The new economic realities the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon the NHL cost the Islanders one of their more valued defensemen on Monday.
Restricted free agent Devon Toews, 26, who had filed for arbitration and is due a significant raise over his $750,000 base salary from last season, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for second-round picks in 2021 and 2022.
The risk of a large judgement for Toews – and the possibility the Islanders would then have to walk away and lose him for nothing – played a large role in the deal.
Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello also confirmed on Monday the team is close to signing unrestricted free agent goalie Cory Schneider, who was bought out on Friday of the final two seasons the seven-year, $42 million deal Lamoriello signed him to in 2014 when he was running the Devils.
"I think that rumor will come to fruition," Lamoriello said on a Zoom teleconference after the Toews’ trade was announced.
Schneider, 34, has battled hip injuries and trended downward for four seasons, splitting the last two between the Devils and the AHL. He is an AHL candidate for the Islanders with Semyon Varlamov and highly-touted Russian prospect Ilya Sorokin expected to share the net next season.
Goalie Thomas Greiss signed a two-year, $7.2 million deal with the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent after five seasons with the Islanders.
The salary cap is remaining flat at $81.5 million for at least next season – and possibly for the next three seasons – as revenue is slashed without fans in the arenas and the Islanders have approximately $9 million in cap space. But they also have top-line center Mathew Barzal (qualified at 105% of his $832,500 base salary) and top-pair defenseman Ryan Pulock – who also elected arbitration after being qualified at 100% of his $2.65 million base salary – to re-sign as RFAs.
"It certainly played a role, I’ll be straight forward on it," Lamoriello said of the cap crunch. "It’s a combination of a player going to arbitration with the unknown and being able to acquire assets which we’ve sort of used in previous trades."
But Lamoriello added Noah Dobson’s development as a rookie allowed him to move the left-shooting Toews.
The right-handed Dobson, the 12th overall pick in 2018, had one goal and six assists in 34 games.
"We would not have made this move if the ice time that Devon received, we didn’t have the ability to put a player into that," Lamoriello said. "And Noah Dobson, we feel, is certainly ready to take the next step."
Lamoriello said re-signing unrestricted free agent defenseman Andy Greene, a left-handed shot, was now a "strong option," to possibly remain paired with Dobson. Lamoriello traded a second-round pick in 2021 to the Devils for Greene on Feb. 16.
Forwards Matt Martin, Derick Brassard and Tom Kuhnhackl are the Islanders’ other UFAs.
Lamoriello acknowledged he had a "difficult" conversation with Toews to inform him of the trade. The Islanders – like many other teams – have been looking to shed salary and Lamoriello said the uncertainty caused by the pandemic has "really leveled the market off as far as financially."
Lamoriello has also been reportedly trying to trade defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who has two seasons left on his seven-year, $42 million deal.
"This is how everything came out because there has to be a demand," said Lamoriello when asked if he was specifically looking to trade Toews.
Toews, selected in the fourth round in 2014, had six goals and 22 assists last season.
Lamoriello also expressed surprise RFA Josh Ho-Sang had filed for arbitration and replied, "We’ll have to see," when asked if the mercurial right wing had a future in the organization.