After a slow summer, the month of September has belonged to GM Lou Lamoriello and the New York Islanders. On September 1, the team announced new contracts for forwards Anthony Beauvillier, Casey Cizikas, and Kyle Palmieri and goaltender Ilya Sorokin. That same day, they hinted that veteran UFA Zach Parise will also be joining the team and have provided even more evidence of that fact since, despite no formal announcement. This week, the team made a flurry of depth signings, adding forwards Andy Andreoff, Cole Bardreau, Otto Koivula, and Dmytro Timashov and defenseman Paul LaDue, while inviting veteran blue liner Erik Gustafsson to training camp. They then capped off the week with Saturday’s high-profile signing of Zdeno Chara.
This is all well and good on its face, but the reality is that there are only so many roster spots to go around. Interestingly enough, the Islanders should be okay with the salary cap. CapFriendly currently projects the team to be over the cap, but using only $4.48MM of their $6MM in LTIR relief from Johnny Boychuk’s career-ending injury. While this projection does not include the undisclosed terms for Chara and Parise, it is based on a 23-man roster and those veterans are expected to have minimum base salary, incentive-laden contract. However, therein lies the problem. CapFriendly already has New York roster at the maximum 23 players, but that does not include Chara and Parise, nor does it include unsigned restricted free agent Kieffer Bellows. Something has to give.
So who could be on the chopping block? It isn’t a long list. Many of the Islanders’ core players are returning from a run to the semifinals last season and are locked into a roster spot. In fact, the team may have its full group of 12 starting forwards already in place. Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey, Oliver Wahlstrom, Palmieri, Beauvillier, and Parise expect to be in top-nine roles, while one of the league’s best fourth lines of Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Cizikas will stick together as well. On the blue line, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock will man the top pair and Scott Mayfield will be back on the second pair. Young righty Noah Dobson and the veteran lefties, Chara and Andy Greene, are at least locks for a roster spot, if not a starting role. In net, there is no question that Semyon Varlamov and Sorokin will be the NHL tandem.
This leaves three roster spots up for grabs and CapFriendly has five names currently projected for the roster: forwards Ross Johnston, Leo Komarov, and Richard Panik and defensemen Sebastian Aho and the recently-signed LaDue. They don’t expect veteran defenseman Thomas Hickey to crack the roster, but the oft-buried blue liner will have a chance to battle for a spot as well. There is also the unsigned Bellows to consider, as well as the potential for Gustafsson’s PTO to be successful. A top prospect like forward Simon Holmstrom or defensemen Robin Salo, Bode Wilde, or Samuel Bolduc may also force the Isles’ hand. While excellent depth is a good problem to have, the issue for the Islanders is that all of these players (minus the prospects) are not waivers-exempt. They have seven or eight good veteran players to evaluate for three roster spots and no guarantee that the four or five that do not make the cut will not be lost on waiver.
Bellows, especially, is a risk. Assuming the 23-year-old is eventually signed, the Islanders will be tempting fate if they try to sneak him through waivers. A 2016 first-round pick, Bellows NHL action has been limited, but the noted sniper does have five goals in his 22 games. A number of teams would be willing to take a shot on his scoring potential. Johnston and Komarov have cleared waivers in the past, but both are now in the final years of their current contracts making them more attractive on waivers. Johnston is a strong defensive forward and physical presence and Komarov is a streaky, but effective two-way presence; both of which have value. Komarov’s $3MM cap hit could make him the most likely to clear waivers though. Panik, who was just acquired by the Islanders this summer, has more recent scoring results than any of the other names competing for a forward spot and has half of his salary retained, making him another dangerous waiver exposure even with two years on his current contract. Of the three available roster spots, no more than two are likely to go to the forward position, so at least two of these forwards will either need to be tested on waivers – and potentially lost for free – or otherwise traded.
The situation on defense is slightly easier to manage. Aho, LaDue, and Hickey have all cleared waivers recently. In fact, LaDue spent all of last season in the AHL and is not much of a risk to be claimed on waivers. There is some more concern with Aho, 25, and Hickey, whose $2.5MM salary is more palatable to other teams in his final year. Both spent all of last season with the Islanders, but for both to do so again it would mean sacrificing one of the aforementioned forwards who are on the chopping block. If Gustafsson does earn a contract with New York from his PTO, that would likely mean that he is earning a roster spot, as the power play specialist would draw interest from a number of teams at a minimum salary, especially with a strong preseason performance.
While it has seemed like the Islanders have been loading up in recent weeks, Lamoriello still has some work to do. Lamoriello may need to explore the trade market for Bellows if he cannot re-sign him or cannot commit to a roster spot for the high-ceiling forward. He may then need to test the trade waters for several of his other players as well, lest he lose them on waivers for nothing. One way or another, as strong as the Islanders’ depth looks right now, it is highly unlikely that all of these players will still be with the organization when the season begins. Which are retained and which are lost could come back to play a big role in the team’s success this season.