The Islanders surprised nearly everybody around the NHL other than themselves this season under new president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz.
The new management instantly changed the formerly laissez-faire work environment into a strict one of accountability. On the ice, Trotz and the new coaching staff turned the Islanders from the Swiss-cheese defense that allowed an NHL-worst 293 goals in 2017-18 – the most in the league since 2007 – to a team that allowed an NHL-low 196 goals.
The team made the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and had home-ice advantage through its two rounds – the first time since 1988 – sweeping the Penguins before being swept by the Hurricanes. The season ended with a 5-2 loss in Game 4 at Carolina on Friday night.
The future is very bright for the franchise with forward Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Noah Dobson, selected 11th and 12th overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, possibly competing for roster spots in September.
Here’s a look at the key offseason questions facing the Islanders:
1. Which free agents do the Islanders retain?
The Islanders have a good share of impending unrestricted free agents, starting with Anders Lee and Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner, so it will be a busy offseason for Lamoriello. In addition to the captain and the goalie, top-line right wing Jordan Eberle, second-line center Brock Nelson, third-line center Valtteri Filppula and versatile forward Tom Kuhnhackl are key contributors needing new deals. It will be interesting to see how highly the Islanders value Lee after losing former captain John Tavares to free agency last offseason. Like Lee, Lehner is a huge fan favorite who has made himself a lot of money off a make-good one-year, $1.5 million deal.
2. Which free agents can the Islanders attract?
It’s no secret that the Islanders need better goal production to go along with their shored-up defensive game. With Eberle likely to leave and Nelson no certainty to return, Lamoriello will have money to spend and top-six spots to fill. Per capfriendly.com, the Islanders have approximately $35.2 million in salary cap space for next season with $47.8 million committed to 16 players. Lamoriello was strongly interested in Mark Stone and Matt Duchene at the trade deadline, so it’s likely he’ll be interested in Duchene as a UFA. Jeff Skinner and former Ranger Mats Zuccarello also would be interesting options to pursue. Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson and Blue Jackets left wing Artemi Panarin also are expected to be highly-sought-after UFAs.
3. What to do with Andrew Ladd?
The 33-year-old two-time Stanley Cup winner had just three goals and eight assists in 26 games before his season ended on March 24 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Lamoriello expects him to be ready for the start of training camp, but Ladd also missed 44 games earlier in the season with an injured right knee and missed all of the preseason and the first three games of the season with a back issue. He still has four seasons left on a seven-year, $38.5 million deal and the Islanders would save only $666,667 against the salary cap through 2023 by buying him out, per capfriendly.com. Ladd’s cap hit would be reduced only from $5.5 million to $4.475 million if he clears waivers and is sent to Bridgeport. Virtually untradeable anyway, he has a no-trade clause for 2019-20 and a modified no-trade clause over the final three seasons of his deal. In a word: Yikes.
4. Will Nick Leddy be traded?
The defenseman has been a top-pair performer since being acquired from the Blackhawks in 2014, but rookie Devon Toews duplicated most of Leddy's role with his strong skating and ability to play on the power play. Leddy, 28, has three seasons left on an affordable seven-year, $5.5 million deal and likely could be swapped for a much-needed top-six forward.
5. Will the Islanders still have two homes?
The current plan calls for the Islanders to again split their home games between Barclays Center and NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum after they went 12-6-2 in Brooklyn and 12-7-2 in Uniondale. But the playoffs showed the difference between the buildings. The crowd for the two playoff games against the Penguins at the Coliseum – both wins – was crazed, and former Islanders defenseman Calvin de Haan said the Hurricanes caught a break playing at Barclays, where the Islanders lost twice. Until the Islanders’ arena situation is finalized, it is a distraction to the organization.