity to play in the postseason push. He’s a solid organizational depth player who will likely be offered a similar deal.

Tom Kuhnhackl

Expiring contract: One year, $700,000

Age: 27

Stats: Four goals, five assists, 36 games

Outlook: Kuhnhackl is a solid depth player valued by management and the coaching staff. But he won’t be a priority and the Islanders won’t overpay. Most likely, another team offers a longer deal and/or more money.

Anders Lee

Expiring contract: Four years, $15-million

Age: 28

Stats: 28 goals, 23 assists, 82 games

Outlook: The Islanders couldn’t lose a second straight captain, could they? Could they? They could, even as Lee has expressed his desire to remain on Long Island. The Islanders, by naming him captain in training camp, have showed what Lee means to the organization and their desire to have him as part of the long-term solution. Still, the sides have had since last July 1 to work this out and, at this point, like Tavares, Lee loses nothing by seeing what his true market value is. That’s when this becomes very dangerous for the Islanders, who obviously have not yet offered the length of contract or money that Lee believes he’s worth. The Islanders will likely have to go to at least six years to get Lee re-signed and his annual salary will be $6 million and up. Lamoriello is likely going to have to pony up on this one, even if he’s reluctant at those numbers.

Robin Lehner

Expiring contract: One year, $1.5-million

Age: 27

Stats: 25-13-5, 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage

Outlook: Lehner was arguably the best human-interest story in the NHL this season after acknowledging his past substance-abuse and mental-health issues on the first day of training camp. Now he’s a Vezina Trophy and Masterton Trophy finalist and shared the Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss after the Islanders allowed a league-low 196 goals. He’s very comfortable on Long Island and is very appreciative of the support and belief the Islanders — and Lamoriello — has shown in him. Still, business is business. He won’t get a contract like Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky will this offseason but some team will make him very rich. He could be looking at a five-year, $30-million deal and that could well be selling his market value short. Also, top prospect Ilya Sorokin will spend one more season in Russia at least, but he’s coming to North America eventually. This will be an exceedingly hard decision for Lamoriello. My gut says Lehner, who’s become a team leader, is an Islander next season because Lamoriello has always understood the extreme importance of strong goaltending.

Brock Nelson

Expiring contract: One year, $4.25-million

Age: 27

Stats: 25 goals, 28 assists, 82 games

Outlook: Signed a one-year, stop-gap contract as a restricted free agent and now figures to cash in as an UFA. Often inconsistent over his Islanders’ career, Nelson finally solidified a spot in the top six this season. His market value will likely be around $5.5 million annually, if not more, and he can probably command four or five years. He’s valuable to the Islanders but Lamoriello might pass on that type of contract.

Luca Sbisa

Expiring contract: One year, $1.5-million

Age: 29

Stats: One assist, nine games

Outlook: Signed after coming to training camp on a professional tryout offer. Very unlikely to be back, certainly not at that price.

Dennis Seidenberg

Expiring contract: One year, $700,000

Age: 37

Stats: No goals, no assists, no games

Outlook: Spent most of the season practicing with the team on a professional tryout offer before being given a pro-rated thank-you deal. The same thing could happen next season.

Pre-game ritual

It started last summer when Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier saw something on Instagram. It turned into part of their pre-game routine during the Islanders’ warmups.

Just prior to the team’s line rushes, Barzal and Beauvillier would stand about 10 to 15 feet apart on the blue line and start passing each other the puck. Barzal, typically, skated toward Beauvillier, who usually had his back against the boards and the passes became quicker and quicker as the distance between the two closed. Finally, almost nose-to-nose, they fired the puck back and forth between their stick blades as fast as humanly possible.

“We actually saw it on Instagram, we’re not the inventors,” Barzal said. “We were just kind of messing around with it, feel the puck a little bit quickly. We’re just having fun in warmups. We just try to go crazy for five seconds. It gets us energetic. It’s just a little stupid thing we do.”

Said Beauvillier, “We saw that on Instagram and we were like, ‘We’ve got to try it.’ At first, it was kind of awful but now we’re pretty good at it. It’s just become part of the routine. It’s literally muscle memory.”

Family ties

Lee has an ulterior motive to re-sign with the Islanders: A chance to see his cousin, Ryan Connelly, play football for the Giants.

The Giants selected the Wisconsin linebacker — the son of Lee’s mother’s brother — in the fifth round of the NFL Draft last Saturday. Connelly was a high school quarterback at Eden Prairie (Minnesota) before walking-on at Wisconsin and becoming a two-year starter.

Lee, also a star high school quarterback at Edina (Minnesota) before playing college hockey at Notre Dame, said the age difference between him and his cousin prevented him from attending Connelly’s games.

“I was never home,” Lee said. “But we’ve been following each other forever. He used to come to my football games but I didn’t get to see him play.”

Maybe this fall?

Swept up

The Hurricanes swept the Islanders in the second round with a 5-2 win in Friday night’s Game 4 at Carolina. Here are the playoff sweeps in Islanders’ history:

Wins

1976 – First round: Swept Canucks, 2-0

1977 – First round: Swept Blackhawks, 2-0; Second round: Swept Sabres, 4-0

1979 – First round: Swept Blackhawks, 4-0

1981 – First round: Swept Maple Leafs, 3-0; Third round: Swept Rangers, 4-0

1982 – Third round: Swept Nordiques, 4-0; Stanley Cup Final: Swept Canucks, 4-0

1983 – Stanley Cup Final: Swept Oilers, 4-0

Loses

1986 – First round: Swept by Capitals, 3-0

1994 – First round: Swept by Rangers, 4-0

2019 – Second round: Swept by Hurricanes, 4-0

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