Lou Lamoriello is facing an unpredictably unprecedented offseason, with the salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million for 2020-21 and, he anticipates, "likewise the next year."
"There are going to be more players available than people think," the Islanders president and general manager said on Tuesday during his end-of-season press conference, conducted via Zoom in deference to the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the NHL’s finances.
Lamoriello said he would certainly look outside the organization to improve the roster. But the Islanders would "focus in on what we’ve accomplished…and how much better we can get internally."
"We’re going to focus in on trying to keep our team together," Lamoriello said.
He did so, for the most part, last offseason, re-signing key unrestricted free agents Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle. The strategy worked as the Islanders, in their second season under Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 before bowing out in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Lightning.
Lamoriello’s priority now is re-signing restricted free agents Mathew Barzal and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, the latter two with arbitration rights. The Islanders have approximately $72.6 million allocated already for next season and Barzal could attract an offer sheet from a team facing less of a cap crunch.
"Right now, all I’m doing is focusing in on communication with each and every one of our restricted free agents and, also, unrestricted free agents and seeing exactly what we can get done," Lamoriello said when asked if he was concerned about a potential offer sheet for Barzal. "We did not have any communication during the playoffs, intentionally. Right now, we’re talking. I feel we’ll get all our players signed in due time."
The Islanders have six additional RFAs in the organization not on the NHL roster and Lamoriello said he expects to extend a qualifying offer to all but "one or two."
Defenseman Andy Greene, forwards Matt Martin, Tom Kuhnhackl and Derick Brassard and goalie Thomas Greiss are the unrestricted free agents on the NHL roster.
"I think our goaltending situation is pretty obvious," said Lamoriello, with Semyon Varlamov entering the second season of a four-year, $20 million deal and highly-touted Russian prospect Ilya Sorokin signed to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Sorokin spent valuable time practicing with the Islanders in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles but was ineligible to play during the postseason.
"It certainly was a tremendous opportunity for him to integrate with the players," Lamoriello said. "He was impressive not only as a player but he’s a tremendous human being."
The free agent market opens at noon on Oct. 9.
"We certainly would like to sign and have our free agents back, that has been communicated to them," Lamoriello said. "We’ll do everything we can."
Lamoriello described being forced to part with wanted players because of salary-cap constraints as a "last resort."
"I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ll be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish and have the team that we want to put on the ice once the season starts," Lamoriello said.
Still, Lamoriello acknowledged it was almost impossible to predict what the free agent market would be like given the pandemic’s effects on league finances.
"A great question," Lamoriello said. "I wish I had the answer to that. I think the market, for the next couple of years, it is going to be very interesting to see how it plays out. Not only are there a lot of players that are restricted or unrestricted this year, but next year there are even more. We still have arbitration (for RFAs), that will certainly play a role for X number of players."