With the New York Islanders sitting in second place in the Metropolitan Division and the Florida Panthers not yet out of postseason contention, eight points back of the final wild card slot with a game in hand, fans are not yet looking toward next season with plenty of meaningful games left this season. Yet, the two Eastern Conference teams are expected by many to be some of the most active players in the upcoming off-season. The Islanders could have more cap space entering the summer than just about any other team, while the Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996 and are desperate to take a step forward. Both teams have needs and could look to fill them in explosive fashion this off-season.
Things have gone as well as they possibly could have this season for the Islanders. Despite losing John Tavares and entering the year with an unproven goalie tandem, the team is not only playoff-bound, but also the league leader in goals against average. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have been stellar in net, the team’s young defensemen have taken a major step forward under new head coach Barry Trotz, and the offense has picked up the seemingly insurmountable slack that Tavares left behind. Yet, much of their success could be undone by free agency, which would leave the team in need of making several big additions. Lehner is an impending free agent and the Isles must decide whether or not to commit to the young reclamation project or else seek a long-term replacement, with 33-year-old Greiss only signed for one more year. Yet, the net is not even the greatest of their concerns. Captain Anders Lee and fellow top forwards Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle are approaching free agency without new contracts. After losing Tavares last summer, it seems almost impossible that New York could also let Lee slip away. But can the same be said for Nelson and Eberle, who are also top-five scoring forwards for the Isles. The team may be in a position where they need to add considerable talent up front, as well as replenish depth.
Currently projected to have the fourth-most cap space of any team this summer, the Islanders could hypothetically re-sign Lehner and their trio of forwards without issue or else find free agents on the market. However, if spending power is not enough to bring in top free agents – like say Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – GM Lou Lamoriello could explore the trade market. The Athletic’s Arthur Staple writes that the Islanders’ newfound depth on the blue line could help to facilitate a major trade. He believes that the team wants to move forward with a young core of Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, and Devon Toews on the blue line. He also mentions AHL All-Star Sebastian Aho as another key piece, while recent high draft picks Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde also deserve consideration. This youth movement has made top defenseman Nick Leddy expendable and Staple believes that he is a talent that could bring back an established top-six forward. The Islanders could also look to move veterans Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey instead of or in addition to Leddy. That trade flexibility paired with ample cap space make the Isles a dangerous player on the trade market this summer, if not all of their problems can be fixed via free agency.
In fact, the Panthers could wind up being an ideal trade partner for the Islanders. Florida leads the NHL this season with five 20-goal scorers and has an offensive game and potent power play that few in the league can rival. However, their defense and their goaltending both leave a lot to be desired. The Panthers don’t have the cap space that the Islanders do, but The Athletic’s George Richards believes that the team plans to make trades to free up cap space in order to hit the free agent market with more bargaining power. Florida is another team that has been linked to the Panarin/Bobrovksy package, while they are also a team that could greatly benefit from adding Erik Karlsson. Richards writes that the team will be “aggressive” in pursuing top free agents, but that doesn’t mean they will succeed in drawing targets to a non-traditional hockey market.
As such, Florida could also wind up making noise on the trade market and a name like Leddy would be the caliber of player they would like to add. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov have enjoyed strong seasons with the Panthers this year, but both have just one season remaining and could be on the trade block this summer. There were also rumors that Jonathan Huberdeau was a player that GM Dale Tallon listened to offers for at the trade deadline again and he could do so again for the team’s highest-paid forward. These are names that will move the needle for other NHL clubs. Veteran goaltenders Roberto Luongo and James Reimer? Not so much. However, the team needs to improve on its poor goaltending and to do so would need to move one (or both) of the tandem costing them a combined $7.933MM. This may involve Florida moving picks or prospects as well. There are many layers to the trade possibilities for the Panthers this off-season, making them a fascinating team to watch.
With weeks remaining in the regular season and the unknown of the postseason yet to come, the status quo could change for either one of these teams. As things stand though, there are major question marks for both squads that at this point don’t look like they can be answered until after the playoffs have ended. As soon as that happens, the Islanders and Panthers will become must-watch teams in how they approach the NHL Draft, the start of free agency, and the summer trade market. Both clubs could look drastically different in 2019-20 by way of an active off-season.