And then there was one.
The Islanders announced on Wednesday a two-year deal with restricted free-agent defenseman Ryan Pulock as the sides avoided a scheduled arbitration hearing for Friday. Pulock’s new contract carries a salary cap hit of $5 million, a significant raise from his $2 million cap hit the previous two seasons.
The top-pair defenseman’s new deal leaves top-line center Mathew Barzal as the Islanders’ lone remaining RFA. It also leaves the Islanders with approximately $3.9 million in space under the flat, $81.5 million salary cap for 2020-21, with Barzal likely to cost around $7 million against the cap.
"We talk," Pulock said on a Zoom teleconference. "We both want to make it work so that we can keep everyone together and I think that’s the main goal. I think we want to win together and we want to keep this team together. But his business side of it, that’s his doing."
Pulock added the flat salary cap caused by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role in his negotiations. He will be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent when the cap is possibly higher.
"I don’t know if that was the thought," Pulock said. "I think the big thing for us was just trying to make something work that was good for both sides in terms of the flat cap and we felt we were comfortable doing. Then, down the road, hopefully work on something else."
The Islanders can exceed the cap ceiling by 10% during the offseason — there’s no set date for the start of the next season, though the NHL is targeting Jan. 1. Pulock’s signing also triggers a second buyout period for the Islanders that will open on Friday. Only players with a cap hit of at least $4 million are eligible to be bought out.
More likely, Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello will have to swing another deal to free cap space for Barzal and to reach deals with UFAs Matt Martin, defenseman Andy Greene and goalie Cory Schneider.
Lamoriello traded top-four defenseman Devon Toews, at the time an RFA who had elected arbitration, to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12 for two second-round picks. Toews, 26, subsequently signed a four-year, $16.4 million deal.
"It’s a big loss, he’s a great teammate," Pulock said. "But that’s all part of it and it gives opportunities for other guys, whether it be [Noah] Dobson or other guys stepping in."
Pulock, also 26, had 10 goals and 25 assists as he played in all 68 regular-season games before the pandemic halted the season on March 12. He added two goals and eight assists in the Islanders’ 22 postseason games as they reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
"I’m really happy we could get this deal done and really excited to be back for two more years," Pulock said. "This team has come a long way and the future is bright."
"A goal of ours is to win the Stanley Cup and, getting that close, I’m still thinking about it and it still kind of bites you inside, just how close we really were but how far we still had to go. Once you get that taste of that, it burns that fire that you want to get back there. I’m looking forward to next year and taking another run at it."
Overall, Pulock has 31 goals and 77 assists in 234 career games since the Islanders selected him 15th overall in 2013. He has led the Islanders’ defensemen in scoring the past two seasons.