When the New York Islanders lost John Tavares, the franchise found itself in a worse situation than it had hoped. The team that struggled a year ago on defense and in goal now lost their top scorer and seem to lack identity (except in the front office). The team will likely make Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal the new face of the franchise, but without Tavares, there remains a significant hole in their lineup.
While it seems likely Barzal will replace Tavares as the team’s top center, the real question is who will take over as the team’s No. 2 center? One positive note for New York is that the team has almost $20MM in available cap space after Tavares opted to go to Toronto and that’s after the signings of Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Robin Lehner and Tom Kuhnhackl as well as trading for Matt Martin. Regardless, none of those players are candidates to fill that No. 2 center position. The team does have restricted free agent Brock Nelson as a candidate to fill that role, but his status is up in the air.
The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman (subscription required) suggests if the Islanders want to make some type of impact move to suggest to their fan base that they are ready to move on (because bringing in Filppula, Komorov, Kuhnhackl, Lehner and Martin didn’t accomplish that), they must look to the trade market where there are a number of interesting names that the team could look to acquire, especially at the center position to show they are moving forward.
The top name is interesting enough as Goldman suggests that New York looks at the Ottawa Senators who are looking to cast off players left and right. Already having moved on from Mike Hoffman and in current trade talks with Erik Karlsson, the scribe writes the Islanders could attempt to make an offer to pry centers Matt Duchene or Jean-Gabriel Pageau away.
While Duchene would probably cost the Islanders quite a bit, he could potentially be a reasonable replacement for Tavares. Even though Ottawa gave up a lot to acquire Duchene less than a year ago, they may be ready to move on from him as he will be a free agent after this season and he might not want to return after having to endure the many problems that Ottawa has dealt with in the past year. However in New York, the team could match him with players like Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle or Josh Bailey and get solid production from him and the team would have the cap room to lock him up. The only downside to acquiring Duchene (despite the likely high cost) would be the team would have to sign him as well as Lee and Eberle next season as all three would be unrestricted free agents for the 2019-20 season. Pageau would be a much cheaper option, but lacks much upside if they want to use him as a second-line center.
One other option would be to pry Tyler Johnson away from the Tampa Bay Lightning, especially with the team attempting to clear out cap space to accommodate Karlsson. Johnson would provide significant value as a second-line center as well, but is locked up for six years at $5MM AAV, so they would be able to hold onto him for a long time.
While finding a replacement for Tavares, the team must also attempt to fix their other issues as they’ve done little to address their defense or goaltending. Adding Robin Lehner helps a little, but after the 26-year-old suffered through a disastrous season (3.01 GAA and a .908 save percentage), a Lehner-Thomas Greiss combination doesn’t sound particularly thrilling. The defense also needs help. The team lost Calvin de Haan to Carolina, although they did bring back Thomas Hickey. Although the team has high hopes that Ryan Pulock is ready to move into a top-four role immediately, his defense has always been suspect, so he isn’t likely to improve the Islanders defensive deficiencies. Andrew Gross of Newsday writes that the team should consider looking into acquiring Justin Faulk from the Carolina Hurricanes as he would provide that stability and would look good as the No. 1 piece along with Hickey, Pulock, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy.
Regardless, with few quality options available to them on the free agent market, the team likely has little choice to make a deal.