On the surface, having nearly $4MM in cap space to work with (per CapFriendly) would seem like a good thing for the Islanders. Many teams don’t have anywhere near that type of room and would love to have that situation. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple as New York still has their top forward in Mathew Barzal to re-sign and it’s doubtful that he’d simply settle for whatever room they have left.
While the 23-year-old technically had the lowest point total of his career last season, he still managed 19 goals and 41 assists in 68 games and is their number one center. Even without the realistic threat of an offer sheet (given how few teams have the cap space available to try to sign Barzal at a price point that wouldn’t be matched), he still certainly has enough leverage to secure a sizable contract.
The recent settlement with defenseman Ryan Pulock opened up a second buyout window but given that most of their higher-priced talent that have underachieved have come with virtual buyout-proof deals based on how the contracts were structured, that was never really an option to use. Those struggles in performance also makes finding a taker for defenseman Johnny Boychuk ($6MM) or winger Andrew Ladd ($5.5MM) extremely difficult.
Even players whose cap hits were under the second buyout threshold in wingers Cal Clutterbuck ($3.5MM) and Leo Komarov ($3MM) will be difficult as teams that are looking for grit can sign a free agent for much less than they’re making. One of those is Matt Martin, a player they’d like to bring back but they need to get Barzal signed first. Meanwhile, most of the more expensive veterans that would have some trade value are the ones that GM Lou Lamoriello will want to keep around although blueliner Nick Leddy ($5.5MM) could be deemed expendable.
One possible way to mitigate the situation is to focus on a short-term deal with Barzal. A one-year pact would put his cap hit lower than it would on a multi-year contract and while it does take him to salary arbitration eligibility, anything under three years would do that anyway. (Four years or more would take him to UFA status.) While that typically isn’t an ideal option for a top young player, this isn’t a typical situation given that a lot of contracts for notable players have come in lower than expected. As far as looking to cash in with a long-term, big-money contract goes, this probably isn’t the right time to do so.
But even that won’t solve the problem completely as again, Barzal is likely to get more than what New York has left in cap space so some sort of move has to be made. They can open up a bit more wiggle room by carrying a minimum-sized roster but even if that leaves enough to get him in on a one-year pact, it leaves them quite vulnerable in terms of not having much room for recalls which, in a season that’s expected to be somewhat compressed with plenty of back-to-back situations, is hardly ideal.
Accordingly, it appears as if the Islanders will be joining the list of teams that are looking to free up some cap room between now and the start of the 2020-21 campaign, whenever it may be. Of course, that’s something that’s a lot easier said than done this offseason.