Other moves and signings may come first. But, make no mistake, Lou Lamoriello’s priority this offseason is to re-sign his key restricted free agents.
It won’t be easy given the Islanders’ tight salary-cap situation under the flat, $81.5 million ceiling, but goalie Ilya Sorokin, defenseman Adam Pelech and speedy left wing Anthony Beauvillier will get new deals. All three are arbitration eligible.
The Islanders president and general manager vowed during his end-of-season media conference this week there would be no repeat of last offseason’s reluctant trade of defenseman Devon Toews — who garnered a handful of third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes in the Norris Trophy balloting — to the Avalanche for two second-round picks because of cap considerations.
"There’s no hidden secret that our cap forced us to make a decision or two last year," Lamoriello said on Tuesday, later adding, "we have no intention of allowing the respective three restricted free agents to not be signed."
Sorokin, Pelech and Beauvillier all are now considered core players for a team that has fallen just one round short of the Stanley Cup Final in two straight seasons.
Pelech, the top-pair defenseman who has become the team’s best shut-down option, will likely get the biggest raise coming off a four-year, $6.4 million deal. He turns 27 next month and is one year away from potentially testing the market as an unrestricted free agent. But the Islanders can ill-afford to have both Pelech and partner Ryan Pulock, whose two-year, $10 million deal expires after next season, become UFAs at the same time.
So, it seems likely the Islanders will likely want to lock up Pelech long term and that will likely mean his $1.6 million cap hit rises past Pulock’s current $5 million hit. Of course, Lamoriello could take his chances on giving Pelech a one-year deal but even with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the re-admittance of fans into the NHL arenas, the cap may rise by only $1 million for 2022-23.
"It’s something I haven’t given much thought to," Pelech said this past Sunday as the Islanders conducted exit interviews. "With the playoffs and everything you’re taking it day by day and totally invested in what’s going on there. Everyone definitely wants this group to stick together and we think we have something special here. Whatever happens, happens and I’m excited to be a part of this team and continue going forward."
Sorokin smartly signed two one-year deals when he finally joined the Islanders for the playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton in 2020. He played this season on a one-year, $2 million deal. He turns 26 next month and could also push for another short-term deal with a chance to eventually cash in as a UFA. Like Pelech, Lamoriello may push for a longer-term deal with Sorokin, which will come with a higher cap charge.
Semyon Varlamov has two seasons remaining on a four-year, $20 million deal and, given that the two Russians will likely share the net, it’s not off-base to think Sorokin’s representation will push for a deal closer to Varlamov’s $5 million cap hit.
"No, I don’t think about this," Sorokin said.
"Ilya is such a talent," Varlamov said. "He played very well for us during the regular season and he played outstanding in the first round against Pittsburgh. He played out of his mind a couple of games. It was a lot of fun to work with him this year. I know he doesn’t have a contract yet but I’m sure the team will figure out that part."
Beauvillier, who just turned 24, could sign another bridge deal coming off a two-year, $4.2 million contract. But now as an established top-six forward for the team, his new deal could carry a cap charge closer to $4 million.
"I want to stay here and have the group stay together," Beauvillier said. "We have a special bond here. Everyone wants to win together and we’ve been through so much together."
Forward Michael Dal Colle, who had a goal and three assists in 26 games but was injured during the playoffs, is also an RFA with arbitration rights. But Lamoriello did not make it clear whether he was including the former first-rounder in the list of RFAs that would definitely be re-signed this offseason.
It will be a busy July once the Stanley Cup Final concludes as NHL teams conduct the bulk of their condensed offseason business and the 2021-22 schedule will be released at some point. Teams, of course, can re-sign their own free agents at any time.
Here’s what’s coming up:
July 17 – Deadline to submit protected lists for expansion draft
July 21 – Expansion draft
July 23 – NHL Draft, first round
July 24 – NHL Draft, rounds two through seven
July 28 – Free agent market opens