The Islanders’ longest ever season – the playoff finale came more than a calendar year after the first of two training camps opened – ended with Thursday night’s 2-1 overtime loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Edmonton.
Now comes an offseason of an uncertain length in uncertain times, with a salary cap that will remain flat at $81.5 million and the Islanders, like other NHL teams, possibly setting an internal budget below that.
How president and general manager Lou Lamoriello navigates this offseason will play a large role in whether the Islanders can remain perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
Here are five offseason questions for the Islanders.
1. What deals do the RFAs get?
Top-line center Mathew Barzal and key defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews all are restricted free agents, the latter two with arbitration rights (and let's assume RFA Josh Ho-Sang’s time with the organization is over). The Islanders have approximately $72.6 million committed to 20 NHL players for next season. Barzal, who theoretically could attract an offer sheet with the Islanders pressed against the cap, may look for a short bridge deal – say two seasons at $7 million per – to pass the time until the league starts recovering financially from the COVID-19 pandemic. The same could be true for the defensemen. Pulock’s cap hit was $2 million this season and, in normal times, he might have tripled that. Toews was a bargain at $700,000. Top-four defensemen can be in the $4 million and up range.
2. Which UFAs may stick around?
Last offseason, Lamoriello made a priority of re-signing most of his UFAs – goalie Robin Lehner excluded – locking up captain Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle long term. That won’t be the case for any of this year’s UFA class: goalie Thomas Greiss, defenseman Andy Greene and forwards Matt Martin, Tom Kuhnhackl and Derick Brassard. Martin could be the only one to return, though Lamoriello has a long relationship with Greene dating to their days with the Devils. And Martin might not be offered more than a one-year deal.
3. How can the Islanders improve?
This is a broken record, but the Islanders' power-play disadvantage was on full display in the postseason. They were 2-for-19 against the Lightning – failing on an overtime power play in Game 6 – and 12-for-78 in 22 postseason games. Also evident was the Lightning’s superiority with dangerous scoring threats: Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and defenseman Victor Hedman. The Islanders still need a top-six scoring threat who also can vastly improve the power play. That might not be one player. Lamoriello – who preaches he doesn’t worry about goals but goal differential – may have to give up some of his defense depth to acquire a scorer. Or, Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows and maybe Simon Holmstrom must graduate from prospects to full-time NHLers.
4. Who are the potential offseason targets?
It could be a wild offseason given many teams’ financial constraints so it’s tough to get a handle on exactly everyone who will be available. But Jets sharpshooter Patrik Laine, Devils’ 30-goal scorer Kyle Palmieri and Panthers’ wing Mike Hoffman, all who would immensely help the Islanders, are good initial targets. Former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall could be a UFA, but Lamoriello would have to conjure some real cap magic to make that work.
5. Where (and when) will the Islanders play home games next season?
The NHL wants to start 2020-21 on Dec. 1, but almost nobody believes that will happen. The Islanders and Nassau County want the team to play one last season at the Coliseum before moving to the under-construction UBS Arena at Belmont Park. But a deal still must be reached after Florida-based developer Nick Mastroianni II assumed the lease following Mikhail Prokhorov’s Onexim announcing in June it was shutting the building.