A year later, free agency may again bring seismic changes to the Islanders.
Captain Anders Lee could follow his predecessor, John Tavares, off Long Island. Goalie Robin Lehner’s tenure with the Islanders could end after one season.
But the Islanders may be serious contenders to haul in the two Blue Jackets atop the free-agent class, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and playmaking left wing Artemi Panarin. There’s even speculation the Islanders could extend a rare offer sheet to restricted free agent Mitch Marner.
The free agent market opens on Monday at noon and Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello should know within a few hours how radically different his roster may be for this upcoming season.
Impending unrestricted free agent Tom Kuhnhackl, a versatile depth forward, did agree to a reported one-year, $850,000 deal on Saturday after scoring four goals with five assists in 36 games in his first season with the Islanders. Lamoriello previously reached new deals with potential UFA top-six forwards Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle.
Tavares left via free agency on July 1, 2018 for a seven-year, $77-million deal with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Still, the Islanders, in their first season under Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, improved by 23 points in the standings, finished second in the Metropolitan Division, made the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and swept the Penguins in the first round before being swept by the Hurricanes.
“The details that go into it, we’ll have to wait to see what they are,” assistant general manager Chris Lamoriello said. “But there’s no question we want to build off what we experienced last year and continue to go forward. We’ll make every effort to do that.”
The week-long interview period with UFAs, and the shorter period for restricted free agents, ends on Sunday. The Islanders reportedly met with both Bobrovsky and Panarin and the Rangers were also courting Panarin, who is believed to be seeking $12 million annually.
But the Panthers are believed to be the favorites to land Bobrovsky with Roberto Luongo retiring and Panarin may join Bobrovsky in Florida, where there is no state income tax.
How extensively the Islanders talked this week with Lee and Lehner, their top remaining UFAs, is unclear.
Lehner won the Masterton Trophy for dedication and perseverance after detailing his battles with addiction and mental illness at the start of training camp and also was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie after joining the Islanders on a one-year, $1.5-million deal.
He told Newsday at the start of the interview period he had “no plans” to talk to other teams. But there are strong indications Lehner and the Islanders are far apart on terms for a new deal. While Bobrovsky could land a seven-year deal worth up to $8 million annually, Lehner’s price tag might be closer to five years at $5 million annually on the open market.
Lee may be able to command a seven-year deal on the open market in the $7 million-per-season range and his hometown Minnesota Wild may be among the suitors. Lee expressed surprise, and perhaps some frustration, before the interview period that negotiations with the Islanders had gotten to this point.
“As far as I know, Anders is still an Islander,” Chris Lamoriello said when asked about how it would look if the Islanders lost a second straight captain to free agency. “There’s nothing much to speak to. That’s what hypotheticals are for. For you (the media) to think of. We’re just going to worry about the decisions that are made when they’re made.”
A huge decision will be whether to extend an offer sheet to Marner, the supremely gifted 22-year-old wing, with the Maple Leafs salary cap-strapped. The Islanders would owe Toronto four first-round picks and Marner might cost $11 million annually.
Islanders’ To-Do List
F Anthony Beauvillier (Restricted free agent, expiring contract of three years, $2.775 million)
F Michael Dal Colle (RFA, three years, $9.375 million)
F Valtteri Filppula (Unrestricted free agent, one-year, $2.75 million)
F Josh Ho-Sang (RFA, three years, $3.413 million)
F Anders Lee (UFA, four years, $15 million)
G Robin Lehner (UFA, one year, $1.5 million)
D Luca Sbisa (UFA, one year, $1.5 million)
D Dennis Seidenberg (UFA, one year, $700,000)
G Sergei Bobrovsky (Blue Jackets) – Top goalie on market, and priciest
F Brian Boyle (Predators) – To bolster bottom six and team’s room
F Matt Duchene (Blue Jackets) – Top UFA center available
F Ryan Dzingel (Blue Jackets) – Steady and versatile, but not showy
F Marcus Johansson (Bruins) – A favorite of coach Barry Trotz’s with Capitals
F Mitchell Mariner (Maple Leafs) – RFA could draw offer sheet, and cost four first-round picks
F Artemi Panarin (Blue Jackets) – Elite playmaker looking for $11 million per
G Semyon Varlamov (Avalanche) – Backup plan if no Lehner or Bobrovsky
F Mats Zuccarello (Stars) – Ex-Ranger can score and be scrappy