Lou Lamoriello often laments — or, at least, notes — the difficulty of executing pure hockey trades or personnel moves under the salary cap. Having run NHL teams since 1987, the Islanders president and general manager can certainly remember making decisions without being beholden to a financial bottom line.
But Lamoriello’s strategy this offseason will be shaped by a flat $81.5 million cap ceiling. The Islanders have approximately $5.7 million in cap space; only the Penguins and two-time Stanley Cup-champion Lightning have less.
Which is why a core player such as defenseman Nick Leddy and his $5.5 million cap hit is a strong possibility to be lost in the upcoming expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken. On pure hockey merits, it makes little sense to lose a top-four defenseman for nothing.
Remember, last offseason, Lamoriello was forced to trade defenseman Devon Toews to the Avalanche for a pair of second-round picks because of cap considerations.
The expansion draft is July 21 and teams must submit their list of protected players on July 17.
The Islanders can protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie — the more likely option — or eight skaters (forwards and defensemen) and one goalie.
All players with no-movement clauses who decline to waive those clauses must be protected and all first- and second-year professionals and unsigned draft choices are exempt from protection.
Andrew Ladd, who has two seasons remaining on his seven-year, $38.5 million deal, would have been left unprotected but he has not played enough the past two seasons to be eligible for the expansion draft.
Projected Islanders’ protected list:
Forwards (7): Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Otto Koivula, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Defensemen (3): Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock
Goaltenders (1): Semyon Varlamov
Lamoriello indicated signing his top three restricted free agents — Beauvillier, Pelech and goalie Ilya Sorokin (who does not need to be protected) — was an offseason priority.
Barzal, Lee, Nelson, Pageau and Pulock are no-brainers to be protected. Mayfield makes more sense to protect than Leddy, his defense partner, because of Mayfield’s extremely team-friendly cap charge of $1.45 million.
Bailey is beloved by the coaching staff, though not a slam-dunk to be protected with a $5 million cap charge. Protecting Koivula would provide insurance if identity-setting, fourth-line center Casey Cizikas leaves as an unrestricted free agent.
The Islanders could gamble on exposing Varlamov, who has two seasons left on a four-year, $20 million deal, especially with Sorokin expected to get a significant raise off his one-year, $2 million deal. Instead, Lamoriello will likely expose minor-leaguer Ken Appleby as both he and coach Barry Trotz believe in building their teams from the net on out.
Projected significant players to be exposed to claim:
Cal Clutterbuck, Jordan Eberle, Leo Komarov, Nick Leddy, Matt Martin
The Kraken will have a window to sign UFAs and RFAs prior to the expansion draft. So, in the unlikely case the Kraken sign one of the Islanders’ free agents, they will not lose another player in the expansion draft. However, it’s more likely the Islanders’ key UFAs — Cizikas, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, defenseman Andy Greene and goalie Cory Schneider — will not be poached in that short window.
That leaves some attractive prospects for the Kraken among the Islanders’ list of unprotected players.
Start with Leddy, a slick-skating defenseman who won a Cup with Chicago in 2013. His defensive game can be a concern, but his veteran leadership and playmaking ability would instantly help an expansion franchise. Plus, he has just one more season left on his deal so the Kraken would not be locked into a long-term financial commitment.
It would also be risky for Lamoriello to leave Eberle, Barzal’s right wing on the top line, exposed but, like Leddy, this would be more of a financial decision than a hockey one. Eberle also carries a $5.5 million cap charge — his goes through 2024 — and the only way the Islanders will likely have a chance to re-sign Cizikas and/or Palmieri along with their three key RFAs is to delete Leddy and Eberle’s contracts from their ledger.
The Kraken are not likely to be intrigued by Komarov, who has one season left on a four-year, $12 million deal, but could value either Clutterbuck or Martin’s scrappiness. Martin — Mr. Long Island — is just one season into a four-year, $6 million deal while Clutterbuck has one season remaining on a five-year, $17.5 million deal. Neither veteran wants to leave the Islanders for an expansion team out West.
Much of this will depend on which financial avenue the Kraken choose to take and how many pricier contracts they choose to select.
As Lamoriello knows, there are few pure hockey decisions made anymore.