The Islanders have been aggressive in their pursuit of the top two unrestricted free agents, soon-to-be-former Blue Jackets Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. That interest seemed to come at the cost of back-and-forth negotiations with current captain Anders Lee and goalie Robin Lehner.
So what happens if president and general manager Lou Lamoriello is unsuccessful in recruiting both Russians? And what are the implications if both come to Long Island?
The free-agent market opens at noon Monday. The interview window for teams to talk to the impending UFAs — and restricted free agents — ended Sunday.
The Panthers, aided by the lack of a state income tax in Florida, are believed to be the front-runner for goalie Bobrovsky, with future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo announcing his retirement and James Reimer traded to the Hurricanes on Sunday.
The Panthers and Rangers also apparently have strong interest in Panarin, an elite, playmaking left wing. But Panarin, 27, may be seeking a contract worth $12 million annually or more, plus it’s believed that he wants to remain Bobrovsky’s teammate. He has surpassed 80 points the past two seasons and had at least 70 points the past four seasons.
The Islanders had approximately $20 million in space Sunday under an $81.5 million salary cap for 2019-20. Signing Bobrovsky and Panarin would take a huge chunk of that, with Bobrovsky, 30, likely looking for $8 million annually.
The Islanders still have to re-sign RFA forwards Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle and, presumably, Josh Ho-Sang and also need to settle on a third-line center. Valtteri Filppula is a UFA coming off a one-year, $2.75-million deal.
Next summer, only left wing Matt Martin’s $2.5 million, forward Tom Kuhnhackl’s $850,000 and goalie Thomas Greiss’ $3.3 million potentially come off the Islanders’ books as UFAs. Center Mathew Barzal and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews will need new, pricier deals as RFAs.
The Islanders also have been waiting for prized goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin, 23, a third-round pick in 2014, to come to North America from Russia. He’s committed to at least one more season in the KHL after leading CSKA Moscow to the championship and being named the playoff MVP.
Signing Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goalie, would seem to block a path to the Islanders’ net for Sorokin. Bobrovsky has played at least 60 games the past three seasons, so it’s unlikely he would share time equally with Thomas Greiss after the German played 43 games last season and Lehner was in 46.
Lehner signed a bargain-basement one-year, $1.5 million deal, then won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication after detailing his battles with addiction and mental illness on the first day of training camp. He was a Vezina finalist with a 25-13-5 mark, a 2.13 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. Lehner started all eight playoff games as the Islanders swept the Penguins and were swept by the Hurricanes.
Lee, 28, was a sixth-round pick of the Islanders in 2009 and blossomed into a top-line power forward, scoring 40 goals in 2017-18 and being named captain after John Tavares left for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency last summer. Lee had 28 goals and 23 assists last season.
Rather than pivoting back to Lee, missing out on Panarin might induce Lamoriello to extend an offer sheet for Maple Leafs RFA Mitch Marner. Missing out on Bobrovsky might lead Lamoriello to Avalanche UFA goalie Semyon Varlamov rather than re-engaging Lehner in talks.